After Josh Zeolla graduated from high school, he moved in with his girlfriend. He studied audio engineering at a community college and woke each morning at 2 a.m. to make donuts at a bakery. She ran her own photography business and paid their bills.
“I dated someone who ran circles around me,” he said. “I didn’t have the ability to help her. I panicked. I put down certain things she was doing because I was supposed to be the man.”
Zeolla, now 26, said the insecurity sparked a break-up, then a downward slide. He wanted to be the provider, but he wasn’t. He didn’t look like the muscular, confident men on television. He was afraid to express the feelings that tore him up.
When his car broke down one day at the grocery store, Zeolla couldn’t afford to fix it or retrieve it from the impound lot. He wouldn’t ask anyone for money. So, he dropped out of school, lost his job and landed on a friend’s couch.
“I was paralyzed by this definition of what I had to be in my head,” he said. “I just couldn’t see how I’d ever get there.”
I found Zeolla, who lives in Rhode Island, after posting a journalistic call-out on Facebook: “Millennial guys! Would love to hear how you define masculinity.”
Some respondents promptly cracked jokes:
“El Caminos and Motley Crue cassettes.”
“Beards and man buns.”
But more sent private messages, eager to share their experiences. The young men in my small social media sample appeared to relate to what national surveys have found: They don’t completely identify with the brand of masculinity their fathers or grandfathers might have projected.
That is to say: They’re not breadwinners (or don’t feel the need to be sole breadwinners). They look forward to raising babies. They reject a socially prescribed set of characteristics.
Still, failing to fit the traditional masculinity mold has, at some point, drained their self esteem.
Last week, the international survey firm YouGov published a report called “The decline of the Manly Man.” Surveyors asked 1,000 American men where they fell on a spectrum of completely masculine (zero) to completely feminine (six). (They did not ask about sexual orientation.)
Less than a third of men in the 18-to-29 group reported feeling “completely masculine,” compared to 65 percent of those approaching retirement age. Thirteen percent of those under 30 said they identified halfway between masculine and feminine, and 12 percent said they’re slightly feminine.
“Today, in 2016, gender roles have been transformed as the percentage of men who stay home to take care of children increases,” the authors of the report wrote, “and women begin to beat men in academic achievement and are slowly closing the income gap.”
Stereotypes die hard
Andrew Reiner, a Towson University professor who teaches a course called “Real Men Smile: The Changing Face of Masculinity,” said our culture has gradually shifted toward individualism. More young people are rejecting social norms. The need for acceptance, however, remains.
“Despite the emergence of the metrosexual and an increase in stay-at-home dads, tough-guy stereotypes die hard,” Reiner wrote in an April essay. “As men continue to fall behind women in college, while outpacing them four to one in the suicide rate, some colleges are waking up to the fact that men may need to be taught to think beyond their own stereotypes.”
Some young men, unable to meet the tough-guy stereotype, become ashamed of themselves and start to resent others. Others simply don’t want to embody that stereotype but feel pressure to perform it.
The economic circumstances of young men might complicate these narratives, in expected and unexpected ways. As America’s wages have stagnated in recent years, men’s income has dipped. Young men, meanwhile, for the first recordable time, are more likely to live with their parents than a romantic partner, according to new data from the Pew Research Center. (Women, however, are more likely to live with a partner.)
“Their old-school masculine identity is under threat,” he said, “because their masculine identity can’t be played out through their careers anymore.”
The changing manscape
Last year, MTV Insights Research, a marketing branch of the music channel, interviewed more than 300 young men, ages 14 to 24, across the country. Researchers in Atlanta, for example, invited one group aboard a party bus to just watch them socialize.
The results, published in an internal report and shared with The Washington Post by the researchers, also showed a departure from traditional masculinity, as portrayed in popular culture.
Six in 10 said they felt confined by what society expected them to be like, said Erin Miller, senior director of Youth Culture & Trends. (Seven in 10 young women, for comparison, reported the same in separate survey.)
Seventy percent said they’d like to date someone “more sexually aggressive,” according to the research, in contrast to the norms of the past. Eighty-eight percent said they’d be okay with a significant other making more money.
Another survey of 900 young men and women found both genders acknowledged an invisible nudging toward gender roles. Sixty-one percent of men agreed with the statement “I feel pressure to act like a man today,” while 67 percent of women agreed with the sentiment female version.
The MTV researchers asked some participants to a “journal entry” about how gender roles impacted their lives.
“Masculinity is tricky for guys,” a 22-year-old respondent wrote. “You want to respectful and a gentleman but that somehow gets seen as nice-guy and pushover. Finding the balance of being an alpha male gorilla and a decent human is sometimes hard since everyone wants to label us as one thing.”
Philip Soriano, 30, co-founder of the menswear brand Hugh & Crye, said he’s the first man in his family not to join the military. “Not only that,” he said. “I chose a creative career.”
He said his world is far different from his grandfather's, as evidenced by the state of heterosexual relationships.
“For heterosexual men, women are independent — and that's a great thing — but it may come with some things us guys need to work through,” he said. “Like the understanding of sharing chores, understanding that our significant others might have long work trips now and a new definition of female sexuality.”
Alex Luboff, 28, a management consultant in Washington, said if he had taken the YouGov survey, he also would not have rated himself “completely masculine.”
“I listen to Beyoncé,” he said. “I love football. But I also love the opera. The tired trope on television that men can't be an appreciator of both sports and art is one I that really upsets me.”
Daveed Diggs, breakout star of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, recently told Esquire that he’s working on a new play that explores the concept of masculinity. "It's a construct, but there's a ton of pressure at all times," he said. "Part of masculinity is this idea that you can protect somebody, this idea of keeping the people close to you safe. It gets very tricky."
Zoella, the Rhode island man who shared his story with me, recalls running out of money and food after he lost his income. He subsisted mostly on peanut butter and water, he said, because meals at homeless shelters were for, in his mind, “disadvantaged women and children, people with real problems.”
One day, he applied for a job at a customer-support call center, one near a bus route. He interviewed, got the gig and, after two years of making $10 an hour, was promoted to a director role. His anguish started to fade, he said, after he realized he was in control of his life.
“Realizing I was responsible for my opportunities,” Zoella said, “that was the point everything started turning around.”
He began to think often about social pressure, how it crushes both men and women. He realized others had harshly judged themselves, too. He calls this “his enlightenment.”
Zoella will soon join his uncle’s plumbing business. He wants to expand it with his recently acquired management skills. He’s also dating someone new.
“I think masculinity, for me, is about balance,” he said. “The ability to show your heart to someone and at the same time be a protector, which is what I always wanted to be to someone.”