A friend of mine, Henry, 50, who divorced seven years ago, considers himself part of a group he refers to as “remaindered men”. “It is the sense that we colluded in the process of making ourselves surplus to requirement,” he explains. “We married capable women who took over every aspect of life. They ran the household, the children, the social life. For a while it seems a good meal ticket to be on, but in the end the horrible logic of the process results in us being without any kind of a role at all and not much self-confidence to find another one within the existing framework.I am ambivalent about this. On the one hand, sure, I get why a divorced 50-year-old man might feel useless and fall into a crisis. I have written a lot here about the declining status of adult men, the problems many people in our society have finding workable identities, and the spreading sense that most of us are economically surplus.
“We are caught between the old model of being the breadwinner and the new model of being the co-washer-upper and feeder, and the truth is we never really mastered either of these roles – old or new – and this has led to a profound sense of crisis in men. Unless you really are able to look back at what happened, you can’t move on.
“The immediate reaction to divorce is to sink into a slump of despair, but then you turn into a teenager again – it’s the false paradise of endless encounters with new women. Men lost their way when they stopped going out and killing the food or bringing in the bacon. I feel my generation of men inhabit a place that I call neutered uselessness. We are reactive rather than proactive. Many of us have lost our self-confidence and self-respect, and become insular and inward-looking.”
On the other, do we really need to get into this competitive suffering crap? White men have problems, but it is simply not true that they are worse than the problems of other people. This same article includes the infamous whine, "The problems of men rarely get our attention." Pay attention to me! I'm suffering too!
We have a habit of mind that I might call crisis sociology. When faced with a serious personal problem we like to explain it in sociological terms: it isn't just me, it's the crisis faced by all 50-year-old men/60-year-old women/23-year-olds without careers/drunken sailors/unappreciated billionaires/whatever. And in some sense this is true; many 23-year-olds have no idea how to navigate their way into adulthood and suffer for it. But let me tell you, once you solve all the problems of being 23 you will not be free of problems; you will only acquire the problems of being 30. And then of being 40, and then of being 50. . . . And if you didn't have the problems that come from being blandly suburban white, or black, or an immigrant, or coming from a broken home, you would have some other set of problems.
I suppose one benefit to this way of thinking is that it provides a natural peer group to connect with about your particular problems, and connecting with other people is one of the best things in life no matter how you do it. And maybe thinking this way makes some people hopeful: if I just deal with this and this, then everything will be fine! I prefer to think that problems are just part of life; overcoming problems, I would say, is a pretty good first-order approximation of what life is.
But life is also a cascade of wonders, and one of these is the resilience of the human spirit; look into yourself, and you may find something more powerful than the problems of your generation.