Lost Boys/Obsolete Men

(by Lance Erlick)

Looking at my sons’ generation, I see young men at risk of winding up where girls were fifty years ago.

In 1960, 34% of college degrees went to women. Today, only 41% go to men, testimony they aren’t adapting to the knowledge-based economy. Over the years, male participation in the labor force has dropped from 85% to 70%, with a majority of management jobs now going to women. While I applaud advances made by my mother, sister, and others, isn’t it time we ask why so many young men fall behind?

Those who discount that there’s a problem will point to the 1% alpha males as proof that boys aren’t disadvantaged. But alphas thrive in most environments, while other boys check out or become antisocial.

Over the past fifty years, the economy shifted away from traditional male jobs through automation and outsourcing. Today’s economy relies on social and knowledge skills where women have advanced using education and social networking. Meanwhile, young men struggle to find new role models, leading to despair and rage.

Families changed with fathers often absent. Many years ago, well-educated women like my grandmother had few opportunities and poured their aspirations into her children. Today’s moms use that energy on jobs to support their families and make ends meet.

When the government stepped in with welfare, alimony, and child support to relieve financial burdens on women and children, the unintended consequence was to remove the direct economic contribution men made to their families. While it freed women from economic dependence, it removed a key element of how men defined themselves.

Growing up, boys receive thousands of messages that girls can aspire to anything, but boys need to subdue their masculine drives as antisocial. Males are portrayed as troublesome, oversexed, into drugs, and prone to drop out. Is it any wonder they do?

Considered disruptive, many boys don’t fit standard education models and so are given Ritalin to conform or are punished for their masculinity. They aren’t engaged to read because it’s a passive activity that doesn’t address their needs. As a result, males only read 20% of all books, which inhibits their success in college and in the job market.

My eldest son started reading early. His school principal told us not to worry about challenging him because they would have him back in the pack within two years. When he graduated college with a degree in computer science in 2001 and found stiff competition in the global economy, he gave up working with computers. Why did this motivated child become less motivated as he moved through school?

While my youngest son, like many boys, had attention issues in school, he had a quick and active mind. Because he had difficulty sitting quietly, his teacher put him in the hall by himself and asked us to put him on Ritalin. Instead of channeling his energy into something constructive, she tried to crush his spirit so he would conform to her complacent model of the ideal student.

It used to be a privilege for a boy to transition into manhood and assume his place in society. But after hearing that men are irrelevant (not needed as breadwinners, uncertain job outlook) many see little attraction to growing up. Studies find that 60% of men haven’t found themselves by age thirty.

Traditionally, young men made their way in society through physical labor and supporting a family. They went out on their own (out west or to the big city), into military service, or followed their fathers. Today with dads often absent, miserable with their lot, or worried about their own futures, many boys don’t see the benefit of busting their rumps. Without other role models, there’s no clear rite of passage today for boys.

In smaller communities a young man only had to prove himself to those around him, which is part of gang appeal. In a global economy, competition is everyone everywhere, making it difficult to envision one’s role. With jobs that traditionally utilized men’s physical prowess automated or outsourced, a generation of young men struggle to find a place of value for themselves in our changing world.

Continuing to ignore their needs will lead to increased numbers of disenfranchised males. Some escape into drugs, alcohol, and fantasy worlds that delay growing up. The criminal justice system overflows with millions of non-productive males. Enraged, others turn to violence or long for a society that values men like the Middle Ages, a fundamentalist state, or its current counterparts – gangs and fringe groups.

We don’t need quotas or male affirmative action but new role models to guide boys into a manhood that utilizes their masculinity and doesn’t amount to turning boys into women. This is a complaint I’ve heard often voiced and mostly ignored or ridiculed.

Can we provide role models and rites of passage that recognize boys’ needs and societal changes? Will we change an educational system that has failed to engage young men in reading, and finding themselves a valued place in our changing society?

Looking at the progress women made over the past fifty years, gives me hope that we can help young men make this transition.