Bear with me, this will be unbearably long.
I have spent the last thirteen months unsuccessfully looking for steady work. I also look back on ten years spent at a fairly famous Protestant megachurch with a famously complementarian pastor who once said that single guys are like milk cartons and have a sell-by date; if they aren’t married off by 30 they start to smell funny (and probably aren’t fit to be purchased (i.e. married)) . A film with a title like The 40-year old virgin has a joke built into its title that telegraphs a great deal about cultural expectations connected to sexual activity. In the neo-Reformed camp it’s common enough to have seen bloggers worry about the “epidemic of singleness” that has swept America. In more radicalized circles the worry is that thanks to Christians who do not accept the cultural mandate Muslims will outbreed Christians to destroy what little is left of Christendom in the West. Way to make unmarried men feel like the future failure of the West won’t rest squarely on their soldiers, eh?
This year a friend of mine who was once a Christian sixteen years ago and has long since become an atheist once told me that it seemed that on either side of the divide he was considered and considered himself a wash-up and a failure. Why? Because in no case had he managed to settle down to the task of breeding. It seemed as though from the standpoint of evangelical Christian ethics he had failed by virtue of not exercising Christian virtue and also having landed a wife and sired a brood. Yet it also became apparent that a man who does not reproduce has in the grand flow of natural selection has deselected himself out of the gene pool. He had managed to completely change his whole metaphysical perspective and yet still felt like he was ultimately a failure by both metrics of humanity.
Particularly in a time when we have what is called a “mancession” in conjunction with a whole crowd of people fretting about “adultescence” I have found myself wondering if the underemployed guy in his mid-30s who has not amounted to “something” doesn’t just hit the brick wall of realizing that he is by either an evangelical or secular rubric considered an abject failure. The puzzling and troubling question I have been mulling over in my own life, since I’ve never even seriously attempted to get “on the market” is to consider how both evangelicals and secularists can define human life in such a way that if you haven’t breed a new generation or at least gotten laid that you basically have failed as a human. It took an atheist friend who used to be a Christian to bring this to my attention.
All that, all that was simply my introduction. I don’t know how many parts I’ll write in this rambling rumination but here is the first part. I’m not sure where I’m going with this just yet, though I have some rough ideas.
PART ONE: A MANCESSION AND A WAR AGAINST MEN (?)
Earlier this year Hanna Rosin wrote an article published in The Atlantic called “The End of Men”. It was quickly seized upon by a few people here and there who argued that she was right or wrong. Most people should surmise that we will neither see the end of men nor even the end of the job markets men are traditionally drawn to. Everyone agrees that men have been hit most by the current recession. It has not been inaccurate to say that what we have is a “mancession”. I’m one of those men who has been looking the last thirteen months for regular employment.
Some people have also noted that more women than men are earning doctorates now. The job markets that have traditionally been dominated by men are on the wane while service sector jobs have been on the rise. There have been a few conservatives who have talked about a war against boys and perhaps Rosin’s article, not being written so far as I can tell from a particularly conservative standpoint, may be taken as either premature or as perhaps, from a more polemical perspective, a case of a liberal confirming after the fact the effectiveness of a cultural battle against traditional masculinity and maleness that was proposed to be happening over the last fifteen or so years. Depending on which polemical side you choose to take the war on boys in education has had epic victories at the hands of feminism or the patriarchy is slowly being dismantled. With more women getting more advanced education they will have more and higher places within the culture to guide and influence society.
Over the last ten years I have seen a lot of discussion about gender and about masculinity being under attack by feminism. I have also read a lot about how traditional masculinity is oppressive and patriarchal at the same time that I’d see men upset that their ability to provide for families or see their children after divorce seems to be withering away. In evangelical circles the crisis of the family under attack by godless liberals has been a trope for decades whether fretting about public schools (either their failure or their mere existence); or fretting about loss of jobs or loss of maturity; or fretting about an epidemic of singleness and late marriage; or fretting about the loss of this or abdication of that.
Feminists fret about the attempts to eliminate the choice to have an abortion or fret about how everything is still run by a patriarchy because men dominate the upper echelons of power and influence and in some realms you still find a handful of folks (or more) who believe that at some point the sexes had some Edenic equality (even among those who profess nothing like a Judeo-Christian belief system) and that the Fall was the emergence of patriarchy. Both those who cheer the potential end of patriarchy and those who wish it would not be lost both have their Edenic narratives. There seems to be no shortage of people willing to be selective about what exactly constitutes the true Edenic narrative and the true narrative of the fall of humanity or its redemption with regard to what is defined as the proper role of the sexes. Evangelical Christians and other conservative Christians (and liberal Christians, to be fair) at least have the honesty to treat their narrative of a Fall as an actual sacred text.
We can’t really set aside how reliable these Fall narratives are with respect to a war between the sexes but I don’t have any interest in fleshing that out beyond passing observation. I merely mention them so as to suggest that Rosin’s article may be the foremost among articles that deals most plainly with the different ways a culture-wide gender tension can be discussed and how a culture changed in the last century so that the charge of patriarchy seems, even from a woman’s perspective, to be harder and harder to accept simply as a given. A century ago baby boys would have been preferred to baby girls and now that the technology to select the sex of a child is actually available to us girls are often being picked.
For those who take the war against boys idea seriously Rosin’s article is intriguing because it does not presume that this shift in preference away from males is something unique to American culture. It is, ironically enough, a shift which American innovations in fertility technology has catalyzed. Rosin’s article spent some time on sex selection in fertility clinics. Particularly memorable is biologist Ronald Ericsson’s amusement at Roberta Steinbacher’s decades old dire prediction of designer babies leading to a universal preference for boys. Steinbacher turned out to not merely be wrong but wildly wrong as girls are more popular among those designing their babies than boys. If there were a case to be made that there is a cultural war against boys the vast preference for choosing girls over boys would seem like the most compelling case by itself. We would not even need to trot about debates about the dominant learning styles of boys and what subjects are taught in public schools or how they are taught. It is also worth noting, in light of other contributions to City of God that this may just be another case of an expert/pundit making a confident pronouncement and being spectacularly wrong.
Rosin essentially makes a case that evolutionary psychology has proposed that the sexes have specialized in ways that may now be counterproductive to males in post-industrial societies. Most tellingly she refers to the work of a late French sociologist about a strange gender reversal–
In his final book, The Bachelors’ Ball, published in 2007, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes the changing gender dynamics of Béarn, the region in southwestern France where he grew up. The eldest sons once held the privileges of patrimonial loyalty and filial inheritance in Béarn. But over the decades, changing economic forces turned those privileges into curses. Although the land no longer produced the impressive income it once had, the men felt obligated to tend it. Meanwhile, modern women shunned farm life, lured away by jobs and adventure in the city. They occasionally returned for the traditional balls, but the men who awaited them had lost their prestige and become unmarriageable. This is the image that keeps recurring to me, one that Bourdieu describes in his book: at the bachelors’ ball, the men, self-conscious about their diminished status, stand stiffly, their hands by their sides, as the women twirl away.
Men, so the statement goes, are “the new ball and chain”. The men who felt obliged to stay with traditional roles tied to land and family are those Rosin describes second-hand as unmarriageable. French population growth is now more likely to come about as a result of immigration and the birth rates of that immigrant population (cue concerns from Westerners about the rise of Islam in western Europe). Later in the article Rosen cites a discussion with an African American student:
In February, I visited with Ashley Burress, UMKC’s student-body president. (The other three student-government officers this school year were also women.) Burress, a cute, short, African American 24-year-old grad student who is getting a doctor-of-pharmacy degree, had many of the same complaints I heard from other young women. Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other’s rooms, while girls crowd the study hall. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away. “In 2012, I will be Dr. Burress,” she said. “Will I have to deal with guys who don’t even have a bachelor’s degree? I would like to date, but I’m putting myself in a really small pool.”
Of course, as Rosin goes on, there is more:
The sociologist Kathryn Edin spent five years talking with low-income mothers in the inner suburbs of Philadelphia. Many of these neighborhoods, she found, had turned into matriarchies, with women making all the decisions and dictating what the men should and should not do. “I think something feminists have missed,” Edin told me, “is how much power women have” when they’re not bound by marriage. The women, she explained, “make every important decision”—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live. “It’s definitely ‘my way or the highway,’” she said. “Thirty years ago, cultural norms were such that the fathers might have said, ‘Great, catch me if you can.’ Now they are desperate to father, but they are pessimistic about whether they can meet her expectations.” The women don’t want them as husbands, and they have no steady income to provide. So what do they have?
“Nothing,” Edin says. “They have nothing. The men were just annihilated in the recession of the ’90s, and things never got better. Now it’s just awful.”
The situation today is not, as Edin likes to say, a “feminist nirvana.” The phenomenon of children being born to unmarried parents “has spread to barrios and trailer parks and rural areas and small towns,” Edin says, and it is creeping up the class ladder. After staying steady for a while, the portion of American children born to unmarried parents jumped to 40 percent in the past few years. Many of their mothers are struggling financially; the most successful are working and going to school and hustling to feed the children, and then falling asleep in the elevator of the community college.
The new situation is not considered great for feminism because children born out of wedlock are more common now than ever. Recently I saw some bloggers note that illegitimate births among African American mothers has jumped up to about 70%. It is at this point that I suggest that both liberals and conservatives set aside some hobby horses. The reason is that while that rate of illegitimacy is shockingly high (if actually true and not, as the old saying goes, part of the lies, damned lies, and statistics dynamic) conservatives could consider this not as a sign that black males need to be told to shape up and fly right (or as not just that) but as a sign of the long-term effects of the “war against boys”. Conservatives can’t have their cake and eat it, too. If there really is a cultural war against boys and one that says that masculinity is useless then a conservative should be willing to point out that this will damage all men. It won’t really do to propose that there is a cultural war against white boys and somehow exempt black boys from also being victims of whatever this war against boys is, will it?
Being a man myself who has had to apply for food stamps I don’t see anything wildly inaccurate about Rosin’s observation that food stamps is one of the few social welfare programs a man can easily apply for. Let me rephrase that, a man who isn’t part of a household. The number of programs available to you if you qualify for any social welfare program is much higher if you are a woman or a married man. Worker re-education programs sponsored by the state are more varied if you are a married man or woman or at least a parent. What is peculiar to me but not suprising is how, IF you take the step to marry and start a family the welfare state is basically built for you! The people most likely to suckle at the teat of big government welfare programs are families rather than single people. It gives me many moments of befuddled pause to consider this as an unmarried man but I will set that aside for now.
Clearly, some percentage of boys are just temperamentally unsuited to college, at least at age 18 or 20, but without it, they have a harder time finding their place these days. “Forty years ago, 30 years ago, if you were one of the fairly constant fraction of boys who wasn’t ready to learn in high school, there were ways for you to enter the mainstream economy,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. “When you woke up, there were jobs. There were good industrial jobs, so you could have a good industrial, blue-collar career. Now those jobs are gone.”
Over the years, researchers have proposed different theories to explain the erosion of marriage in the lower classes: the rise of welfare, or the disappearance of work and thus of marriageable men. But Edin thinks the most compelling theory is that marriage has disappeared because women are setting the terms—and setting them too high for the men around them to reach. “I want that white-picket-fence dream,” one woman told Edin, and the men she knew just didn’t measure up, so she had become her own one-woman mother/father/nurturer/provider. The whole country’s future could look much as the present does for many lower-class African Americans: the mothers pull themselves up, but the men don’t follow. First-generation college-educated white women may join their black counterparts in a new kind of middle class, where marriage is increasingly rare.
(yet another interruption http://pewsocialtrends.org/pubs/767/reversal-of-the-college-marriage-gap)
Why the above litany of reasons marriage in lower classes has declined can’t be “all of the above” eludes me but when Rosin discusses how more women are getting college educations I find myself wondering about her prediction that men may be headed toward continuing dire times. Many men I know who got degrees have gotten jobs but a degree these days seems to be worse less than it once was. My stepfather has done job hunting over the years and has noted with disappointment that these days it appears that a master’s degree in computer science (if you have that) might land you a job that pays about $12-$15 an hour. This is the sort of fast track where if you are lucky enough to not get laid off and can make payments of about $200 a month you can probably pay your loans off in twenty years unless you had parents who paid for your college or you saved up enough money to go get a college degree.
And then do what with that degree? Even sixteen years ago when I wrote an article for my college newspaper on the rate of job procurement and degree study for my alma mater I discovered that the likelihood of a person getting a job in a given field of study was basically zero except in the hard sciences and their applications (i.e. medicine, chemistry, biotech, engineering, etc). Business students were not necessarily getting jobs in business as such and this was during the supposedly prosperous Clinton years. In our current job market even if you did get a job in engineering this doesn’t mean you’re assured a job. If women are supposed to be getting ahead because they are getting more advanced degrees but the education market is beset by decades of troubles related to grade inflation and the inflation of degrees that go with it how do we know that these better-educated women aren’t netting massive amounts of debt to get jobs that pay less and less? It would be a nasty paradox if men who left aside college education ended up being better off financially than the better educated women–this might not have anything to do with their income so much as the debt to income ratio they would have be foregoing higher education in this “mancession” if it continues to last. It may prove better to be a debt-free dog than an indebted lion. Or it might not.
Plenty of people have taken issue with the reliability of Rosin’s whole premise. After all, Rosin being a publicly visible journalist and pundit, probably couldn’t be more wrong. That people so heatedly contest what she has to say might mean she’s partly right. After all, if we go by the axiom of some on the internet that the more widely people agree with a prominent expert that some prediction is true the more likely it is to be wrong then the mere contest of Rosin’s points means she could, potentially, be at least partly right. What is more I think her observations, flawed though they may inevitably prove to be, do at least suggest a nexus between a fairly liberal observer and the conservative authors and social scientists (they do exist, somewhere) who believe that education has not favored boys.
The pushback on Rosin’s observations has been useful from both the feminist and conservative wings but I don’t find either the patriachy as a feminist Genesis 3 narrative or the “war on boys” fall narrative to be compelling as unified explanations. Whether what has happened to men in the West in the last three decades is construed as an end to a horrible patriarchy or a war against traditional masculinity the flesh and blood men who have to figure out what they will do with their lives becomes irrelevant to the talking heads and ideological bullet points listed to prove who is more right. As an unemployed men in his mid-thirties trying to figure out what my future will be what both sides are fighting about is the question. “What should men and boys be used for?” We cannot avoid this question by attempting to say that cultures and societies should not use people to achieve this or that end. We can’t say that powers and principalities do not exist as Christians and a secular thinker can’t say that humans cannot or are not put to some use by a society for some greater end. The question of what men are good for and what makes men useful to a society is easy to make an abstraction and not so easy when you’re one of those men who isn’t sure what he’s actually useful for. The whole nature of the question of how men are useful to a culture might as well be the next step in this wandering.