Manly men navigating change

Even the most football-watching, huntin’, fishin’, bear-wrestling man among us would have to concede that the role of men in today’s world is changing. Some of this change has been a relatively smooth voyage. Some of it has been anything jarringly rough.

In a new report released by the Samaritans research group, titled, Men Suicide and Society, authors conclude that today’s middle-aged man is suspended over a chasm of conflicting generational expectations, “men in mid-life are now part of the ‘buffer’ generation, not sure whether to be like their older, more traditional, strong, silent, austere fathers or like their younger, more progressive, individualistic sons; with the decline of traditional male industries, these men have lost not only their jobs but also a source of masculine pride and identity.”

The researchers focus their study on the disproportionate impact that shifting definitions of masculinity can have on men of lower socio-economic status (SES). They observe that men in this group have fewer support and coping mechanisms than their relatively more affluent brethren. Moreover, they conclude that men in this group are more prone to depression and increased vulnerability to suicide. In fact, they found that men of lower SES commit suicide at a rate 10 times greater than those of higher income.

While the specific mechanism that translates role uncertainty into increased rates of suicide among poorer men is unknown, the authors wager an educated guess: “[Theories] include having many more adverse experiences, powerlessness, stigma and disrespect, social exclusion, poor mental health and unhealthy lifestyles.”

Some of the disparity, they argue, is due to the fact that mid-life is usually that point at which men make decisions that shape the rest of their earthly existence. When hobbled in their ability to do so, stress and anxiety manifest.

Much of this old-versus-new juxtaposition of manliness owes to a generation now gone: the affluent and adventurous veterans of World War I. As Wade Davis argues in his book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, men returning from the savages of trench warfare needed new grand challenges — some literally climbing Mt. Everest as a signal to the world that they were the manliest of the manly.

It’s no coincidence that a popular beer has a series of well-liked commercials featuring a character they call “the most interesting man in the world.” He is a rugged, gray-bearded adventurer who fights with swords and mesmerizes admiring ladies… all while keeping his jauntily-tied ascot in place.

It’s tough to reconcile those images with the reality of one’s own increasing arthritis and dreary job. Apparently, we can’t all be James Bond. Even so, change isn’t all bad.

Despite changing cultural directives, domesticated life has undeniable benefits. Maybe we didn’t grow up to be astronauts, bronco-busters and race car drivers, but perhaps we raised a good kid, got them educated and made sure they were fed and clothed. Maybe we didn’t amass the wealth of Croesus, but perhaps we kept the lights on, the yard mowed and the dog up to date on his shots.

To be sure, these victories will ring hollow to many still tethered to a taut line on the side of Kilimanjaro, but the world doesn’t really need that many more Tarzans. It does, however, need more dads who are present, husbands who are faithful and friends who are dependable. Sure, the air in the front yard is not as rarified, but it’s just as noble.