By Andrew L. Yarrow
“During the last few years, we have been hearing about “failing’ or ‘missing’ American men. Much of this has focused on two topics: men who aren’t working and fathers who have little or no attachment to their children. The 2016 election led many political scientists and commentators to write about ‘angry white men’ as a voting bloc.” So writes Andrew Yarrow, author of the new book Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life (Brookings Institute), which he describes as not being a hyperbolic argument about the “decline of men,” or the changing nature of masculinity, or the white working class. Much has been written, Yarrow says, about the “end of men,” the “boy problem,” and the dwindling share of men in higher education, from snarky putdowns of men to sociological and economic analyses. Some argue, he observes, that 40,000 years of male supremacy may be coming to an end, as women and girls not only do better in schools and colleges but also may have skills that are more in demand in a 21st-century economy in which brawn and brute strength no longer count for much. These trends and arguments, Yarrow believes, are important and relevant, but they are sidelights to the story he tells, a portion of which appears in the excerpt below.
There are large and expanding subcultures of men who have been shoved to the sidelines and/or have chosen to disengage from many of the traditional responsibilities of American manhood. Sometimes, it may seem that Man Out is harshly criticizing these men; at others, vigorously defending them. Sometimes, the tone may sound quite conservative; at others, like a left-wing radical. In the end, Man Out aims to bring awareness to a constellation of issues and to help improve the lives of millions of men (and women and children). Shoehorning oneself into one or another ideological straitjacket doesn’t help.
Although some earlier research, analysis, and commentary has been quite good, it has had two particularly glaring flaws stemming from a narrowly focused myopia: It has been “siloed,” treating fatherhood and family issues as largely—not entirely—distinct from labor-force issues, and it has ignored other tragic, shameful issues affecting millions of American men (or viewed them as essentially unrelated phenomena).
First, America’s “man problem” (and it is not uniquely American) is much more far-reaching in terms of “symptoms” or “problems” as well as scope than nearly all prior writing has discussed. The men affected also have tended to be corralled into a couple of sociological buckets—men of color and heterosexual, middle-aged white working-class men from the “rust belt” or “Greater Appalachia.” In fact, the demographic terrain for men who are on the sidelines of American life uncomfortably goes well beyond these buckets to include middle- and upper-middle-class men and young men of every race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation from every part of the United States. A number of scholars, ethnographers, journalists, commentators, and practitioners in various walks of life understand the relatedness of many of the issues explored in Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, but these issues have sat like disconnected puzzle pieces waiting to be put together.
The second flaw, or lacuna, follows from the first: While the still sparse sociological and journalistic portrayals of “real men” have included some excellent works, they have missed many swaths of sidelined men—in well-heeled suburbs, coming out of prison, on dating apps like Tinder, on dark and off-the-grid corners of the Internet ranting about women, among young men with some college education or degrees from non-elite schools, in troubled and failed marriages and cohabitations, among missing fathers and isolated single men, among many struggling with their masculinity, and among addicts of computer games, alcohol, opioids and other drugs. These men are more likely to be less educated and lower income, but the comfortable stereotype that they are only lower-middle-class white men dislocated by technology and globalization is wrong.
America’s “men out” are disconnected from work, family and children, civic and community life, and relationships. They are often angry with government, employers, women, and “the system,” or they may have given up and given the finger to social norms. Some have done time in prison and some have done too much time in front of screens. Their wives, partners, and other women frequently don’t want them, their children are estranged from them, their neighbors and one time friends are embarrassed by them. Indeed, male-female animosity, especially among younger men, is considerably greater than we would like to think. Some men have turned from relationships to a hookup culture facilitated by apps, and others have migrated from the labor force to a fantasy world of starting their own businesses or writing the Great American Novel. Many adult men economically and psychologically survive by living with older parents. Many depend on the nation’s relatively weak safety net— mainly, food stamps, Medicaid, and disability. Some gay, bisexual, and transgender men exhibit these traits, but this is largely the story of heterosexual men.
Man Out draws together these seemingly disparate threads and probes what’s behind them. Some men have been pushed out of the mainstream; some have chosen to be on the outskirts of 21st-century America. Posed as this simplistic dichotomy, this is where arguments get heated. For most of these men, varying degrees of both are at play. This continuum is key to the construct of “man out.” The phrase, a play on the often lobbed call for implicitly “unmasculine” men to “man up,” is intended to avoid blanket value judgments, stereotypes, and ideologically tinged assertions that these men either have irresponsibly “dropped out” and are no-good shirkers or have been “pushed out” by a callous capitalism or allegedly nefarious women. This leads to the book’s other widely used locution—that these men are “on the sidelines” or “have been sidelined” from American life. This, too, is an effort to avoid the blame associated with personal choice or the victimhood implied by suggesting that larger “social forces” are at play. (This is not to say that these men aren’t victims or to blame for their circumstances, to varying degrees.) I use the passive voice—“sidelined—for similar reasons.
Among this diverse population, it is not clear how so many got there, particularly from a somewhat (but not entirely) romanticized narrative about mid-20th-century life. Then, at least most white men were doing pretty well and many black men were at least doing better than they were in the Jim Crow world of legalized racism.
This question is also politically and morally fraught, which is another reason that most who have danced around it have used a narrow lens often tinted to their ideological predilections. Most simply stated, the implicit debate about elusive causation comes down to economics or culture.
Very crudely, those on the left have largely ascribed many of these problems to a harsh economy and policies favoring the rich that have destroyed or failed to create decent jobs with decent pay and benefits, and have made social mobility ever more difficult in an increasingly unequal society. This view is shared by many men who supported Donald Trump, and would hardly call themselves left-wing. Extensive, incisive research by economists like David Autor, Alan Krueger, and others provide good fodder for this argument.
Similarly, those on the right, like Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), have generally argued or suggested that the causes are primarily cultural or moral: Growing numbers of men are lazy; have little in the way of a work ethic; are immature and want to be taken care of—whether by the state, parents, or partners. They are narcissistic and irresponsible as fathers or husbands or even reliable mates—a complaint echoed by many women who would hardly call themselves right-wing. Changing values and norms, as well as an overly generous welfare state, they argue, have enabled this behavior and broader state of affairs.
As suggested, another way that this economics-vs.-culture debate has been posed is: Are they victims or culprits, or something in between? Has society failed them or have they failed? How much of this is a story of economic injustice, of dwindling, well-paying jobs—blame Wall Street, China, government policies that fail the middle class and the poor, you name it? Or is this a story of a culture gone to hell, one in which, as Nietzsche said, “everything is permissible” or Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former senator from New York, wrote that “deviancy” is “defined down”?
Some thoughtful scholars and commentators recognize that causal factors include some of both. It isn’t a black-or-white choice, with strident Marxist determinists on one side and vulgar culture warriors on the other. But the devil, as always, is in the details.
Man Out explores interactions between economics and culture— some more demonstrable, some more hypothetical. There are many. Some show up in data, while many come from inferences from the real experiences and attitudes of men and those around them.
Let’s be clear about three things at the outset.
First: Many men are on “the outs,” struggling, suffering, and/or screwing up to varying degrees. However, women, on average, still get the shorter end of the stick in many, many ways. Women are more likely to be paid less, ghettoized into low-wage, low-status “traditionally” female occupations like health aides, childcare, housekeeping and cleaning, and food service. Although men, particularly highly educated ones, are more involved in parenting and doing household tasks than a generation or two ago, women still do the lion’s share of this vital, unpaid work. Despite vast strides by women since the 1960s, men largely preside at the pinnacle of economic and political power. While some men are physically abused and false claims of sexual assault by women do occur more than many liberals may want to admit, still the vast majority of serious intergender violence is committed by men. And—even in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein et al. revelations—most real incidents of rape and sexual assault of women are still not reported. As tensions between the sexes appear to be significantly growing, a vocal minority of men are unabashed misogynists, spewing vile comments and behaving horrifically. Proclaiming the “ascendance of women” or the “death of men” or of “male hegemony” is quite premature.
Second: This is not the story of most men. There are about 120 million adult males in the United States in 2018, roughly 100 million of whom are of “working age,” largely between their early 20s and late 60s. Most have decent (even good) jobs, are good fathers and husbands, and strive to succeed for themselves, their families, and even the nation. Many more who lack good jobs and are episodic fathers are doing the best that they can, to paraphrase Princeton sociologist Kathryn Edin. They keep trying against the odds.
Third: Many women also live on the periphery of U.S. life. I’m not only talking about poor single moms, many women of color, and the most tragic victims of male violence and discrimination—although they hardly live the American Dream. Rather, there are millions of women who also have been shut out of good jobs, dropped out of the labor force, aren’t doing well by their children, have squandered their money, are isolated and disconnected from civic life, and are drug, alcohol, or sex addicts. However, their stories tend to be different in kind and degree, and their outcomes are often colored by the stillpowerful effects of sexism.
With those distinctions noted, remember that “men out,” or men on the sidelines, is a deeply troubling and vitally important story—or set of intertwined stories—of several tens of millions of American men, somewhere between one in five and one in four men. And, as we look to the future, those numbers show no signs of decreasing.