As if the world needed another trend piece about men in crisis, yesterday Newsweek ran a story titled “Dead Suit Walking,” about the plight of the unemployed middle-aged white man. And if overuse of the word “mancession” (second only to “staycation” in my personal dictionary of the most despised made-up words) didn’t already have you vomiting in your mouth, writers Rick Marin and Tony Dokoupil are out to coin a new cultural acronym: BWM, for “Beached White Male.”
Apparently “Unemployed Middle-Aged White Guy” (UMAWG) wasn’t sufficiently catchy.
(If Dokoupil sounds familiar, it might be because he wrote the last man-trend-piece for Newsweek, “Men’s Lib: Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity.”)
The effects of the recession on men has been excruciatingly well documented over the past year, but the disproportionate job loss has been generally attributed to the decline of traditionally male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. It’s been spun as a teary tale of post-industrial woe, the beginning of the end of the middle class.
But this latest story focuses on how the recession has played out for well-educated white-collar guys (the short answer: not great).
The number of college-educated men unemployed for at least a year is five times higher today than after the dotcom bubble. In New York City, men in the 35-to-54 kill zone have lost jobs faster than any other group, including teenage girls, according to new data from the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Losing jobs faster than teenage girls. Could it get any worse?
There are tears in this story too, as one UMAWG (pronounced yoo-mog) breaks down, regretful that when he had a job, he didn’t do much for guys who were unemployed.
“It’s humbling,” [Brock] Johnson says. He started going to networking events, which only brought him lower. “A bunch of people get together, hang out, trade contacts. For me it’s kind of depressing … I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I have better contacts than most people.” At this thought, his cheeks redden. When he was employed, he didn’t do much to help those who weren’t. “I’m embarrassed to admit that.” He vows he’ll treat people differently now. He looks away.
The corporate warrior has begun to cry.
But this time around Marin and Dokoupil leave the sadness to their subjects; they’re too busy slapping their knees in perverted glee over the ungraceful misfortune of the UMAWG.
As if middle age isn’t bad enough. The moribund metabolism. The purple pill that keeps your food down. The blue pill that keeps another part of your anatomy up. Now you can’t get an effing job? Stuck in your own personal Detroit of the soul, with the grinding stress of enforced idleness. The wife who doesn’t look at you quite the same way. The poignantly forgiving sons. The stain on your masculinity for becoming the bread-loser. The night sweats and dark refuge of Internet porn. The gnawing fear that this may be the beginning of a slow, shaming crawl to early Social Security.
In their insistence that they’re not poking fun—
It might be tempting to snark at these former fat cats suffering lean times. But when Beached White Males suffer, so do their wives and children. Lives, marriages, and futures are at stake. Examining who these guys are, and what washed them up, is not an exercise in schadenfreude.
It’s pretty clear that they’re enjoying themselves. Here, they’re telling the reader: Look, we know nobody cares about middle-aged white guys, but the kids—something’s gotta be done about the kids! (Nevermind that this may be a fatal demographical miscalculation of Newsweek‘s target audience.) Even their choice of pseudonym for one of the two principal subjects, “Brock Johnson,” seems to be meant as a joke.
I’ll admit that my gut reaction to the plight of the UMAWG, based on the caricature in my head, is not sympathetic. These are guys who bought into the illusion of corporate security. They’re probably still driving $50,000 cars and voting republican, horrified that one day soon they’ll have to tell their golfing buddies that their son is going to a state school. And against all evidence, they’re convinced that one day soon they’ll really benefit from those tax cuts they’ve been voting for all these years.
But it doesn’t take more than a second of reflection to ditch the knee-jerk cynicism and empathize—as a human being and as a man. It’s no fun seeing your savings dry up, wondering how you’re going to pay your mortgage, and watching your self-esteem circle the drain.
It’s not uncommon these days for wives to be the breadwinners, but it’s nonetheless perfectly understandable that a guy’s pride would be bruised when he relinquishes the role.
And here’s where Marin and Dokoupil miss an opportunity; they mention the stereotypical incongruity between a man’s feelings and his actions:
Newsweek conducted an exclusive poll of 250 unemployed (and underemployed) men ages 41 to 59. Most of them are married, white, middle-class, and looking for work.The results (see chart) provide a rare window into the [UMAWG] and a characteristically male contradiction between feelings and action. As in: I’m never going to get a job as good as my old one, but I refuse to sell the house! Or: I’m depressed, I can’t sleep, my sex drive is shot, and my wife now has to support the family, but I don’t need marriage counseling! I’ll just give Mommy a back rub, do some housework, and we’ll be fine!
And a few times in the story they hint at what’s made explicit only in the accompanying infographic:
An exclusive Newsweek Poll proves what every wife intuitively knows: unemployed middle-aged men are sad, tired, and defeated. But here’s the rub: they’re also in denial [emphasis mine].
That may be the rub—and the alleged denial is certainly ripe for some sociological/psychological/cultural analysis—but they don’t really address it.
Why aren’t UMAWGs selling their houses, getting marriage counseling, or taking jobs that are “beneath them”? Are they clinging to a John Wayne–style masculine ideal, or is it just run-of-the-mill Baby Boomer Entitlement Syndrome (BBES)? Marin and Dokoupil are too busy poking fun at them—and subtly reinforcing their shame at no longer bringing home the bacon—to be bothered to address the question.
The tough part for [Brian Goodell] is the pity. “Say you have a disease, like cancer, and you’re trying to be real positive and everyone’s like, ‘How are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Don’t pity me. I’m strong. Don’t pity me.’”
He held the phone out to his wife, Vicki, who had just walked in and was running into the shower, taking a work call on her cell.
“Hey, hon!” Goodell called out, following her into the bathroom, laughing. “I think she’s taking her phone into the shower. Wanna talk to Newsweek?”
You could hear her heels kick off onto the tile, the water turning on.
“No!” she shouted.
“She’s way too busy,” Goodell says.
Or she doesn’t want to talk about it.