A few weeks ago, I caught the premiere of the Discovery’s Channel’s “Human Planet,” a television show about the ways people have adapted to survive in Earth’s most extreme environments. Perhaps a better name for the program would have been “Man Planet,” as the show primarily chronicled the incredible feats of men around the world – men the tentacles of civilization have barely grazed. There were men mining sulfur from an active volcano; men diving dozens of feet and holding their breath for five minutes at a time to spear fish on the ocean floor; men initiating their sons into manhood by teaching them how to train eagles to hunt. Even seemingly pedestrian tasks like taking your kids to school were fraught with danger; a father escorted his children on a 60 mile journey through the Himalayas, watching for potential avalanches and walking over a frozen river that could have cracked open at any moment.
I was immediately taken in by the show’s spectacular cinematography. But it was the image of these men straining and sweating, risking life and limb to provide for and feed their families that really caught my attention.
And by the end of the show, a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about for awhile had coalesced together.
What’s Plaguing Modern Men?
There has been a copious amounts of hand-wringing lately about the state of modern men, about the fact that men appear to be falling behind in life and seem unmotivated and listless.
Why all this concern? The statistics are familiar to anyone who has read this genre of articles:
- Women are more likely than men to graduate from high school.
- Only 44% of undergraduates at community and four year colleges are men.
- Female college students have higher grade point averages than men and are more likely to graduate within four years.
- According to the US Census, “Among young adults 25 to 29, 35 percent of women and 27 percent of men possessed a bachelor’s degree or more in 2009. This gap has grown considerably in the last decade: it was only 3 percentage points in 1999 (30 percent for women, 27 percent for men).”
- Women are 60% more likely than men to earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 23.
- According to the US Census, for the first time in history, more women than men are earning advanced degrees. “In the 25-29 age group, 9 percent of women and 6 percent of men held either a master’s, professional (such as law or medical) or doctoral degree.” Nearly six out of ten adults holding advanced degrees between the ages of 25 and 29 are women.
- Men lost 3/4 of the 8 million jobs that disappeared during the recession.
- For the first time in history, there are now more women in the workforce than men.
- 1/3 of men ages 22-34 still live at home with their parents. An increase of 100% in the last 20 years. According to the census, among young adults ages 18-24, 56 percent of men and 48 percent of women still live at home with their parents.
Plenty of theories have been offered as to what is behind these statistics. Some say the economy is to blame, as traditionally male industries have been moved off shore or gone extinct. Another reason given is that corporate culture and bureaucracy have sucked the soul out of men and taken away their manly autonomy. Others say it’s our consumer culture and the rise of particularly time-sucking hobbies like video games. And some say the root of the problem is feminism, the changing dynamic of male/female relationships, and the “cheapness of sex.”
But I would argue that there isn’t just one thing that you can point at and decisively say, “That one. That one was the man killer.” Instead, the source of the modern male’s lack of motivation is a conglomeration of all these factors. In short, the “problem” is modern life in general.
To me the modern world is the best possible world to live in, without a doubt. The advancements we’ve made in technology and culture have made life safer, freer, and longer than ever before.
At the same time, no matter how unmitigated a good is, there are always unintended consequences that we have to grapple with. And the unintended consequence of modern life is that men feel lost and adrift.
The Wild Man Navigates Life in the 21rst Century
“Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” ~ T.K. Whipple
Over tens of thousands of years, our manly ancestors evolved unique psychological traits that helped them survive and thrive in a dangerous, hardscrabble world. While we like to think that we’re cultured and sophisticated and quite a distance beyond all that, all men still have these primitive psychological traits embedded deep inside them. As we can see from a show like “Human Planet,” there are still men who live this way right now. The modern society we enjoy today represents a mere blink in the long history of humanity.
And so we have a mismatch, where for men in the developed world the inner elements of masculinity remain unchanged, while the outer landscape in which those elements exist has been dramatically altered. Instead of spending most of our time outside each day, we spend the majority of it inside. Instead of braving the elements, we spend our time in climate-controlled environments. Instead of making things with our hands, we select items from the hundreds that line the aisles of gigantic stores. Instead of hunting down our dinner, we buy our meat pre-cut, in Styrofoam containers. Instead of being looked to as leaders of the tribe, we see ourselves lampooned in the media as bumbling and inept.
The primal elements of masculinity sit within us like a well-trained regiment of soldiers that is ready and itching to fight, but sits waiting restlessly, and endlessly, in reserve. Core aspects of the male psyche lie dormant, and men find themselves as square pegs trying to fit into a round hole. Having butted up against this mismatch over and over again, men are feeling angry and restless, losing their motivation, and giving up.