If you’re the average Millennial male, your dad is stronger than you are. In fact, you may not be stronger than the average Millennial female. You’re exactly the kind of person who in generations past had your milk money confiscated every day — who got swirlied in the middle-school bathroom. The very idea of manual labor is alien to you, and even if you were asked to help, say, build a back porch, the task would exhaust you to the point of uselessness. Welcome to the new, post-masculine reality.
This morning, the Washington Post highlighted a study showing that the grip strength of a sample of college men had declined significantly between 1985 and 2016. Indeed, the grip strength of the sample of college men had declined so much — from 117 pounds of force to 98 — that it now matched that of older Millennial women. In other words, the average college male had no more hand strength than a 30-year-old mom.
Yes, I know it’s only one study. Yes, I know that grip strength is but one measure of overall physical fitness. But as the Post noted, these findings are consistent with other studies showing kids are less fit today. (For example, it takes children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it did 30 years ago.) Simply put, we’re getting soft — and no cohort is getting softer faster than college men.
I look back to my own childhood. In 1985, I was 16 years old, and I was a nerd’s nerd. I toted graph paper and 20-sided dice to school to play Dungeons & Dragons at lunch. (I like to think I was the finest dungeon master Scott County, Ky., had ever seen.) When I wasn’t playing D&D, my nose was buried in Lord of the Rings, or the Shannara books by Terry Brooks, or the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. I played sports, sure, but let’s just say that my varsity tennis exploits didn’t make the cheerleaders’ hearts flutter.
But none of my nerdiness relieved me of the responsibility of learning how to be a man — a protector, builder, and fixer. So that meant spending my Saturdays hauling out the ramps to change the oil and oil filters on all our cars. That meant helping my dad build a new back porch or constantly wrestling with immense piles of firewood. (We heated our house with a wood stove.) I made extra money working in neighborhood yards. Being a guy meant doing manual labor. That was just part of growing up — no matter your social class.
In the age of instant oil change (why entrust your car’s health to your 16-year-old?), ubiquitous lawn services, and on-demand handymen, privileged kids simply don’t have the same, naturally occurring opportunities to learn to work with their hands and to develop physical strength. In the age of zero-tolerance school-disciplinary policies — where any kind of physical confrontation is treated like a human-rights violation — they have less opportunity to develop toughness. Today’s young males don’t have common touchstones for what it’s like to grow up to be a man.
That’s not to say that they don’t still carve out their own, distinctively male spaces — boys and girls are different, after all. But spend time with teen boys today and you’ll find that their common experience revolves more around Call of Duty than around work or even sports. As kids get older (and even during their teenage years), the male gaming experience is supplemented with copious amounts of porn. Thus — as Philadelphia magazine illustrated in 2012 — the devolution of man is complete:
Raising a boy to be a young man used to be a natural act. Common experiences and rites-of-passage meant that my D&D friends could pop the hood of a car and get to work right alongside the future mechanics of my high-school class. We weren’t as good or as knowledgeable, but we held our own. And there were no social-justice warriors shrieking that there was no such thing as distinctively male or masculine pursuits.
Now, for parents of the privileged, raising a boy to be a young man has to be an intentional act. You have to ignore the voices who are telling you to indulge your child’s inclinations — no matter what they are — and train them to be not just morally courageous but also physically strong. They can have their Xbox or their PC (my son brags about his kill/death ratio on Battlefield, and we belong to the same World of Warcraft guild), but they can also hit the weight room. They can also not just learn to shoot but also how to assemble and disassemble their weapon. Even if you’re rich, you can make your kid do the hard work that keeps any household together.
Though this sounds simplistic, never ever underestimate the positive effect that raw physical strength can have on a young man’s development. I’ve seen the impact that weight training has had on my son, and I wish I’d been as diligent when I was his age. I’ve experienced the impact — even as an older adult — of the physical transformation of Army training.
Our culture strips its young men of their created purpose and then wonders why they struggle. It wonders why men — who are built to be distinctive from women — flail in modern schools and workplaces designed from the ground-up for the feminine experience. Men were meant to be strong. Yet we excuse and enable their weakness. It’s but one marker of cultural decay, to be sure, but it’s a telling marker indeed. There is no virtue in physical decline.