Sunday 25 February 2018

What next for the boys of Generation Z?

For the Lost Boys growing up in Ireland today, their gender is being redefined before their eyes. With girls grabbing their new-found ­destiny with ­confidence, our reporter - in the second instalment of our four-part series on the post-millennial generation - asks if the boys are embracing this seismic change, or fearful of it

Students from Intermediate School Killorglin contemplate their future, from left, Jack Clifford (16), Liam Curran, (16), Rory Clifford, (17) and Jack O'Grady, (16). Photo: Don MacMonagle
Students from Intermediate School Killorglin contemplate their future, from left, Jack Clifford (16), Liam Curran, (16), Rory Clifford, (17) and Jack O'Grady, (16). Photo: Don MacMonagle

Graham Clifford

In Ireland in 2017, females are on the march. They have hurdles to overcome and their voice is beginning to be heard. We focus on them, we repeat their calls for equality. Young girls are being empowered to stand up for their rights - to grab hold of their destiny. After millennia upon millennia of male domination, you'd be reluctant, in the current climate, to stick your head above the parapet, and enquire: what about the boys?

For boys, and for parents of boys, however, this is a worrying time. Because in Ireland in 2017, the future for males is uncertain.

Recent statistics show that academically, boys are falling further and further behind their female counterparts. When they finish their education, a changing labour market and the contraction of traditional male industries means more young men are finding themselves with limited employment prospects. Priced out of the property market and unable to afford to rent, such males will have little option to remain at home with their parents, well into their 30s.

The 'boomerang son' - who returns home after completing his studies - is an emerging reality for the middle classes. Without direction, responsibilities or tangible plans for the future, he stagnates.

Advances in the area of marriage equality and gender equality may have lightened the load for young males; however, there are new pressures - of the type which are traditionally heaped only on women. The pressure to look good, to stay slim and trim, to be popular, to measure up to media images of manly perfection, to 'have it all' by being the perfect employee while also being the perfect partner and parent - these are now areas boys must navigate too.

Such pressures are being borne out by the statistics. Even during these times of heightened awareness of mental health issues, young men are suffering. Suicide rates for young males are stubbornly high. Of the 451 suicides recorded in Ireland in 2015, 375 (83pc) were male, and the majority of those males were in the 25-34 bracket.

In addition, their relationships with women are being redefined, and not always positively. Advances in equality mean women are emerging not just as their equals, but also as their adversaries, competitors and accusers.

For boys growing up in Ireland today, their gender is being redefined before their eyes. As they look towards their future, are they embracing this change, or do they fear it?

The next chapter

Surrounded by books in the school library, four young men are cognisant of the challenges facing them in the future. They have high hopes for what the future might bring, but admit that they've yet to start working on the next chapter of their lives.

They are typical of Generation Z - today's teenagers who are a generation behind the so-called 'millennials', those who reached young adulthood in the early 21st century. And yet not completely typical, as the boys concede that their female counterparts have already been perfecting their plans for the future.

"The girls definitely have an idea what they want to do; actually they seem to have known for some time," says 16-year-old Jack Clifford, a fifth-year student at the Intermediate School in Killorglin, Co Kerry.

"A lot of the girls here are studying the sciences, they want to go into medicine, that's a big thing for them," he says. "But I'm not sure what I want to do. I love outdoor sports, kayaking, all kinds of water sports really, but my parents are eager I do something maths related. That's where the jobs are, I suppose."

Figures charting national Leaving Certificate results show that girls outperform boys in 26 out of 32 Higher Level subjects. Mathematics was one of just six subjects where boys did better than girls in last year's Leaving Certificate.

It is nothing new that girls excel at secondary level but the boys generally catch up along the way, or at least they used to.

"There's pressure from home to keep on higher level maths because of the points that go with it," says 17-year-old Rory Clifford. "Girls definitely have a better idea of what they're good at and what courses they should go for - where we often don't have a clue."

Rory's parents are farmers. "There is some expectation that I'll eventually have to take over the family farm. I have two sisters, but they obviously won't want to do it."

The school principal Joe O'Dwyer believes boys are concerned about doing well in their school work and what that means for their future - especially as they build towards their Leaving Certificate - but that they handle the stresses differently to girls.

"The girls will tell you straight away if they're troubled about something. For the boys, their stress can manifest itself in behavioural issues. They act out and they'd rarely tell you that they're stressed."

Despite the fact that we live in the age of 'oversharing' - the age-old inability of young men to speak out and seek advice when they're troubled seems as cemented as ever.

This is borne out in the increase in the number of young people self-harming in Ireland today. The figures have risen dramatically in the past 10 years, with experts concluding that this is as a result of serious psychological distress caused by unprecedented social pressures. Self-harming, which is traditionally pronounced amongst girls, is now on the rise amongst boys. This week, St Patrick's Mental Health Services and Pieta House reported a 15pc increase in male adolescents self-harming, compared to figures from 2007.Psychologists working with young men say males are struggling to find a place where they can fulfil the new expectations with which they are faced, while at the same time maintain their defining masculine traits.

"It's an issue which has largely been ignored in Irish society and that's very dangerous," says Phil Gormley, a Dublin-based psychotherapist who offers 'walk and talk' therapy to men who feel more comfortable speaking about their problems in a less formal setting.

"Men are told to 'Man up' if they're feeling down. Many hide their problems and try to deal with them on their own. Often their fathers did it and their fathers before them so it's learned behaviour."

Gormley says that as western countries sprint towards greater gender equality, society has forgotten to consider the new pressures facing men.

"Of course it's fantastic that there is more equality between the sexes but it's important, too, that men are re-educated about where they fit in. "Genetics plays a part. For hundreds of years men were the hunters, the protectors, the providers, and now - quite suddenly - we're expected to be more supportive emotionally and more involved in raising children. That's a good thing, clearly - but we can't ignore what's in our genes. It is taking time for men to adapt to their more complex roles, and society needs to understand that."

The 'modern man' is expected to protect his lair... and then hoover it.

And so young men are torn - many feel they must exhibit masculine traits in front of the 'lads' but a more caring approach in front of the opposite sex.

For those who are gay, the classroom can still be a difficult place to make their sexual orientation known.

"There's a lot of bravado around," says 16-year-old Liam. "If I said there was nothing wrong with marrying someone of the same sex in front of a group of lads, or even to my own brothers, they'd be like, 'What's wrong with you?' - but if I could have, I would have definitely voted for marriage equality."

Strong masculine role models still resonate with young Irish men today.

"I listen to every word Conor McGregor says," Liam adds. "I like his confidence, he can say whatever he wants, he's able to get into people's minds, he influences people so easily."

His assembled peers concur.

But what about the likes of Donald Trump? He's brash, he says whatever he wants, he influences people with his abrasive manner?

"Yeah, but Trump is dangerous. He could kill people," says Liam.

Like generations of young men before them, those in Generation Z must juggle perceptions of sex with views on their female peers and women in general. A quandary complicated by the ease at which young men can access pornography in the digital age.

"Once your child has a smartphone, they have access to porn. You can put in the filters, but young people are very IT literate and can get around them," says Joe O'Dwyer.

According to a study by the Institute of Public Policy Research in Britain, watching pornography is "common" by the time teenagers reach their mid-teens. It also found that for teens, the internet ranks higher than parents as a source of information about sex and relationships.

Undoubtedly, young Irish men face a different world to generations past. But many parents believe, if anything, they're better equipped to deal with change.

"I actually think they're something of a super-generation, more empathetic and compassionate and much more aware of the world," says Fionnuala, a Dublin-based mother-of-three who has two sons aged 16 and 18.

Rather than fearing the role technology plays in the life of her teenage boys, Fionnuala says it can be enhancing. "If my sons are worried about something, like an exam or a specific issue in school, then they can get instant support from a friend who will have their back. In our day, you'd have to go to sleep worrying, now because of Snapchat, and so on, they don't - and I think that's a good thing."

She allows her sons to drink alcohol and gives them money for nights out, but maintains that respectful and clear communication with them is essential.

"I'm not naïve. I know things may happen but I say to them, 'Look if you've left your pint unattended, go and buy another just in case someone has put something in it'. I tell them to call me if they need me, and I don't get to sleep until they arrive home. I could just say 'don't drink' but I'd be kidding myself and not showing them the respect that they deserve."

Phil Gormley concurs that the all-important tool in supporting our teenage sons is communication.

"Rules and punishment usually lead to rebellion in young men. What's key is to develop a relationship, to create space and time to chat and listen. There's no point in fighting the tide. Things are changing fast for young men but we can't change the world - we can only change ourselves."

THE NEW ORDER

2016

Last year, Leaving Certificate girls secured a higher proportion of honours - A, B or C grades - in 26 out of 32 subjects at higher level.

44%

Percentage of Irish men (aged 30-34) who have attained a third-level education qualification compared to 60pc of women of the same age.*

15

Girls achieved a higher number of A grades in 15 of the 22 higher-level subjects at Junior Certificate level (2016).

45%

The percentage of 17- to 18-year-old males who are sexually active.**

14.4%

The gender pay gap in Ireland (2015) is 14.4pc compared to an EU average of 16.3pc. In 2007, the gender pay gap in Ireland was 17.3pc. **

42%

In Transition Year, boys are 42pc fitter than girls. ***

* Eurostat statistics

** Growing up in Ireland study

*** Irish Life Health School Fitness Challenge

Growing pains: the pressures facing ­teenage boys in 2017

Jack Clifford (16), Liam Curran (16), Rory Clifford (17), Jack O'Grady (16) from Intermediate School, Killorglin in Co ­Kerry tell Graham Clifford what it's like to be part of Generation Z.

Q Do you feel under pressure to drink or experiment with other substances?

Jack C: Ah, there's pressure of course. But my dad didn't drink until he was 21 and I want to do the same. It's tricky because everything is so inter-connected; trying to seem cool, trying to fit in, trying to impress girls… but I play a lot of sport and so the drink doesn't appeal to me at the moment anyway.

Liam: Things have changed in recent years, like it used to be the case that to hang out you'd go to the cinema with your friends or go to the local takeaway - now people think if you don't drink, you've no social life. It's like a status thing, you know 'if you don't drink, you can't be popular'. I'd be sensible enough that way but, of course, there's an increased pressure.

Rory: I'm nearly 18 so my parents would be okay with me drinking, but I wouldn't take it too far, and my parents would trust me. You're seen as a bit of a dead duck if you don't do it on a night out. I wouldn't make it a regular occurrence but it's inter-linked with a lot of things - like we won a football championship recently and celebrated afterwards.

Jack O'G: I took the pledge and I've kept it up to now. I'm not overly religious or anything, but I'm going to try and keep it going. I don't really care if that makes me look cool or not. I am who I am.

Q How does the internet and social media impact your life?

Liam: There was a period last year where I was on the phone until all hours and I couldn't get out of bed in the morning so I had to talk to my mum about it. I'd be watching Conor McGregor videos for hours. So, she told me to leave the phone in the sitting room and it's made a big difference.

Jack C: I'd have a Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram account. Sometimes the comments seem so negative. Online bullying doesn't seem to be an issue in our school but still things can be taken out of context.

Jack O'G: I'd see other people on Snapchat talking about doing their homework. So I'd be sitting at home thinking I should probably start my homework while looking at them doing their homework! Crazy stuff. And it can heap on pressure, too if others are talking about the amount they've studied that day.

Rory: Since the likes of Snapchat came in, I find it so much harder to focus on the books. It's kind of like an addiction really.

Q If you had a problem would you seek help?

Jack C: I'd go to my parents or older brother if something was wrong. I don't think I'd bottle it up. Even our GAA trainer in my club would make it easy for you to speak with him about things. I do think though that the media magnifies things to the extent that you end up thinking too much about who you are, and you become overly self-conscious.

Rory: I'd probably go to my dad before my mum - only because he might be able to see it from my perspective more easily. But often I'd go to my friends before my parents. They'd know how to distract me, make me laugh maybe.

Jack O'G: I don't think I'd go and tell somebody straight away [if I had a problem]. I wouldn't want to make a huge deal out of it. It might be a pain and a drama. If the problem got too big, I'd speak with someone.

Liam: There's more emphasis on mental health now, you can't leave your problems slide. Still though I think we need to be able to deal with adversity [ourselves] too.

Q Is there a pressure to talk about sex with your friends or indeed to be sexually active?

Liam: It's now at a stage where if you're not interested in being sexual with a girl, they lose interest in you. It's a big factor in whether a girl likes you or not - they'd nearly find you boring if you weren't interested in that. I'm not and they probably find me boring, but that's how I am.

Jack C: There's always the pressure that you have to be interested in a girl, in sex - it's kind of always there running through a conversation you have with the other lads.

Rory: It's definitely something you'd nearly talk about every day with your close friends. There's a pressure there constantly. Lads would brag if something happened with a girl.

Jack O'G: You'd see in movies that people around our age are all going at it but I think it's not quite as rampant in real life amongst young people.

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