Suddenly Sixty: Man Up or Man Down
Once upon a time … every male seemed to know how to behave. Even those who were a bit unsure acted as if they knew exactly what they were doing. After all, we were the captains of industry, the breadwinners in the family, the man of the house. Our families and our communities looked up to us for leadership and wisdom and fortitude. We spoke from the gazebo at the parades around the commons. We were sources of familial pride and conviction, because we felt we were doing the right things for those in our orbits. We watched our fathers and knew what to expect. We served on boards and were participants in our faith communities. We gracefully danced between cultural, civic, religious and social venues without hesitation or timidity. In our retirement years we remained at the top of our game, whether on the golf course or in the board room.
So, what changed? Everything.
Men of all backgrounds have lost our grip on respect and power. We are no longer dignitaries; quite to the contrary. Our influence is relegated to the fringes. Our kids are growing up with little to no fatherly influence. And of those children who recall a father, more and more suffer from physical or verbal abuse. Dads point to social media and cyber-bullying as the problem, but that pales compared with what happens in our homes. The social order is falling apart. Those of us born between 1948 and 1964, the once revered Baby Boomers, are no longer the prized demographic for advertisers or marketers. The tide has turned.
With about 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day for the next twenty years, the Pew Research Center predicts that the strain on the IRS (reduced taxable income and fewer paying into the system), Medicare, and Medicaid, will overwhelm these entitlement systems far faster than previously modeled. Assuming men are about half of those retirees, that makes 5,000 guys a day who are part of “The 2030 problem.” We are the architects of an entitlement system that is unstable. Men feel completely off balance. Translation: over the next 13 years our long-term financial and healthcare bills will bankrupt our children and our government forever.
And men, despite male domination of the White House, are further and further marginalized in the human dialogue. It is critical that we contribute to the conversation. All parties benefit when men become elder statesmen. We created the mess, we can and should figure out how to make the system work for everyone.
We can and should stay employed as long as it is meaningful to us and the enterprise where we are working. There is no magic about 62 or 65 or 70 as times to retire, particularly if we seize the opportunity to mentor younger workers.
The writ large problem for men at the end of their careers, however, is that we are no longer lionized for the three W’s — wealth, work and wisdom. We are viewed with skepticism by our younger peers, while we carp about lack of respect. Quietly we murmur about not knowing what to do now, where to turn or who we are any more. We bemoan that things are moving at warp speed, leaving us longing for the way it used to be. We have lost our confidence and self-respect.
How did we get here?
Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, W.W. Norton 1963
The simple answer might be that men let it happen. We stood aside and watched as women controlled the monologue. Smart women muscled their way to center stage: Title Nine, Women’s Lib, The Feminine Mystique, Women’s Studies … By their own wits and endurance women have become the majority of college grads for the past 20 years. The Department of Education Statistics says that over 60% of all Associates and Bachelors degrees are conferred to women. Men seemed paralyzed by the educational, social and sexual revolution. Instead of making room for women in the classroom, the elevator, the board room, and graciously welcoming the diversity, we continued to belittle the fairer sex. And they are fully fair. Meanwhile men sneaked off and bragged in the locker rooms about female exploits. We continue to rant with contempt and impunity of our disdain for political correctness, and we listen as others do the same. We fail to be outraged or even vocal when we see or hear about male-on-female aggression or violence.
What it means to be a man is under assault and many of us have played right into the swirling vortex, throwing our hands up, as if there were nothing we can do.
The more nuanced answer is that we abdicated leadership, went with the flow and have not changed the narrative. Today, according to the CDC, more than 40% of all children, from all races, are born to unwed mothers. It is a male problem not a race problem. Men are now a statistic that echoes the words of cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents.” Men need an education to stay relevant and to catch back up with the fast moving times. Boys need examples to become men and they must be encouraged get the education they need to get ahead. A college degree remains at the top of the prescription list and that is expensive. Community College is an affordable antidote for everyone. Plus the internet. Online courses provide the intersection of the right courses and current best practices, which is a great equalizer for those who know what they want as their field of study.
Another issue is laissez-faire behavior: men have given in to the social morays of our time and let former positions of power and permanence, like husband, father, or patriarch, to slip beyond our grasp. Those aspirations are dubbed “old fashioned,” and out-of-step with the times. We can again should find a better way. We can seek some paths of being a spouse or raising a child by studying the subject. If we seek the right texts and the wisdom of the generations, that reading can fill gaps in our own upbringing.
Simultaneously, we can create men’s and couple’s support groups. Men can lean on women and other men for “survive and thrive” skills in their relationships. Many churches hold these family values at the core of their ministries, so we should all seek them and find one that works best for us and our situation.
When thinking about the next generation, several questions and typical answers arise from young men: 1) Q: Why not marry? A: “Why pay for the cow, when the milk is free?” 2) Q: Why not parent? A: I am paying part of child care (court ordered alimony), usually. That should cover it, right? Besides, she is better at the parenting thing. 3) Q: Why not lead? A: I can’t find a mentor who believes in me and my dad isn’t around much any more.
One sad refrain reads: The captains of manliness have caught the boat to a new land, but the ones with the power stayed on shore and watched those on board going out to sea with the tide. Man down.
So where do we go from here?
First of all: MAN UP! Stop whining and get about the business of growing a pair. Prove that we can be gentlemen, not a–holes. Call out men who belittle women, fidelity and civility. Step into roles of leadership and honesty — marry the mates we choose, stay in the relationship by loving and parenting, give women and partners the room to be themselves. Honor is not a pin someone puts on our lapel, it is something we earn first after hard work and we claim second. In wrestling terms, we call it the grind. Our mantra is “embrace the grind.”
With an acknowledgement to Elizabeth Gilbert — Read, study, pray, love, practice. Elder statesman is a role we grab when we are prepared for it. And the Lord knows we have a vacuum. The work of living is messy, so be ready to get dirty. The vacuum of leadership should be filled with men who have been scuffed up a bit, lost some and won more, and have wisdom to share. When a patriarch dies, attend the funeral and sit in the front pew. Mourn the loss of life, listen for stories of their leadership and invest energy in those around us. We have so many in need of a real man, so let’s get busy.
What’s the hold up?
It seems that men are waiting for a magical hand to tap us on the shoulder or a fairy to whisper assurance in our ear that we are wanted … and then to tell us what to do. That’s not going to happen. It is time for us to pray to our God for guidance. We underestimate the power of prayer. We feel we can do it on our own. We are not in charge the way we imagined, quite the opposite, and we can do better. Yoga is breathing, prayer is listening. Listen to the wisdom in our guts and hearts, breathe out the bad and in the good and be part of the solution.
It’s not too late, it is never too late for wisdom to emerge. Our families and our world are yearning for it. We must stop being mute and sullen. Things haven’t turned out the way we thought they would. So what? Get about the business of making it better for those around us, those we care about, starting with our children. Be a parent, a father, to our progeny. Read, read, read. Ask lots of questions. Listen to the answers that have worked for others. Next we can reach out to our colleagues and our partners. Start today. The first important task is to neighbor those close to us. There is work to do.
Next steps, we can reach out to others across the block, across the tracks, across the globe. We need all races, creeds and genders to succeed, so men must share the commons, and be open to the fluidity and strength found there as well.
 Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, New York, W.W. Norton, 1963
 The images in this blog-post were found on the public domain, apologies to any specific artists who deserve recognition on the post.