The Problem With Men

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Something very wrong is happening with men, and that means something very wrong is happening in the relationship between the sexes. Men, it seems, are falling behind. They can't keep up with women in school, in marriage or in retirement.

In the race for acceptance into college, for example, teenage boys are generally less qualified than girls, according to a stunning commentary in the New York Times by the dean of admissions at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

They are less likely even to go to college; nationwide, more than 56 percent of undergraduates are female, and that percentage is expected to rise. If college applications were based solely on merit, women might take 80 percent of the places at selective schools, by one estimate.

What is happening to young men, who once dominated higher education? Is it that boys take longer to grow up? Or that a liberal arts education is increasingly irrelevant in a high-tech world? Or what?

Men are not doing so well in the marriage marketplace, either. Too many men just don't make the grade as husband material. In a provocative essay in The Post -- "Marriage Is for White People" -- writer Joy Jones, an African American, argues that black women want to get married, but a good man is hard to find. A lot of white women may feel the same way. While marriage rates have plummeted among blacks, they have declined among whites as well. Washington is filled with glamorous, educated, successful single women in their thirties and beyond who are searching for equally qualified mates. They aren't so desperate that they will settle for Mr. Wrong.

"Today, people have become economically self-sufficient as individuals, no longer requiring a spouse for survival," writes Jones. Who wants to take on a husband with a long list of problems -- "children and their mothers from previous relationships, limited earning power, and the fallout from years of drug use, poor health care, sexual promiscuity," Jones continues.

The plight of men doesn't get better with age. In retirement, men seem to have more difficulty in finding new purpose and joy in life once their identity is cut off from the workplace. They lose whatever status a job title conferred. They find themselves marginalized in a society that discriminates against older people. The risk of depression is significant -- and the highest rates of suicide are found in white men over 65.

"I think men are in crisis," says Ron Browne, director of the What Next! program at the Fairhill Center in Cleveland, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to successful aging. "It's partly due to the rise of women in the workforce and their becoming more equal to men; it's partly due to the changing world of technology that older men don't understand. And it's exacerbated because men don't communicate with anyone."

Browne runs a men's group. At 63, he is a veteran of three marriages and several careers, and he understands the social landscape for older men. "There's a loss of power in the workplace," he continues. "Guys with big jobs are now downsized and demoted. The loss of sexual power is a problem. We still harbor that image of our young self."

The problem with men that has no name is not something we envisaged in those early, giddy days of the women's movement. We wanted a level playing field at school and at work and at home so that we could all be raised "free to be you and me." We didn't want to push men aside. We wanted to join them on the upper deck and enjoy the synergy of merging our talents and responsibilities -- in both the public and private spheres of life. After all, we love men. They are our partners, the fathers of our children. We worked hard to get rid of labels that branded women the fragile sex and men the favored sex. We never imagined that society would swap the labels.

To be sure, a significant number of men are not in crisis. They are in charge. Just look at the leaders in business and politics and the professions of law and medicine. They are largely men, and barriers remain against women at the higher echelons of power. That still leaves too many men in a funk. And we women want them to get out of it. But how? Maybe that's the challenge for the new wave of feminism. ยท

Comments: mytime@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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