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Being a Man in the 21st Century (Part 1)

Being a Man in the 21st Century (Part 1)

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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    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.

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      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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      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      No!

      It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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      But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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      What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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      But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

      1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
      2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
      3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
      4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
      5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
      6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
      7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
      8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
      9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
      10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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