Struggles for Men

May 24th, 2013

The End of Men?

Something is happening to men. By traditional societal measures of success, they are slipping. They are underrepresented in higher education. They have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn. They are less likely to be married than in the past and more likely to be confused about their role in marriage and family.

Writer Hanna Rosin highlighted the changing role of men in a 2010 Atlantic magazine article provocatively titled “The End of Men.” She also expanded on the themes of the article in a book called The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. Rosin is not a triumphalist who celebrates as men struggle. Instead, she explores what’s going on with men and women in the contemporary landscape and asks, “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”

The prevalence and pitfalls of patriarchy have been well documented; but a new ordering of society is emerging in its wake, formed by economic and cultural forces that are rapidly changing conditions for men. What are the challenges faced by men today, and how can Christians reach out to men as they address them?

Economic Clout on the Decline

Let’s be clear: When it comes to the paycheck, men are still bringing home more money than women. As reported in a 2012 Deseret News article, “Overall, women still earn only about 80 percent of men’s wages.” But things are changing quickly, and the changes show up most clearly among young adults. The same article noted that “according to a recent analysis of 147 of the country’s 150 biggest cities conducted by a market research company, the median full-time salaries of young women are 8 percent higher than those of their male peers. In some cities, young women bring in as much as 20 percent more.”

The 2008 economic recession has also affected male workers far more than women. Rosin reported that “three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost [in the recession] were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance.” While some of these sectors have rebounded, the long-term trend is not good. Figures from the Pew Research Center say that close to 40 percent of all 18- to 29- year-olds are unemployed or have stopped looking for work.

Researcher David H. Autor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says that men are struggling as the jobs in which they were traditionally employed disappear. He told The New York Times in a recent article that “the working world just has less and less use for these folks.” Rosin says, “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today––social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus––are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”

The Education Gap

The problem is compounded by the growing gap in educational achievement between men and women, something that began before the recession. In figures cited by Rosin, women are now earning the majority of master’s and bachelor’s degrees—around 60 percent of them in both cases. “In a stark reversal since the 1970s,” she says, “men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.”

This comes at a time when a college degree is becoming essential for receiving even a middle-class income, so the educational struggles of young men can easily lead to less earnings. The situation is not leading to much change, however. “I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, another MIT economics professor also quoted in The New York Times piece. “And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an explanation.”

Rosin offers one potential explanation: Perhaps contemporary educational methods are more suited to girls and women. “It’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional––or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.”

Then Comes Marriage . . . or Not

Marriage and family statistics also highlight the struggles of men. Several recent studies have noted that, while teen pregnancy is down, births to unmarried women are actually up. Young women in their 20’s, in greater numbers, are choosing to have children whether or not they have an intention to marry. The trend is particularly noticeable among economically struggling women. Kay S. Hymowitz reports in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Fifty-eight percent of first births among working and lower middle classes in the U.S. are now to unmarried women.”

What accounts for the rise in unmarried births? Perhaps marriage is not as attractive if men are having a difficult time finding economic security for themselves. Derek Thompson puts it bluntly in an article in The Atlantic: “In a dating pool where poor women are more likely to be surrounded by men with low and falling fortunes, more women have ditched a union for good economic reasons: It could be a financial drain.” Technological advances from quick-fix foods to home appliances have also made single parenting less onerous. “Technology,” according to Thompson, “makes it cheaper and easier than ever to be single. It makes marrying a financially unstable man even more risky.”

By contrast, couples in the higher income brackets have the highest rates of marriage and higher stability in those marriages. As reported in a 2010 TIME magazine story, “In 1960 the median household income of married adults was 12% higher than that of single adults, after adjusting for household size. By 2008 this gap had grown to 41%. In other words, the richer and more educated you are, the more likely you are to marry, or to be married––or, conversely, if you’re married, you’re more likely to be well off.”

The effects of this for children, and particularly boys, can be longterm. The New York Times asserts that boys who have fathers who are struggling or who grow up in single-parent households headed by a single mother may struggle as well. “A vicious cycle may ensue,” says David Autor, who coauthored a study on this phenomenon with Melanie Wasserman, “with the poor economic prospects of less educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.”

The Fall of Men

The critically acclaimed television drama Mad Men includes an iconic opening credit sequence in which a man in a business suit falls through the sky surrounded by 1960’s-era advertising images of women, most of them created by male-dominated advertising agencies. The series focuses on the changing social roles of men and women within a particular ad agency in the mid-1960’s. While it was an era of expanding opportunities for women, many men experienced a profound sense of dislocation, perhaps even a feeling of free falling, as old roles and expectations for them were constantly shifting.

Fifty years after that volatile time, men continue to explore what it means to be a man in modern society. Churches—which have undergone their own transformations as more women have moved into clergy and lay leadership positions—are sometimes seen as forces upholding a model of the nuclear family headed by a man as the paradigm of a Christian social order. But as fewer families look like a 1950’s sitcom family, churches have the opportunity to walk with men (and women) as they adapt to the real changes they are experiencing.

Cory Duckworth, vice president of student affairs at Utah Valley University, sees young men struggling and says, “I am fearful that, for some of them, life is going to be a continual revolution of spinning their wheels and not getting any traction.” Out of his own Mormon faith, he seeks to reach out to them. He told the Deseret News, “I just don’t see them moving forward, experiencing the joy and happiness life ought to be bringing. I see too much frustration, a lot of loneliness and despair.”

Part of the Christian tradition has been affirming the notion of vocation, the sense that every human life has purpose and meaning that can be fulfilled in work in the world. This is expressed in Psalm 139:13-14 in a prayer to God: “You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.”

Helping young men see their worth apart from assumptions about their economic value is part of that awakening to identity as a child of God. By offering opportunities to explore their gifts and challenging them not to retreat from the world but to live out their gifts in the world, churches can help young men identify the new possibilities of this day.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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