Are men falling out of the labor force because of pride?
David Brooks recently published an article titled “Men on the Threshold” in the New York Times, comparing the changing landscape of the nation men ages 25-54 face today to that of John Wayne’s character from The Searchers. I didn’t see the comparison. Mind you, I’m on the lower end of that age spectrum. My experience with the other end of that economy was one good year, maybe two.
Let’s get one thing straight: The Searchers is not the greatest movie ever made. Everyone knows it’s Top Gun.
Don’t believe me? Allow me to (re)introduce to you the 20-something of 20-something years ago: Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, as portrayed by Tom Cruise.
Oh. There are spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Top Gun, a) welcome to the part of childhood you missed out on, and b) watch at your own discretion.
If we’re going to remove the economic landscape from the discussion of why men are dropping out of the labor force—if we’re not going to look at the outsourcing of the jobs men traditionally once performed (the automotive industry, factory workers, so on) and turn this into an argument on morality and pride—then comparing men as a timelocked gender to a character Martin Scorsese styled “a poet of hate” is not the right way of going about it.
Seriously. At least go with John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.
As someone on the low end of David Brooks’ “prime working age spectrum,” let me tell you how we’ve been brought up. All our lives, we’ve been sung to about the heroic glories our predecessors obtained in righteous battle: in World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm—but also in Congress, the board room and beyond the limits of our atmosphere. It took us under 75 years to go from the first flight to landing on the moon. Put in that scope, America’s technological advancement was nothing short of inspiring to us in our developmental years.
However, when I was born, Challenger was still fresh in people’s minds…and yet, no one wants to talk about that. We—my generation—are still hardly ever privy the whole truth, for better or worse. We don’t hear about the times we got it wrong. We aren’t told about the days or even years of doubts, setbacks and mistakes those heroes waded through to get to success. Instead, the younger generations are told to “be better, do better.” When we ask what to be better than, we often find that such information is “classified.”
America does not like to talk about failure.
Whether it’s in interviews, dating or aerial combat simulation, we young folk tend to believe—or were led to believe—that failure is not an option. When we face adversity, we don’t understand what the people giving us our myths and stories did to succeed that we’re falling short on. Without people to relate to us what failure should feel like, what failure actually feels like and that everyone goes through it, how can we have a dialogue on it?
Every audition, every interview, every time we put ourselves out there, we risk criticism and failure; we risk injury maybe not to our bodies, but to our morale. And we’re all fine with risk, up until we’re in a 26-turn flat spin, losing altitude fast.
I cannot speak for those who have worked for a long time and since lost their jobs and are on long-term unemployment. But I imagine that it’s not so different for those trying to find a new vocation as it is for those of us just trying to enter this new economic landscape. There is only one relevant question: can the love of flying outweigh the fear of falling?
What results is a new generation of men and women scared to take any risk beyond entry-level positions—positions that are no longer economically feasible. A recent Death and Taxes article painfully illustrates the absurd impossibility of getting by on minimum wage.
Without understanding failure and how to make use of it, and so long as we continue to foster this fairytale idea of our nation and its notion of success, we will continue to do incredible, unforeseeable damage to the younger generations. We of the 20-somethings will continue to not even attempt ventures where success is not guaranteed. While that is perhaps a valid strategy for stock investors, in developing artists and entrepreneurs it is tantamount to the death of culture.
It’s not pride; we’re not a bunch of Ethan Edwards inheriting the earth, but rather a bunch of Mavericks sitting at the end of the runway watching the planes come and go. And when we look back, most of the time, it seems, the only thing left to fly is a cargo plane full of you-know-what out of Hong Kong.
*Portions of this article originally appeared on elephant journal, and are being reprinted here with permission from the author and editor.