We keep searching for ways to define ourselves and our masculinity. Steven Lake examines how societal change and men’s view of themselves affect relationships.
Most of us think that the changing roles between men and women is a recent phenomenon. Not so. Playwrights like Strindberg in the late 1800’s were writing about the inequities that women suffered at that time and the challenges men faced with women’s push to change the status quo.
I have lived through a time of massive shift in the options available for women in relationships and work. My mother went in and out of the workforce while she raised two children but she worked for most of the time that I was living at home (my dad worked full-time). My aunt was a medical doctor and I heard stories of how my grandmother had her own business as a dress-maker and my great aunts taught piano.
These were the stories I grew up with about women – they were creative, worked, and had businesses.
But my lens was not in the majority at that time. When I looked around, I saw most women in my community being at home mothers. I was brought up to treat women with respect and because my mother was strong-willed I saw her fight for what she wanted when in conflict with my father.
My father was a man of his times and lived up to the stereotype of male masculinity. He was a physical presence, being over 200 pounds of pure muscle and a weight-lifting champion, he commanded young men when he was assigned to work at a military college, and it was clear he was the boss at home even if he was the silent type. His authority was backed-up with “the look” and if need be, physical punishment.
How my mother and father related when in conflict was also stereotypical. Even though my mother would voice her desires, if they were not met she would cry, he would go silent, and that was that. I am not sure what went on behind closed doors, but this is what my brother and I saw. In the big issues, my father seemed to be the boss and his decisions held sway.
Times have changed. According to the US Department of Labor, women make up almost half the workforce. We have seen women in the last twenty years move into management positions in large numbers and it is not uncommon for men to have women as their bosses.
More women now graduate from college and university than men in all categories including associate, bachelor, master’s and doctoral degrees according to the US Department of Education. This phenomenon is not limited to North America, it is being replicated globally with some countries (e.g., Iceland, Poland) having women comprise two-thirds of the graduates.
What has this got to do with you and me? Well, for women, their chances of marrying someone at the same educational level drops. In Australia, “one in four of degree-educated women in their 30s are expected to miss out in finding a suitable partner of similar age and educational level – something men and women have traditionally avoided – or not marrying at all.”1
This is where the rubber hits the road when, as research indicates, educated women are less inclined to stay in unhealthy relationships. They don’t have to depend on men economically and probably have been educated to expect proper and decent treatment from the males in their lives. And so they should.
Let’s break this down by demographics. Men over 50, the last of the Boomers, most of whom have been raised with old-style traditional concepts of masculinity, are going to be in trouble if they find themselves in the dating scene due to divorce or death of their spouse, especially if they decide, and this is not uncommon, to date women 10-20 years their junior.
Even if they date women of the same age group, these women have not grown up in a vacuum and have different expectations than they did thirty years ago. With experience on their side, many are unwilling to be in anything other than an equal and mutually satisfying relationship.
For Boomers who are married, they must beware the changing times. Older women, are now divorcing in unprecedented numbers. Even women in the seventies and eighties are fed up with their men who after retirement are hanging around the house, have no social circles, and are complaining how their wives are looking after the house.
If you find yourself in the Boomer category, it might be time to have a conversation with your partner and discuss your needs and expectations as you move into the “Golden Years” before it is too late.
Moving down a generation to men born between 1965 and 1979, Generation X. I see a lot of men in my private practice in their early to late forties. As a group, they seem to have suffered the most from the changing roles of masculinity. My generation (Boomer) was at the very beginning of these changes epitomized by flower power, alternate lifestyles, and expanded ways of being and expressing oneself in the world. The “corporate man” was dropped as being the height of male success.
Generation X took the full brunt of the social changes sweeping through the Zeitgeist of the times. Women became an active and strong social force affecting society in measurable ways. These changes swept over Generation X men as they were entering the workforce for the first time and negotiating with women for sex and relationship.
The power dynamics were in flux, and for many men of this generation, they seem to have been hamstrung by not getting the updated manual. The speed of change was just too fast for them to integrate what was happening.
This was the first generation actively competing with women for the same jobs when starting on their career path. In relationship, the Gen Xers I know and see as clients, seem resigned and unable to come to terms with women.
There is a sense, at least among the single men, that it is just not worth the hassle. Sure, they will go online, they might get lucky, but there is no real hope that it will become a long-term relationship. And if it does, the expectation is that it will flounder on some unfathomable problem focused on the intrinsic incompatibilities between the sexes.
Generation Y has grown up with the gains and changes made in the sixties and seventies in place for some time.
Their generation did not fight for all the changes that were accrued before them and many see the current situation as just the way it is, because that is the world into which they were born.
This world has seen the rise of the metro-sexual. A movement away from sharply defined differences between what constitutes male and female. Men were seen as cool having an androgynous look and being in touch with their feminine side.
Most recently, there has been a cultural backlash to this look. Men with beards are becoming de-riguer. Interesting. This is the one area where men, who can grow a beard, can identify themselves as different from women. First, it was the 2-3 day stubble that has been in men’s fashion magazines for some time. And just recently, there is a top model sporting a full beard.
Pamela Morris in her article about beards cited researchers at the University of New South Wales who found that women are preferring men with beards (but not stubble). Furthermore, in an eBay Fashion survey, 75% of men liked beards. Even at my age, I have been on the receiving end of female attraction by much younger women when I grew a beard. Something’s going on here but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
I will leave you with one last thought on this topic. Two or three times a year I teach a Master’s level class to fifteen people, mostly women, the majority of whom are between the ages of 25 and 35. When talking about the challenges between the sexes, the same issue comes up that women have been telling me for the past twenty years – men have difficulty communicating with women.
No matter what generation you belong to, no matter what the changing roles of masculinity have become, this issue remains constant. Even if we get to a clearly defined understanding of masculinity, and all that it entails, what good does it do us if we cannot communicate on a fundamental level. This reminds me of the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
1. Joseph Chamie, YaleGlobal, 6 March 2014 http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/women-more-educated-men-still-paid-less-men
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