Thursday, September 30, 2010

Men in crisis

For the men of my generation, it's nearly impossible to be a "company man" even if you want to be: the company won't commit! Many of us long for the kind of relationships our fathers and grandfathers had with their employers, which, through unionization, was often long-standing and remunerative.

Within the schema of US patriarchy, however, such ties were also bound to a prescribed manhood. Although the US economic picture has changed dramatically since the 1970s, this "prescription for manhood" still weighs on younger men today; after all, we learned it from our elders!

The fact that many men can no longer simply be "an engineer," "a truck driver," or "a scientist" and look forward to a future full of promotions, raises, and a pension means that our assigned role as "provider" is in jeopardy.

This is significant because the model of manhood that we know basically tells us that as long as the "provider" role is fulfilled, the rest of our lives will fall into place. As long as we can announce our significance by identifying who we work for, and plausibly argue that we benefit by it, then the rest of our lives can be "boys will be boys." We don't need to be interrupted during the big game, we can retreat to our "man cave," and we can expect that women will more or less take care of everything else.

What I observe among many of my peers is an aching desire to plug into any external authority that will let them sustain this pretense about who they are supposed to be. But Wall Street is not having any of it; the men it wants come from the global South. Jobs follow the money and men follow the jobs. But US men can't become associated with desperate immigrants and ever believe themselves worthy of the rewards of patriarchy. This informs a growing conflict between them.

Men increasingly view themselves as failures, or as oscillating between successive modes of failure. This is an extremely dangerous scenario, which plays itself out in all kinds of ways, though usually as violence towards those with whom men are most intimate.

If young men are a mess, acting out in self-destructive ways, we should think about the promises of patriarchy that are made in exchange for subservience in the workplace, and how US men are being frustrated along these lines in both their opportunities and rewards.

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