Being a Man in the 21st Century

Manhood is changing. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Two recent events prompted me to write about manhood today. The first was the release of The Shriver Report, a study of the status of women in the United States. The second was the publication of The Art of Manliness, a book of advice on manhood based on the popular blog of the same name.

The Shriver Report‘s most stunning finding is that women now make up half of the American workforce, and are the primary breadwinner or co-breadwinner in 2/3 of American families. While I think the report goes too far in calling us “a woman’s nation” – for one thing, women still earn much less, both in terms of average annual income and lifetime income, than men – it does highlight a significant change in American culture. People my age and lower will most likely never know a workplace in which men and women don’t figure at least equally.

The Art of Manliness is one sign of this change. While I haven’t read the book yet, I’ve been following the blog since its inception, and to boil it down to its essence: men are not quite sure how to be anymore.

Masculinity has been constructed over the last century almost entirely around the idea of men as providers and protectors, and frankly, women don’t need that any more. Already in at least a dozen major metropolitan areas, women earn on average more than men. Women are waiting longer to get married, and are more often the initiators of divorce – with their own incomes, they can afford to be pickier about their spouses, both going into marriage and when deciding whether to continue their relationships.

This has all happened in the context of larger social changes that have eliminated a great many jobs that were traditionally the sole province of men – the manufacturing and heavy labor jobs that relied on a powerful physique and a kind of working class swagger, most of which have been either automated or off-shored. At the same time, a new knowledge economy has sprung up, privileging communication, creativity, and self-motivation over brawn and emotional control. While there’s no inherent reason why women should do better in these emerging businesses than men, the fact is that men have largely given over the field while wasting time twiddling our thumbs over the loss of jobs where “men could be men”.

What do I mean? Well, women now make up the majority of college and grad school students, even in many areas in science and technology traditionally considered to be men’s domains. Boys almost never read – only some 1 out of 5 young adult books are read by boys, who have determined that reading books is for sissies. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school (35% of boys vs 28% of girls in 2003).

Basically, instead of learning how to be men in a changing world, we’ve been boys, dragged kicking and screaming into a world where women are increasingly equal players. Waaahhhh!

Emphasis on “kicking” – instead of figuring out how to do this new thing, we’ve focused most of our energy on simply emphasizing the characteristics that traditionally defined masculinity, namely toughness and physical brawn. Even our toys have been affected! For instance, below are two pictures of Luke Skywalker dolls. On the left is the Luke that I had when I was a boy, right after the first movie came out. On the right is a more recent version of the same character.

Luke Skywalker figures comparison

As you can see, the farm boy from Tattooine has been working out quite a bit since his debut in 1977! The same bulking up can be seen in nearly all figures aimed at boys – they’ve become more muscular, conveying a greater impression of raw physical power.

This wouldn’t be especially remarkable if not for the fact that physical power is less and less needed in our society – even in the military. These toys embody ideals that are increasingly disconnected with the reality that we live in, a kind of ironic nostalgia for a time when “men were men”. (Ironic because, when we look back at those men, they were quite a bit softer and less physically imposing than we think!)

In the end, the exaggerated emphasis on toughness and physical strength are misleading – and besides creating a great deal of violence in our society, they are preventing us from thinking in constructive ways about the kind of men we could be in today’s world. And that’s too bad, because the changes we’re living in are largely positive – men are, or could be, much more connected with their families and their partners, women are getting the opportunity to develop identities that aren’t solely defined by motherhood, and the workforce is getting a much larger pool of people to draw talent from. Win-win-win!

I’ll be back later in the week with a follow-up to this post describing some of the ways I think men can more productively engage the society we live in – without sacrificing some core sense of our identities as men. But before I do that, I wanted to get a sense of what you see as masculine in the new century. Men, how is your life different from your fathers’? Women, what do you want and expect from the men in your lives? Let’s get a discussion going!

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