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American masculinity's split personality

The Great Recession is not only bringing hardship for millions of Americans but is widening the divide between two broad types of men and masculinity. If you want a window on how economic hard times — not only since 2008 but as inequality has grown during recent decades — has affected manhood, take a look at two movies: "Up in the Air" and "Capitalism: A Love Story." In the first, George Clooney is literally atop the world, well dressed, well paid, slickly sophisticated, and courtier of the equally upscale and driven Vera Farmiga. In the other comes a Daumier-like tableau of unemployed factory workers and strapped, often bedraggled middle-class men in modest, if not foreclosed, homes, whose wives and children chide them for what they don't have. The downsizer and the downsized.

Thanks to a long-sour economy and radically changed gender roles and expectations, American masculinity has fractured into an "Up in the Air" male and a down-in-the-dumps male. On the one hand, the corporate masculinity of the early 21st century is based largely on a soft power conveyed by money, prestige and education and their corollaries in grooming, clothing and elan. These mostly urban, upper-middle class (to rich) men read their Economists, know their pinot noirs, and speak in politically correct, complete sentences. Working-class, poor, and much middle-class masculinity is defined by declining fortunes and capabilities in school and the labor force (and even the marriage market), feeding gender- and class-based anger. The "angry white man" losers of Bruce Springsteen ballads often react with a politically conservative hypermasculinity, replete with authoritarian and homophobic streaks.

Much has been written about seismic shifts in gender roles and America's growing socioeconomic inequality since the 1970s, but less has been said about the ways that these have interacted. Corporate or "metrosexual" men have only their investments, hair color and attractive partners to lose, whereas all too many other American men have been losing their jobs, their homes, their families, their status and their identities.

To paraphrase Howard Cosell, let's go to the data: Median male earnings in inflation-adjusted dollars are below where they were in 1973 ($46,000 vs. $49,000), and men in their 30s earn less than their fathers did at a comparable stage in life, while women's earnings have increased by about 25 percent, according to the Census and the Pew Economic Mobility Project. As economist William Sundstrom wrote a decade ago: "Much of the increase in income inequality can be attributed to the growing gap between high-wage and low-wage men."

In 2007, 22 percent of husbands had wives who earned more than they did, compared with just 4 percent in 1970. The current recession has only exacerbated this trend, as male unemployment in June was 25 percent higher than it was for women, and the number of married households in which only women work rose by 2 percentage points between 2007 and 2009, the Labor Department reports.

Meanwhile, men's educational performance has gone from poor to lousy. Women under 45 are more likely to have a college degree than men, and one-third of boys drop out of high school each year, compared with one-quarter of girls, according to Education Week. One provocative Princeton study explored whether it's a coincidence that the sharp increase in the male prison population since the late 1970s has tracked the increasing failures of men at school and work since that same time.

If that weren't bad enough for the egos of many men, who either lash out (road rage is a male sport, and three-fifths of Tea Party zealots are men) or meekly begin to believe that theirs is the "weaker sex," "alpha moms" are celebrated as women who can do it all. They have high-powered careers, raise children, and, God forbid, don't really need men. Self-reliant and turned off by today's "losermen," record numbers choose not to marry.

Any "solutions" are multifaceted and need to be careful not to elevate men through a zero-sum misogyny of reversing women's gains. The realm of remedies is economic and cultural. America needs an about-face on many policies that have contributed to what Alan Greenspan called our "troubling" rise in inequality. It's tough enough to fix education, labor force, tax and investment policies. Perhaps even harder to address is the cultural reality that we will not go back to Gary Cooper or "Father Knows Best," and are likely to have sharply class-defined forms of masculinity in the future.

We need to create the conditions and the role models so that one category of men isn't arrogant and entitled while another is angry and defeated. Multiple masculine identities are OK, but they can't be ever more molded by an economy of glamorous star running backs and benched, injured second-stringers.

Andrew L. Yarrow, a Washington public-policy professional, modern U.S. historian, and longtime journalist, is the author of "Forgive Us Our Debts" and the forthcoming book "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is andrewyarrowcolumns@gmail.com.

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