Lost American-Made Men

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I was in a small town in the Northeast last month, where I was fortunate enough to spend time with a lot of older men, many of them friends of a 67-year-old local man who had just passed away.

Most of the men I saw in the town were at least 55 years old. They reminded me of my grandmother’s brothers and their crowd in a Pennsylvania coal region, and also made me think of a line from one of Pete Dexter’s novels: "There are no intact men."

The men in this town tended to walk a little crooked and required some effort to get in and out of their chairs. Some of them strode alongside their wives, protective in their energy. Many of them wandered alone. Hands were thick, leathery and sometimes gnarled.

They wore faces of experience, some tough and others worn down. Eyes, when sober, were sharp, with whites clear as cold autumn air, the eyes of creatures that have survived longer than most in the state of nature.  The eyes say: Inside here there is much to see and learn. 

This kind of man is disappearing and is not being replaced, because what they are made of came from a life of manual labor combined with a respectable, honorable place in their communities, a state almost impossible to achieve now in a country with a consistently shrinking blue-collar workforce and an economic landscape hostile to stability and security for those who remain.

You will notice that the people who are becoming homeless in this housing market are the lower-middle class folks who would have never been able to afford a home in the first place without a supply glut and unsupportably cheap money to borrow. Their American dream of home ownership started disappearing decades ago, with the housing boom of the 2000-aughts just a trick of the twilight.

I’m not saying we need to return blue-collar jobs to the United States, or turn back the economic clock.  But we’ve lost something.  We’ve lost Ralph Kramden, John Walton, Archie Bunker and Howard Cunningham. (I don’t watch TV.  Are there any workaday blue-collar heroes on TV these days?  Was Tony Soprano the nearest thing?)

I’m not sure that this older generation necessarily worked harder – without an apple-to-apples comparison it’s hard to say. I look at some of my clients – professional snowboarders, Silicon Valley startups, spiritual healers, real estate brokers, editors, website designers – and they are all working a lot of hours.  Statistics support the view that we spend a lot of time at work.

Nor am I saying that what we used to produce was more valuable because it was tangible. It’s merely a point of view. But there is some relationship between what you create and how you walk through your life. Oil workers and loggers earn their pay through extraction, and tend to deplete their wallets as fast as they are filled. A farmer has a different carriage than a venture capitalist.

It also has to be different when day after day you come home physically spent from work, sore or injured, rather than exhausted from thinking, conferencing, sitting, typing, staring at a screen.

Another major difference between today’s man and yesterday’s is that while we may be every bit as much the maker, we are definitely more takers now. 

We expect a lot more in return from life than did our forefathers. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad development, but is this expectation based on a fair trade for labor or is it based on a lazy sense of entitlement, that we are owed something by the boss, the state, the community?

We leave trash behind everywhere in a world that encourages the disposable. We expect to replace our electronics every few years instead of drawing out a 15-year-life by darning them like socks. We accumulate more and more toys to support our technoconomy.

Since Exodus we’ve always coveted our neighbor’s oxen and ass, and his wife, it’s just that now there is a lot more ass to choose from. These men I saw last month were not looking for their $10 million pot of gold and I don’t think most of them were 30 years prior.

They carried themselves as if their contract with life had been written early and in language somewhere between backbreaking labor and a barroom fight, and signed with no promises about the outcome.

Every time I go back east I see how the towns never seem to change and so are slowly dying.  With this last trip I saw the men in these towns, also dying, a much greater loss. We’re losing a certain kind of masculine energy and I think we’re out of cultural, familial and spiritual balance as a result. I of course speak in generalities. Every generation has its proportion of do-ers and watchers, the corrupt and weak.

And yes, a nostalgia check. None of this is coming back, and change is part of life. It’s a good thing that fewer people are dying of black lung and in grain bins. Opportunities and challenges today are exciting and limitless. We can make our futures as shining as we are willing to work for. I get that. But how about this?

The economic and cultural changes over the last 40 years (including the ascent of women in the workplace, the impermanency of family, shallower roots and fewer anchors in all parts of life) have profoundly dislocated men.

We’re somewhere between definitions of what it means to be a man and it is very confusing. I think this is one of the causes of the sub-optimal politico/economic situation in which America finds itself.

And I think this is one of the reasons for the burgeoning trend of lost young men in this country, with university admission rates in decline and dropouts soaring, depicted in all those movies about successful young women stuck with guys who are a mess. 

So, fellas, can you see a picture of the kind of man I’ve been talking about, this older generation?  If you’ve known them, then spend some time with them if they’re still around and pull in their spirits if they’re not. Or just find someone. A stranger will do. 

Look into their faces and draw from their strength, constancy, sacrifice, honor and dignity. Carry it in you, graft it onto your core, make this tradition part of yours. Our clients need it, our neighbors, our rivals, our communities. If you call yourself an American, then your country needs it – a LOT. And our women and our kids, perhaps more than they can say or know.

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