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The Incredible Shrinking Man

What is wrong with men today? As women thrive, men lag in education, employment—and, it seems, just general ambition. Here’s a look at some of the causes—and the solution.
 

This past summer I visited a group of teenage boys at a summer camp and gave them some sobering news: If you follow the trend in society, you’re going to end up being sloths and underachievers. And women are going to leave you in their vapor trails.

It’s true, and it’s unmistakable: Female is the new male.

Girls dominate boys in education, from elementary through graduate school. Women are taking over the workforce. Hundreds of formerly male-dominated careers are becoming feminized. More and more wives outearn their husbands. Fathers are fading away inside their own families, and rising illegitimate births and single-parenthood are pushing them out of the child-rearing picture altogether.

Boys and men are passively watching it happen. Many of them, rather than working to stay ahead of or even keep up with women, are responding by waging something of a sit-down strike. They’re playing video games more than 2½ times as much as girls. They’re living with their parents at double the rate of their female peers. They’re dropping out of the labor pool in record numbers.

The result is effectively a reversal of a male-female dynamic that has existed for virtually all of human history.

Feminists may celebrate, but more and more people are recognizing that this trend has come with some steep costs we’re only starting to see. Even women are frustrated with today’s breed of spineless, ambitionless manboys. There is a genuine problem here.

The Ambition Gap

Women’s ambition is soaring. The facts are scrupulously spelled out in recent books like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family. Women are pursuing higher education in far greater numbers than men. They’re remaining aloof from serious relationships so as not to derail their career aspirations (one college senior told Rosin that guys “are the new ball and chain”). Research shows young women expect higher earnings and better professional advancement than young men do.

And that is the flip side of this story. While women are surging with confidence and enjoying greater success, men are shrinking back. There is a growing ambition gap between the sexes. Women are increasingly driven to succeed in school, work and life; men seem ever more willing just to occupy a comfy spot on the couch.

“All my top academic students, my really top performers, have heavily been women,” Jeanine Mount, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy, told Rosin. “I don’t know why. They are not inherently more intelligent than the men. Maybe they bring a different kind of focus to their work.”

Mount calls the men at her school a “lost generation.” They tend to be less driven, she says; they don’t have the same “hunger.”

Not long ago, men had an ample supply of that “hunger.” Today it is broadly, demonstrably absent. It’s as if the fire in their bellies has been quenched, on a massive scale. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has relocated—into the bosom of women.

Mount notes that virtually all the leaders within her university’s various student groups—school government, service organizations, campus fraternities—are women. Regarding college students, Rosin writes, “Guys high-five one another when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in their dorm rooms while girls crowd the library. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away.”

Measurements of men’s shriveling ambitions are everywhere. Consider the five milestones that sociologists traditionally use to define the transition to adulthood: finishing school, leaving the parents’ nest, becoming financially independent, getting married and having a child. In 1960, about two thirds of men had passed all five milestones by age 30. By 2000, it had dropped to half that. In 1970, four in five 25-to-29-year-old men were married. Now the figure is two in five.

What are these guys doing? Nearly six in ten of them—among 18-to-24-year-old males—live with their parents. Even among 25-to-34-year-olds, it’s still almost two in ten.

Lest you think this is simply a sign of today’s troubled economy, consider: Those figures are almost double the rate among women the same age.

And forget masculine financial independence. Nearly 60 percent of parents are giving money to their grown kids—a lot of money. Adults between ages 18 and 34 who enjoy parental subsidies receive a hearty average of $38,340 a year. It’s localized Social Security, flipped upside down, with older workers supporting younger “retirees.”

And wouldn’t you know it, young men seem perfectly content with—or perhaps complacent about—their dependency. They’ve grown up in a world that praises them indiscriminately and teaches them never to judge. As a result, research shows, these “failures to launch” actually have ample self-esteem, and they’re confident success will come to them (though they’re not necessarily motivated to chase it down). They feel plenty good about themselves, living in Mom’s basement.

The ladies, on the other hand, aren’t impressed.

Marriage Dream Vs. Single Reality

For young people, the idea of marriage still holds considerable charm. A 2006 poll showed that more than 80 percent of high-school seniors expect to get married, and 90 percent of those assume they’ll remain wed to the same person for life. A survey of college students in England found 95 percent want to marry.

As to what that relationship would look like—well, that gets trickier.

The teen boys I spoke with last summer all said they’d like a spouse. Then I asked them an interesting question: Would you want to marry someone who was better educated or who earned more money than you? They all said no.

Some people may consider their thinking archaic, a byproduct of sexist socialization. Nevertheless, two truths remain: First, despite the fact that the male breadwinner model is actually seldom taught anymore—if anything, alternative ideas are far more aggressively promoted—remnants of it remain ingrained in the minds of both men and women. And second, wherever this thinking comes from, it is increasingly at odds with reality. As Rosin writes, “The men may cling to traditional ideals about themselves as providers, but they are further than ever from being able to embody those ideals” (emphasis added throughout).

You can see that something has to give. Every year in America, 170,000 more women than men get bachelor’s degrees. And while the average man still earns 10 percent more than the average woman, guess what? Among 20-somethings, women now have the edge in the wage gap. Men who hold the advantage in education and earning power are a dying breed.

The numbers of well-educated, financially self-sufficient women are mushrooming beyond the numbers of men who could be so described. In fact, men are trending in the opposite direction. Today, for example, we see the highest percentage ever recorded of men of prime working age who are not even working: about one in five. One fifth of men. Compare that to 1950, when it was one in 20.

“Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the ‘romantic market’ in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options,” wrote Kate Bolick in the Atlantic. “[I]ncreasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing)” (November 2011).

Who will these women marry? The bar for what they want out of marriage is climbing, while the field is regressing.

Unsurprisingly, more and more of them, rather than “marry down,” are resigning themselves to the idea that their best option is just to skip it.

All the Single Ladies

Sure, they’d love to marry if the right man showed up. Yet, in their view—frustrating as it may be that Mr. Right isn’t around—marriage is, ultimately, unnecessary. I can take care of myself—I don’t need a man to support me, the thinking goes. He’d just be another person to take care of—another mouth to feed.

“[A]s women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind,” laments Bolick. “We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.”

The question is on the lips of women everywhere: What’s wrong with all these guys?

Most people can agree there is a problem, but far fewer recognize its full scope. When you talk to the women and meet the men, when you read the stories and look at the data, you begin to realize: Bolick is not describing a minor irritant, nor a disappointment that a few women share. She is chronicling the collapse of a social order.

Social historian Stephanie Coontz says we’re experiencing nothing less than “a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution.” As she told the Atlantic, “When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.”

It’s a crucial development. And what compounds the problem is that few people understand its true cause. As a result, most of these women are unwittingly participating in an unhealthy cycle that is doomed only to expand the ranks of underachieving men and embittered women.

A Relic

To get to the cause, we have to take a look at “all the old ways” that Coontz says have broken down. Regrettably, because of political correctness, this is treacherous ground.

What look like many different changes in “what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives,” at their heart all trace back to one thing: the decline of the male breadwinner.

Historically, what largely drove men’s march through the milestones to adulthood was the expectation that they would fulfill the role of provider. A man who is serious about the responsibility of supporting a family approaches life with a special focus. He looks for a profession that will provide financial stability; he pursues his education with that end in mind. For generations, this commonly recognized duty propelled men into the workforce; it often served as a prod to men’s ambition and did much to shape society. Even today, it remains a strong motivation to any young man who accepts it.

However, for two generations now, esteem for this role has been fading—to the point where today it is ignored, if not treated with contempt. Rising standards of living have grown more difficult to sustain on a single paycheck. Two-income families are the norm, and few men expect to be a family’s sole breadwinner. The notion of devoting one’s life to a job out of a duty to others has grown passé. Today’s premium on individualism, self-fulfillment and self-expression often turns a job search into a long, meandering voyage with unpredictable compensation. Marriage and family are also fading from fashion; to say that pop culture promotes singlehood is an understatement. And though young people still say they want to marry, ubiquitous acceptance of premarital sex definitely removes their urgency to do so. This encourages men to brush breadwinning aside and removes the pressure on them to grow up.

These are just a few of the many factors that have turned the male breadwinner model into a relic. Two additional factors are worth special consideration.

‘Build a Bridge and Get Over It’

First is the influence of feminism. The movement for women’s equality is fundamentally opposed to an arrangement where a woman depends on a man’s provision. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” goes the slogan, summarizing the drive to empower women to stand on their own two feet.

Under this banner, women have left their homes and stormed the barricades, filling schools, businesses, offices, clinics, battlefields and nearly everywhere else. And they have proven themselves spectacularly capable as productive workers, entrepreneurs and earners.

Now, however, a remarkable spinoff of this development has become obvious: Men watching it happen have gotten the clear message that they’re not needed.

It’s a proven, demonstrable aftereffect: In areas where they compete, women’s success tends to discourage men. You can attribute this to chauvinism, sexist indoctrination or whatever you would like, but it is real, and it is powerful. “What happens when women outperform men?” asked Sandy Hingston in Philadelphia Magazine. “Men withdraw from the field” (March 2012). Once they see that women are providing for themselves, they lose interest in taking over that job.

“Gender identity, sociologists say, is developed oppositionally,” Hingston wrote. “If boys see girls behaving in a certain way—working hard and excelling in school—they define masculinity in opposite terms: A real man doesn’t work hard at school or get good grades.”

This effect is apparent throughout the workforce. As women enter a profession, men lose interest in it. As Rosin details in her book, men are abandoning more and more jobs while women rush in to fill the void. Women’s options for employment keep expanding as men surrender them.

The upshot of all this, Rosin says, is “the emergence of an American matriarchy, where the younger men especially are unmoored, and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete—at least by most traditional measures of social utility. And the women are left picking up the pieces.”

Unmoored. Obsolete. These are painfully accurate terms for far too many of today’s aimless, indifferent young men.

What to do? No one suggests that the solution is for women to underachieve so men don’t feel threatened. The standard response is that men simply need to change their thinking.

“Build a bridge and get over it. Don’t just sit and whine and carry on.” That’s the advice of one woman whom Rosin quotes in her book. Hers is a typical story: After her husband supported his family on a manufacturing job for decades, the plant closed. Now he’s struggling, she’s the family’s breadwinner, he’s nostalgic for the old days (“Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” he says)—and she’s had enough of his brooding.

In cases like this, the man’s sense of duty as a provider is viewed as the source of the problem. He just needs to learn to be comfortable in his diminished role.

But this man is old-school. The young bucks never had that sense of duty, and a diminished role is cool with them.

Kay Hymowitz exposes this trend in her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. She describes how it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, with men responding to women’s progress by disengaging, which enables women to make even greater strides. When the two sides meet on the dating scene, strong women grow exasperated about childish men, “then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the dna without the troublesome man. But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men’s attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There’s nothing they have to do. They might as well just have another beer.”

There’s nothing they have to do. This is the void that is currently left where that sense of duty to provide used to be.

Feminist social architects would call that progress.

Pig Heaven

Men’s self-destructive tendency to retreat under female pressure has synchronized with a second powerful factor eroding the male breadwinner model: the advent of modern time wasters tailor-made to suck the life out of the male mind.

Today’s media have become a black hole for male ambition and responsibility. As Hymowitz writes, “Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does.” This too is a self-perpetuating cycle: A man with little motivation to become a respectable breadwinner is more liable to devote his hours to senseless pursuits, which renders him even less capable of ever fulfilling that role.

Two of the most toxic examples are video games and pornography. Their most voracious consumers are young men, and they are ravaging society’s manhood on an epic scale.

Video game addiction is about four times more common among boys than girls. The average American boy spends 13 hours a week absorbed in video games, compared to five hours for the average girl. Half of college students admit that video games preempt their studies “some” or “a lot.” By the time the average American youth reaches drinking age, he will have devoted 10,000 hours to gaming—enough time to have earned two bachelor’s degrees.

The valuable time and energy being swallowed up by these games is problem enough, but the ghoulish content many of them contain makes their effect far worse. Millions of young people are immersing themselves in realistic games that encourage them to become killers, sadists, mutilators and monsters that use every conceivable weapon for murder, torture, dismemberment, decapitation, impaling, ethnic cleansing and rape.

Pornography has become mainstream, pervasive, socially accepted, and, thanks to the Internet, devilishly easy to get. It is also intensely addictive. The demand is monstrous: For every two Hollywood movies produced, 45 full-length commercial porn films are. The average high school boy watches porn two hours a week. Researchers conducting a study in July 2011 on porn and prostitution had so much difficulty finding non-users that they had to loosen their definition in order to muster up a hundred men for a control group.

These perverted images and warped concepts filling men’s minds have devastating effects on men’s relationships and mental health. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that regular pornography users have higher rates of depression and even physical health problems than non-users. “The reason is that porn may start a cycle of isolation,” the report explained. “Porn may become a substitute for healthy face-to-face interactions, social or sexual.” Psychologists say video games also tend to desensitize a user to reality and to real-life interactions with people.

In their book The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan contend that these media influences are actually rewiring men’s brains. “The excessive use of video games and online porn,” they write, “is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.”

Think on that. These influences are crushing society’s manhood. One specific proof: Academics have uncovered a correlation between porn use and an increase in a man’s willingness to move back in with his parents. Risk-averse men who cannot handle life’s complexities are deeply disadvantaged if not crippled in ever being able to support a family.

It’s impossible to measure precisely, but this media assault has contributed significantly to the development of today’s Incredible Shrinking Man.

A Curse

Feminists tend to applaud the breakdown of “all the old ways” of male-female relations. But look what has taken their place: academically and financially thriving women with no one to marry, and juvenile men huddling in caves of self-indulgence. Is this what feminists want?

Modern society has smashed the ideals it once held about what makes a man. In their stead, negative stereotypes and confusion remain. Sadly, men are increasingly living down to the stereotypes. Dr. Zimbardo found that nearly two thirds of men say they lack motivation because of mixed messages from media and society about a man’s role. We are raising generations of boys who have no idea how to become men. The results of breaking down “all the old ways” have been disastrous.

These failings vividly illustrate some vital truths, plainly evident to anyone willing to look at the situation honestly.

The loss of strong manliness is a plague on our society. The loss of breadwinning men in favor of perpetual adolescents has produced a swarm of other problems that result when men disengage from family and from society. Sure, women are succeeding financially and professionally—but families are fragmenting, and the nation is morally and spiritually disintegrating.

Believe it or not, this calamity was prophesied, in your Bible, thousands of years ago. The prophecy is in Isaiah 3:1-3, and it is primarily about the end time, in which we now live. It specifically focuses on “Jerusalem” and “Judah,” biblical language for the modern descendants of ancient Israel, including America and Britain. And it describes exactly what we see before our eyes: nations where strong male leadership has almost disappeared.

This prophecy also reveals the true, but hidden, cause: God has removed strong men as a curse on our nations—because of our sins.

Yes, God considers the loss of masculine men a terrible curse.

Why the Provider Role Is So Crucial

The Bible defines sin as the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4). His law simply codifies His way of life, which is love (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14; 1 John 5:3). It means outgoing concern, giving and sharing, kindness and courtesy, putting the needs of another above your own. God’s way of life is the way of give.

The prevailing spirit of today’s society—self-indulgence, lust, greed, materialism, excess, deceit, cheating and pride—is the way of get, the way of sin. It is also the way of our human nature, the way that comes naturally to us (e.g. Mark 7:21-23; Romans 8:7-8). God’s purpose is to help us overcome that natural tendency, to develop righteous character, and to live His way of love that produces happiness, joy and peace.

One of the most powerful tools God created in order to teach us that way is family. A man learns that noble, wonderful way by absorbing himself in his God-given role within the family (sidebar: “Why Men and Women?”).

The duty of provider is in many ways at the heart of a man’s role (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:8). It is fundamentally a giving, sacrificing responsibility. A man must apply his strength, his capabilities and his talents to produce something of value to more than just himself. He earns enough to support a wife and children, also stabilizing and strengthening society in the process.

Though this job requires a certain discipline and self-denial, the man who fulfills it as God intends receives tremendous satisfaction. He thrives where his strength and skill are put to productive use, where he is needed and respected, where others benefit from his accomplishment. He derives joy from being able to give to his family, to open opportunities for them, to supply their needs and many of their wants. He learns to value these things even above his own desires.

Even in a society that so routinely exalts selfishness, many people, deep down, know this to be true. They see nobility in a man who thinks this way.

Why Men Are Weak

A man who prioritizes his own selfish cravings above the needs of others grows smaller. He enters a negative cycle that pulls him away from responsibility, away from accomplishment and achievement—away from family. He grows more inward-focused, self-absorbed, myopic, lazy, self-indulgent. His perspective contracts; the size of his world shrinks. He puts his own interests above those of his family; his wife’s needs become secondary. His ability to lead suffers. In a word, he becomes less of a man.

The frustrations that so many people have over the weakness of men today all trace back to this powerful spiritual truth: Men are weak because of their sin. The self-indulgence, the sex perversion, the focus on self rather than on sacrifice—these are sins. If a man succumbs to sin, he becomes weak. God removes His blessings and allows the devil to do his work.

These sins are causing the collapse of manly leadership and male responsibility. They are creating weakness, insecurity and selfishness. They are leading to the disappearance of manhood!

The disappearance of the male breadwinner directly correlates with the disappearance of the manly man. A man who has willingly abdicated the role of provider—who is content to live off the largesse of others rather than marshaling his powers to produce for others—is not a man. He should do all he can to become self-sufficient and a net producer. Only as he does so can his thoughts begin to take on the dignity of godly manhood.

The transition from boyhood to manhood is largely a transition from taking to giving. From being dependent to being a provider. From being someone for whom others make sacrifices to being one who sacrifices for others. A boy who physically grows to look like a man, but has not made that change, is not truly a man.

The Path to True Manhood

Feminists say they want equality for women. But how many of them actually want weak men? No woman applauds a man for being addicted to video games and pornography. When revelations of a prominent man’s infidelity emerge, his stature drops; he becomes a lesser man in our eyes. In our hearts we know that this signifies frailty of character.

What is honorable and worthy of admiration is the man with self-mastery, who refrains from being entrapped by such sins. We yearn for the man with self-control, with temperance, with strong moral character.

A strong man is a blessing to his wife and children. He provides more than money—he provides security, attentive engagement, successful leadership, firm guidance, emotional stability and real love.

Society still appreciates such men, yet it teaches and pressures males to do the opposite. As I told the teen boys I visited this past summer: Follow society, and women are going to pass you by. To grow into real men, you must be strong enough to follow a different way.

Those boys all wanted to be the leaders in their future families, and they were also interested in marrying intelligent, capable women. I told them that there are plenty of those women out there, but they won’t want to marry uneducated, lumpish men. If a man wants a high-quality woman, there is only one way to attract her: He must become a high-quality man.

That means he must devote his full energies to swimming upstream against society. He must make it his unwavering aim to grow—against pressure—in those qualities that will arm him for the rigors of true manhood. He must eschew the pastimes that weaken men. He must avoid the addictions that eat away at men’s minds, blacken their consciences and destroy their confidence. He must stoke the flames of ambition in his life. He must aim high, and equip himself to become an able leader of a strong, capable woman.

We are living the curse of the shrinking man—its effects are everywhere. We must allow God to guide our individual lives along an entirely contrary course. We must not be swayed by the perverse reasoning of this politically correct world. We must dedicate ourselves to a higher purpose. We must allow God to shape us, to forge us into instruments strong enough to lead strong families, to give confidence to women, to give stability to children, to give solidity to society.

This is what God wants. This is how we were created. This is literally what we were born to do. Men: to grow up, achieve, mature and embrace the role that your masculine mind and body were designed for. Women: to grow up, achieve, mature and embrace the role that your feminine mind and body were designed for. This is that elusive solution—hiding in plain sight if your Bible is open—to our manless society. It’s not about getting back to the traditions of yesteryear. It’s about embracing how we were created. Discover that, live that, and you will be embarking on a life journey that no feminist, manboy, sociologist or author can even dream of: a life full of growth, challenge, fulfillment, confidence and happiness built on knowing what it really means to be a woman, and what it really means to be a man.