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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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      Last Updated on July 17, 2019

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      What happens in our heads when we set goals?

      Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

      Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

      According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

      Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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      Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

      Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

      The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

      Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

      So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

      Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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      One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

      Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

      Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

      The Neurology of Ownership

      Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

      In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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      But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

      This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

      Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

      The Upshot for Goal-Setters

      So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

      On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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      It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

      On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

      But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

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