Thursday, April 24, 2014

Men Aren’t Going Away, But What Will We Do With Them?

There were several thought provoking pieces getting a lot of play right now related to the increasing disconnection of both working class and disadvantaged men from jobs and family responsibilities. I will give you the links to the three pieces, a highlight from each, and then make a simple point.

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone wrote a piece in Slate:  JustSay No: For white working-class women, it makes sense to stay single mothers. Cahn and Carbone argue that, for many women with young children, it makes little sense to marry any man, including the father of their child, because the men available are not great candidates for making the lives of these women any better.

KJ Dell’Antonia writes a blog called Motherlode for the New York Times, and she digs in on some of the arguments Cahn and Carbone make. Her piece, entitled Working-Class FathersShouldn’t Be So Easily Dismissed, is excellent.  Here’s the part that I think is crucial:  

These are not foolish women or bad men. More and more young women are already making the choice to raise children alone, but while that choice may be rational, we as a society should hesitate before embracing it as a way forward or even accepting it as a done deal. In respecting the decision makers, we let both the causes and the costs of the choice off the hook, and risk normalizing a situation that presents real consequences for the overstressed mothers, the uninvolved fathers and the children caught up in their wake.

The implications of writing off these men are huge.

Here’s one more article if you want to complete the trifecta; these three pieces are a good bet to get you thinking about what’s happening to working class and disadvantaged men.

Michael Jindra is an anthropologist who wrote a piece for the blog of the Institute for Family Studies, entitled Why Working-Class Men are Falling Behind. He aims at the nexus of issues affecting the opportunities of scores of young men in our society: family structure, education, and declining industrialization. In all three of these domains, there are declines in tools and structures that bring about positive socialization. Jindra also discusses how trends in entertainment—especially video games—may be crowding out the abilities of boys to take advantage of what opportunities they might have (e.g., reading). Of course, video games, while a common focus for young men from all walks in life, are also going to be a way to cope with a world of lost opportunity through some semblance of adventure or impact—even if the impacts are based in the modeling and practicing of atrocious behavior (e.g., Grand Theft Auto).

My favorite section from his piece is this:

All of these things mentioned above—early reliance on stimulating entertainment, lower educational attainment, disconnection from families and role models, and the attractions of different, “edgy” subcultures—contribute to a widening gulf between those more connected to family, work, and society, and those without these commitments. While men are losing connections, women continue to participate in the labor force, attend religious services more often, and belong to other community and civic organizations. This is partly because many have dependent children and need to support them, whereas men can to a large extent avoid this responsibility.

Connection to children can foster responsibility behavior in other domains, and this seems to be largely happening now for women but less and less for men.

It is easy to think of all these themes as merely reflecting the opportunities and choices of individuals. But I think we are watching some negative trends of historic proportions, with men being increasingly disconnected from roles and responsibilities regarding work and family. I have long thought of this simple fact: When men do not have positive roles to play in society, they do not just sit around and do nothing. Many get in trouble. Not all, but many. This concern applies to women as well, but the trends right now seem especially concerning for men.

We need to keep talking a lot about men. These are not just changes in individual lives that are unfolding but changes in important aspects of how society functions. I do not have any simple suggestions, though my diagnosis is that we are seeing both a real net loss of opportunities compared to the past while at the same time seeing the failure of institutions such as family and schools that serve to structure how individuals can benefit from the opportunities life presents.

To use a play on the words from the title of Hanna Rosin’s work and book, there is a growing problem because there really is not going to be an end to men.