By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, November 10, 2011
There’s a young man I know called Ben, whose story has become familiar. Ben is 24. He finished high school, but university was not for him. He’s bounced through a lot of low-paid jobs in retail and fast food, with spells of unemployment in between. Nothing has quite caught on, and he has no plan for his life. Like many twentysomethings, he can’t afford to live on his own, so he’s moved back in with his mother. It’s not clear – least of all to him – how he’ll establish himself as an independent adult.
The recession has been particularly hard on guys like Ben. Even so, he’s luckier than many. In Canada, the jobless rate for young adults is a relatively low 14 per cent. Across the European Union, the jobless rate is more than 20 per cent. In the U.S., the jobless rate for high-school-educated men between 20 and 24 – Ben’s generation – has reached 22.4 per cent. That’s more than double what it was four years ago. The situation of young American blacks is much worse. In Illinois, for example, only about 25 per cent of young black male adults have a job. And this time, nobody, anywhere, expects the job market to pick up any time soon.
Despite what the Occupy movement says, the biggest economic challenge we face today is not income inequality, greedy corporations, Wall Street corruption or the concentration of wealth among the top 1 per cent. It’s the increasing failure of young men with high-school degrees or less to latch on to the world of work.
Young men without work aren’t just an economic problem. They’re a huge social problem. “We’re at risk of having a generation of young males who aren’t well-connected to the labour market and who don’t feel strong ownership of community or society because they haven’t benefited from it,” Ralph Catalano, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Wall Street Journal.
Young men without work are trapped in a twilight world of failure to achieve adulthood. They don’t move out and they don’t get married (although they’re increasingly likely to have kids). In the U.S., four out of 10 men between 18 and 30 are living with their parents. In Britain, it’s five out of 10. In Italy, it’s eight out of 10 (although that also reflects the extraordinary attachment of Italian parents to their grown-up kids).
But young men who live at home also have less incentive to find work. The longer they go without work, the dimmer their prospects become. And the more likely they are to drink, do drugs and develop other habits that will make them even less employable.
There’s a reason this downturn has been called the “mancession.” Jobs in manufacturing and construction have dried up, while employment in female-friendly fields such as health care has stayed steady or even grown. But something else is going wrong. A lot of young men seem to have given up. In an age when having a university degree matters more than ever, large numbers have gone AWOL from higher education. Even the ones who have degrees face higher unemployment than women do, a British study found. Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of a British think tank on higher education, blamed the men’s underachievement on complacency and “general hopelessness.”
Psychology professor Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me, also thinks behavioural factors are holding young people back. She argues that an epidemic of narcissism has created millions of young adults who think they don’t have to work or study hard because they’re already smart. “It’s delusional thinking,” she told a conference of psychologists in Australia.
Joblessness is not the same as poverty. It’s worse. There’s lots of evidence to show that the scars of joblessness can last a lifetime. And fixing the problem will be very hard, because the problem is not simply economic. It’s also structural and social. We’ll need more than an economic upturn to reconnect a lot of our young men to work. But it matters more than we think – because without work, there’s no path to manhood.
An epidemic of narcissism?
AWOL from higher education?
There is simply no doubting the statistical data. Men are in profound difficulty, and as a result, the society itself faces an increasing and potentially insurmoutable problem.
But the story does not start with the useful data to which Ms Wente refers.
It goes farther back to young boys looking for mentors, models and supportive coaches. Of course, we make much of the honourable few who serve in that capacity. But there are so few, compared to the need.
There is a culture, at home and in the elementary schools, for starters, that favours female children and students. The last fifty years have seen a triumph of feminism, and a resulting demographic swing in professions like teaching toward women practitioners. Schools have become the domain of women, both in the front of the classroom and in the principal's office. Male students are "necessary evil" making disturbances when they should be quiet; rough-housing when they are supposed to be solving problems, doing math, learning history, or even playing organized games.
Male students far too often replace "school" and the many potential opportunities for socializing, learning and growth with some high-tech gaming device, preferring a virtual reality to one with people many of whom find his "gender" second class, to put it mildly. Too many boys are put on ritalin because they are diagnosed with ADHD, and need "more control." Too many boys are sent to the office for discipline because they are bored, alienated from the compliant-dependent school culture which is much more suited to compliant female students.
Reading and writing, both involving skills in which girls develop earlier and more easily, and it would seem naturally, are relegated, in the boys vernacular to "girl" subjects. Math and science, formerly an arena in which boys could hold their own, with interest, motivation, curiosity and some inherent skill, are now less attractive because, for one reason, the "game-boy" is more complex than most school science experiments.
If the early signs of what a boy considers "the establishment" are more supportive and encouraging of female students, and if his home life lacks a male figure, where does he go for male fraternity, collegiality and even just hanging out.
He has no trouble finding other males his age who are equally "turned off", tuned-out, seeking the comfort of their own "victim" (without ever condescnding to that word) and school work is the last thing he thinks about when the school day ends.
So while we are diagnosing the societal symptoms of what is now called a "mancession": a recession based almost exclusively on males without work, the fork in the road was taken many years before the unemployment numbers were gathered.
Our faculties of education, and our school boards and our principals associations and our colleges of teachers and our teachers' unions have to step up to the plate, and they will only do so if and when the epidemic of men withdrawing from the society reaches proportions where the public demands an affirmative action recruiting program to recruit male teachers for elementary schools, and for secondary schools and when teachers federations demand gender equality for men when hiring for positions of responsibility, and when curriculum designers ask boys what and how they would commit to learn, in order to qualify for seats in universities and colleges now either unfilled or filled by women, and thereby take their place as willing participants in a society that so trashes the current stereotypes of masculinity that almost every television ad contains another dumb, sexually driven, and socially inept male figure, not to mention the billions of dollars being generated by programs like The Big Bang Theory, in which highly educated males demonstrate their almost total estrangement from society and the female gender, with whom they are constantly trying to connect.
To overcome the potential tragedy of the impending mancession, we will need a commitment from all sectors in the society to recognize the blind spots in our vision of equality, in our modelling of respect and tolerance for both genders and a receptive culture for masculine and feminine qualities in all humans, celebrating the androyny bestowed on all of us by nature.
That will take generations....and we really don't have that long!