“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation” – Henry David Thoreau.
What Thoreau observed in the mid-19th century is more true today than ever. As the first 20 years of the 21st century draw to a close, we see emerging a subculture of men who have been shoved to the sidelines or who have, by their own choices, disengaged from many of the roles and responsibilities that have traditionally defined American manhood.
It’s estimated that as many as 20 to 25 million men – roughly the population of Texas – are on the sidelines of American life. Who are these men and what characteristics do they share?
We know they include white men who aren’t working, who are angry and whose education ended long before a bachelor’s degree. We see black men whose lives don’t seem to matter. We see adult boys living in their parents’ basements. We see veterans with physical and emotional scars that will never heal. We see drug, alcohol and technology addicts, absent fathers, misogynists. We see men struggling with relationships and marriage and ones with physical and mental health problems.
We also know that these disengaged men cut across demographic categories. While less educated white men, poorer African American men, young men, single men and many unemployed or underemployed middle-age men are disproportionately represented, there are many who are, or at least once were, middle and upper middle class, well educated and who would generally be considered “privileged.”
Why has this “quiet desperation” spread among American men and when did it begin? Its roots lie in the economic and cultural shifts that began in the late 18th and 19th centuries with the most radical shift in human history: the replacement of agrarian and rural societies by the more volatile socioeconomic order of industrial capitalism.
Increasingly, women were drawn into the labor force and, over time, began to fill many positions traditionally held by men. This trend was particularly pronounced during World War II when much of the male population of the U.S. was serving in the armed forces, and it extended into the 1950s as many women chose to remain in the labor pool.
More recently, offshore manufacturing and outsourcing, along with growing automation, have displaced workers – both male and female – in many economic sectors.
But the crisis in masculinity isn’t only about jobs and the economy. Other factors include higher rates of women entering and completing college, men living with their aging parents well into adulthood, boys raised in single-parent households that often lack positive male role models, physical and mental pain resulting in higher use of addictive prescription opioids, alcohol abuse, high and growing rates of suicide, loneliness and isolation.
All of these factors – and more –have contributed to a sharp increase in U.S. mortality rates, particularly among white men between the ages of 35 and 60.
As grim as the situation with 21st-century men appears, there are organizations working to counter these trends. In 1985, three men – an educator, a therapist and an ex-Marine – organized an experiential, weekend-long men’s gathering near Milwaukee that focused on initiation and deep self-examination.
Drawing on such diverse sources as Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Robert Bly and others, and incorporating several Native American traditions, a unique organization was born unlike any that preceded it.
More weekends (now called the New Warrior Training Adventure – NWTA) were held, and today the ManKind Project (mankindproject.org) has initiated more than 64,000 men in 21 countries.
MKP’s vision is to create a safe world where men can be in healthy relationships with one another, where conflicts are resolved peacefully; where men are fully accountable and take responsibility for their decisions; and where men stand tall and proud to be men, secure in their role and deeply committed to nurturing one another, their families, their communities and their planet.
Similar organizations have emerged in recent years, all with the goal of fostering healthy masculinity.
If you are a man exploring his own evolution and searching for genuine connections with like-minded men – or if you know of such a man – I encourage you to check a men’s organization like MKP.
JD Longwell is a Salida life coach, mediator and group facilitator. He can be reached at 720-341-1668 or firstname.lastname@example.org.