James is a Bay Area man who enjoyed a steady, high-paying career for decades. He lost his job in his 50s and has since been unable to find work. Jeremy, a younger man from a depressed, Midwestern town, is battling an opioid addiction and lives on money from disability—and his parents. Tyrone was just released from prison in upstate New York. He wants to work but can’t convince an employer to take a chance on an ex-con. Then there’s Lorne, who’s growing increasingly angry, feels he’s wasting his education after eight years of unemployment, and says he’s not “culturally suited” to take a lower-paying job.
These are a few of the “men out” profiled in journalist and historian Andrew Yarrow’s 2018 book Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, which sheds light on the 20 to 25 million American men who are underemployed, under the influence, undereducated, or just unwell.
These men who are struggling to connect—with their emotions, each other, school, the job market, and mental health professionals—comprise only a small chunk of America’s 150 million men, but one that’s growing. They are disproportionately poorly-educated white and black men, but their traits cut across all racial, geographical, educational, and socioeconomic boundaries. They include both victims—men who have been pushed out of an economy that offers fewer middle-skill, middle-wage jobs—and culprits who embrace outdated definitions of masculinity, leaving them unable to adaptto a changing world.
“They are disappointments to their children, wives, and employers, or former employers,” writes Yarrow, an AU adjunct and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “They, too, are disappointed, but more than likely they are hurting—economically, psychologically, and physically.”
Millions of American women, too, are struggling. They’re still making 80 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts, and society is only beginning to answer for centuries of male privilege that have perpetuated gender inequality. Given that complicated history, discussions about masculinity can be controversial.
Some argue that men have had their time, and that focusing on their issues diverts attention and resources from women and girls. Others contend that health and achievement are not a zero-sum game, and that helping men who are down also lifts women, children, and society.
“Much of Western civilization is predicated on the fact that every individual has value and dignity and the right to a decent life,” Yarrow says. “If we let anyone slip through the cracks, it’s not a good thing.”
Many of us know a Tyrone or a Jeremy. James could be your neighbor. But when and how are these men made? And how can we help them, or the boys who would become them?
Members of the AU community are among those wrestling with these questions. Here, they share insights and anecdotes about men down.
A commercial opens with a series of troubling vignettes: a pack of boys chasing after their smaller peer; a TV dad grabbing his female costar’s backside; fathers watching their sons fight. “Boys will be boys,” they say.
The ad then cuts to a man shutting down his catcalling friend, telling him, “not cool.” Then to another man intervening after a pal makes an inappropriate comment to women at a party, and finally to the dads breaking up the fight, telling the boys, “That’s not how we treat each other.”
“The Best Men Can Be,” a social responsibility campaign launched in January by Gillette, provides a visual representation of the idea that masculinity can be expressed in ways that are healthy, inclusive, and non-toxic. The campaign debuted to positive reviews, but not everyone’s on board just yet. The ad has since become one of the top 30 most disliked videos in YouTube history.
Discussions about expressions of masculinity are nothing new, but we can now measure their impact on society, says Cody Ragonese, SIS/BA ’14, a fellow at Promundo, a nonprofit that engages men and boys in addressing violence against women.
Ragonese is one of many men’s health researchers doing that careful analysis. Using 2016 Global Burden of Disease data and drawing on 25 years of academic research, he coauthored a report tying the 12 leading causes of death among men to seven harmful behaviors, including alcohol and drug abuse, occupational hazards, and inadequate health care.
Driving those behaviors are the seven pillars of the “Man Box”—a phenomenon identified in the 1980s by Paul Kivel of the Oakland Men’s Project to describe how negative expressions of masculinity can suppress positive traits, behaviors, and emotions. They are: self-sufficiency and emotional control; acting tough and risk taking; attractiveness, or a drive to look cool; rigid gender roles; superiority among men; hypersexuality; and power, aggression, and control.
The degree to which someone embraces harmful norms depends on the man and, often, the company he keeps. For Ragonese, a stint with the Peace Corps in Swaziland served as a crash course in how to tackle hegemonic masculinity. When the boys he worked with catcalled a woman, for example, he asked, “What if that was your mother? Your sister?”
Which leads to an even more important set of questions for men: How often are we standing by when we should be speaking up? And are we capable of showing strength by checking even those whom we’re trying to impress?
In March 2018, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love posted an essay to the Players’ Tribune, revealing that he sought therapy after suffering a panic attack during an NBA game. Actor Ryan Reynolds discussed his anxiety in a May 2018 New York Times piece. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Wayne Brady, and Prince Harry are also among the brave men who have shared their stories.
It’s becoming more socially acceptable for men to discuss their mental health, but the stigma associated with vulnerability leads many to suffer in silence, or to numb their pain in dangerous ways.
Men are three and a half times more likely than women to commit suicide—a startling statistic that reflects a complicated set of factors, including the use of more lethal means like guns. But they remain less likely to seek psychological help and or report a bout of depression.
Socializing outdated norms like stoicism and self-sufficiency can breed loneliness, discouraging many men from discussing mental health with peers and professionals, says Andrea Bonior, CAS/MA ’02, CAS/PhD ’05, a DC-based clinical psychologist. Attempts at candor about mental health can feel awkward in activities-based, “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships, but one act of courage can lead to deeper conversations across an entire friend group.
“Men who are depressed, anxious, or who have gone through trauma, are often scared to bring it up with friends,” says Bonior. But when they do, “they’re usually encouraged by the level of positive reinforcement.”
We can continue to shift those norms by stressing that it takes a strong man to reveal his vulnerability.
“Do your part by not dismissing, say, an athlete who comes out and says that he was suicidal or that he was suffering from depression or that he has debilitating performance anxiety,” Bonior says. “Be open to that message and embrace that change in how you talk about it and the language that you use.”
Judge John Domalakes of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, has had a front-row seat to the destruction of communities. Drug addiction and joblessness have ravaged the area, but the effects have been particularly acute among young men.
“Most deaths are young men under 30. Many come from difficult home situations. They didn’t do well in high school. They found it difficult to get a job,” Domalakes tells Yarrow in Man Out. “Many get welfare, food stamps, and disability.”
The rate of decline in the male labor force varies widely by location, education level, and the availability of jobs. For example, the New York Times reported in 2014 that more than 90 percent of “prime age” men (25 to 54 years old) in the DC suburbs were employed, while more than 60 percent in certain coal country counties in Kentucky and West Virginia were out of work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men’s labor force participation has dropped 4 percent since 2008—to just over 69 percent.
Some of that is explained by an aging population, says AU economics professor Mary Hansen. “I don’t think anybody is losing sleep over that. The much more worrying trends come from the decline in labor force participation among young men.”
Men born in the 1980s and ’90s are less likely to work or seek employment than previous generations of men in their 20s and 30s. Labor force participation among men with a high school diploma or less has experienced the steepest decline since the start of the Great Recession, with further drops projected. The “why” behind those trends is tougher to untangle and requires a deeper examination of factors like pain, drugs, automation, incarceration, and the challenges of reentry.
Some men who aren’t working choose not to, some are looking without success, and others cannot work. Many factors contribute to men’s resiliency and the degree to which unemployment affects their health, but the feeling of being left behind as the economy continues to drive forward is a common denominator.
“I wonder what [people] think when I [lie and] say that I’m self-employed,” John, an unemployed man, tells Yarrow in Man Out. “I wonder if they’re embarrassed for me.”
As a residence life administrator on several college campuses who sat through many conduct hearings—most of them involving men—Brian McGowan homed in on the drivers of bad behavior.
“It wasn’t just the fact that you vandalized something in the hall. Did you watch someone do this growing up and think it was normal?” says the School of Education professor. “It’s getting at that [influence], and then students feel they can talk about it.”
For an article published last year in the Journal of Men’s Studies, McGowan interviewed 17 black college men about their interpersonal relationships, building a rapport with them as they became more vulnerable.
“We talked about having lost loved ones, romantic breakups, not having money, unresolved relationships with their fathers, or being ostracized because of their identity,” he says. “They saw my interview process as a venue for being their authentic selves.”
This fall, 57 percent of college students are women. They first earned more bachelor’s degrees than men in 1982, and leapfrogged their male counterparts at every level of higher education by 2006. Once on campus, fewer men (57 percent) than women (63 percent) graduate in six years. Regardless of the reason, lamenting women’s achievement or implying that it’s to the detriment of male success is both inaccurate and tone-deaf.
Understanding the experiences of college men as a whole requires a deeper examination of their individual experiences. What does it mean, for example, to be a Latinx or Native American man at a predominately white institution? What do we know about the experiences of queer and transgender men, and how can universities better support them?
Men and Masculinities: Theoretical Foundations and Promising Practices for Supporting College Men’s Development, released in June and coedited by McGowan, details programming that helps men tap into their emotions, develop leadership skills, build community and camaraderie, and promote social justice. “There are campuses that have men’s groups, dialogue series, mentoring programs, or retreats, but a lot of times people don’t attend them,” McGowan says. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s get men in a room together.’ What’s your campus culture? Are you considering men who are often on the margins?”
Designing men’s programming that accounts for intersectionality is a challenge that varies from campus to campus.
But, McGowan says, that shouldn’t dissuade us from tackling it.
During his travels to schools across the country, Rich Weinfeld, CAS/BA ’75, meets teachers hungry for advice.
“It’s not news to them that their boys are struggling. They see the problem every day,” says the executive director of the Weinfeld Education Group. “I have all the statistics about dropout rates, test performance, grades, and club participation, but they don’t need to be convinced.”
A recent analysis of three decades of National Assessment of Educational Progress data in American Psychologist found that girls outperform boys in fourth grade reading and writing—and the gap widens by eighth and twelfth grades. Unearthing the roots and impact of that disparity can be difficult. Higher rates of ADHD and learning disabilities among boys surely play a role, as does the fact that boys account for 85 percent of discipline referrals.
Weinfeld’s work also focuses on the socialization of gender norms. While it’s more acceptable than ever for boys to express emotional vulnerability, we haven’t completely rid of schools of outdated notions of masculinity and femininity.
“All of that makes boys less able to discuss and understand emotions,” Weinfeld says. “At the same time, the curriculum in elementary school is, ‘Why did this character do what she did? Why did she feel this way?’”
We can help boys, Weinfeld says, by encouraging them to express the full spectrum of emotions from an early age, and by tailoring lessons to their interests and learning styles. He suggests introducing exercises that allow for movement and visual learning, and not criticizing boys’ book selections.
“The boys in my old elementary school class would gravitate toward Guinness World Records,” Weinfeld says. “Things that are outlandish, gross, violent, or silly, are all things that can draw in boys” and can even serve as a gateway to the classics.
Eventually, Weinfeld says, Dog Man will give way to Invisible Man.
There are 36 million fathers of minor children in the United States—but no one right way to be a parent, says Tony Dugger, the former—and first—executive director of the DC Commission on Fathers, Men, and Boys. But after working for two decades on fatherhood issues, Dugger, CAS/BA ’83, Kogod/MS ’86, has pinpointed a few paternal patterns.
He’s identified five types of fathers: the voluntarily absent; the involuntarily absent, due to custody orders or incarceration, for example; the underground, who are financially helpful but otherwise absent; those who are present in an unhealthy way, endangering or abusing themselves or their families; and those who are present in a positive way.
Dugger frequently sees men who are well-intentioned but less prepared for the financial demands of fatherhood due to their youth.
“You put the cart before the horse when you have families prematurely, particularly in the DC area, where a lot of times you need postsecondary education,” Dugger says. Age 18 to 26 is a “significant window of development that can set young men up for prosperity and a pathway into the middle class.” Children can complicate that, setting in motion a “generational slide of struggle.”
As for the approximately 10 million US fathers who are either missing or shut out of their kids’ lives, they’re not a monolith. Some are struggling with addiction or pain, others are doing right by their kids but are kept from seeing them, and some are just uninterested or uninvolved. Many are trying—but struggling—to make child support payments, and some need to learn what it means to be a parent.
Dugger recently worked with a father, fresh out of prison after a long sentence, who struggled to connect with and care for his son, telling the boy’s mother, “I’m not cut out for this.”
“Here’s a tough guy saying, ‘I can’t handle this,’” Dugger says. “The bottom line is that if courage and toughness are things you want to identify your masculinity around, then leading [a positive] life is really what tough people do.
Haven’t we always studied men? Why are you telling men how to live their lives?
The criticism Ragonese faces when he talks about men’s health and masculinity is familiar yet wide-ranging. His retort often focuses on impact: men don’t exist in a vacuum. Their actions—or inaction—have social, emotional, and economic repercussions for partners, children, and the community. Earlier this year, Promundo released “The Cost of the Man Box,” which estimates that negative masculine norms cost the US $15.7 billion each year in lost productivity, health care, and legal expenses for everything from traffic accidents to sexual violence.
“It gets in the economist’s ear and the public health professional’s ear,” Ragonese says. “The next step is to make sure that this data gets translated into programming, policy, interventions, and health care systems.”
But what do those interventions look like for men teetering on the outskirts? How do we breed a generation of fathers who are more prepared to help their children and partners, and to be present, as Dugger says, in a healthy way? How do we boost the male labor force through education and skill training that’s sensitive to the complexities of poverty, fatherlessness, and addiction?
For now, there are more questions than answers, but at least we’re aware of the obstacles, including money and public buy-in. Shifting attitudes and mindsets is an even more complicated proposition.
“How do you get a population to be more responsible or more kind?” Yarrow asks. “How do you get rid of hate, violence, and misogyny? Changing a culture is hard, to say the least.”