Caught between baby-boomers and Generation Y, today’s middle-aged men increasingly see themselves as lost souls. Lucy Cavendish lends an ear
I am sitting by the swimming pool at the Canyon Ranch resort in Tucson, Arizona, only it is not really a resort, it is a fitness/wellness/life-enhancing centre where people who are very stressed come to detox and, as I am discovering, “find” themselves. But this resort is not brimming with stressed-out women, worn thin and ragged by juggling motherhood, wifedom and being the heads of companies. No. The classes here are full of men – men with great big identity issues.
There is 45-year-old Lee, who has just “gotten divorced” and has, in the course of a month, slept with 15 women. “I don’t see myself as that type of man,” he says, “but I feel so lonely and I don’t know what to do with my life.” There is Ryan, aged 53, who has never married and is in crisis about why he hasn’t. Then there is Steve, 49, a travel agent, long-time married, who has hit a midlife crisis. He says he really does want to buy a Harley-Davidson and head off down Route 66. “Is that wrong?” he asks. “I just don’t know what I want in my life anymore.”
They are all part of a “sandwich generation”: they sit between the baby boomers and the digital natives. And they are a group who have, according to recent statistics, lost their way. The Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report for 2014 shows that men aged 40-44 are the demographic group with the highest rate of suicide, nearly four times that of women the same age; for those aged 45-54, the rate is roughly three times higher for men than women. New data from the Office of National Statistics confirm those findings. And although the statistics aren’t always straightforward (there may be under-reporting of female suicides), things aren’t getting better: while the male rate fell for most of the past decade, since 2012 it has been back on the rise.
In the Samaritans report about the data, Professor Rory O’Connor, then the head of the suicidal behavior research group at Stirling University, said that the focus had shifted over recent decades from younger men being more at risk of suicide to middle-aged men.
“Men currently in their midyears are caught between their traditional silent, strong and austere fathers who went to work and provided for their families, and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons. They do not know which of these two very different ways of life and masculine culture they should follow.”
The pressure to live up to what the report describes as a “masculine ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility” can turn personal troubles such as losing a job into a crisis in a way that it might not for women. The sense of suffering “defeat as a man” can be more acute in middle age, when the responsibilities are greatest.
The result? Men of this generation are in crisis. We often focus on teenage boys and their problems, ranging from depression to delinquency, or on women and their role in society, from young and single to working mother to stay-at-home woman. Yet we rarely look at the role of men, especially middle-aged men – and the problem does not only apply to those who have suffered from the familiar seismic shifts in their lives, such as divorce or the loss of a job.
As my friend Tom, a counsellor, says, “Whereas women stride forwards and get themselves together, [in general] men just don’t do that. They like things to remain as they were. They don’t like change. They like women to support them, really, so they are emotionally or spiritually or physically lazy. Some are all three and this laziness is very prevalent in the sandwich generation men, and it often leaves them lost, lonely and drifting towards an uncertain future when they should be at an age whereby everything is settled.”
Obviously not all men are like this, but there does seem to be a preponderance of men over the age of 45 who feel as if they are on the scrap-heap. Take this as an example: a few weeks ago I was at a friend’s 50th birthday party. It was great fun but most of the men I talked to were in some form of meltdown. One of them – never married, no kids – hadn’t had a job for the past five years and was working unpaid as a carer. It occurred to me that, for a man aged 52, this was quite an odd situation to be in, no wife or kids or money or even a house to call his own. I asked if he was happy about this. He shook his head vehemently.
“Not at all,” he said. He then explained that “it” just hadn’t happened for him. Girlfriends had come and gone. He had found it hard to commit – and not just, as the cliché goes, in his relationships. He had flitted from one job to another, never quite finding the “thing” he wanted to do. He had worked for a bank but never felt he fitted in. So he had left that job and retrained as a landscape gardener, and that hadn’t suited him either, although he had liked the outdoors element of it. This became a pattern, a shifting life with seemingly no purpose.
“I feel I am lost now,” he said, “and it’s too late to change things. I am surplus to society’s requirement, like one of those lone male deer that performs no function at all and gets forced from the herd because of it.”
After him I bumped into more men, all seemingly versions of the same. The divorced ones were all miserable, most of them lamenting the terrible downturn their lives had taken – no house (gone to the ex), no kids (gone to the ex), no future (what’s the point?).
A friend of mine, Henry, 50, who divorced seven years ago, considers himself as 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.
“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.”
It is certainly true that changes in the economy in recent decades, with a shift away from manufacturing, have removed a source of male pride, identity and companionship. And psychological studies (such as a 2013 survey of 10,000 people published in the journal Economica which examined the way in which we adjust to new circumstances) show that women are better able to adjust in the wake of a major life change. In divorce, for instance, women typically come out marginally happier even though they often suffer a bigger financial hit; the Economica survey showed that men tend to be especially badly knocked by unemployment, an effect that persists for up to five years.
Sebastian Morley, a former commander in the SAS who has seen tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, agrees that men have lost their way. “I find them hard to deal with,” he says. “They are either super-competitive or massively defeatist.”
He runs courses for women at The Camp, a weight-loss and fitness boot camp based in Scotland. “I find women are motivated, eager, easy to deal with and naturally empathetic towards each other,” Morley says. “There is a spirit that exists between women that really kicks in when they are in difficulties. They help each other and they are also more willing and able to talk about their hopes and fears. This is why women can change their lives around – they have that mutable ability to do what is best for them and their families.”
He did consider doing a similar course for men but decided against it. “I have seen how men react to each other. They cannot pull together. They can be very aggressive in trying to outdo each other. It makes them impossible to work with.”
I spent a week with Morley and his right-hand man, Dale House, a former marine who is young, super-fit and handsome. For House, married and a step-parent, life is quite simple: being a man means to work and provide as well as being supportive to his partner. On the one hand he is a Real Man (very strong on boundaries, earns money); on the other, he is touchy-feely. His wife also works and he is supportive towards her and their daughter.
“I see myself as a traditional man really,” he says. “I am focused on what I want. I lay down the rules but they are thoughtful ones. I love and support my partner and her daughter, whom I consider as my own, and I think our family functions very well because of this. I am very clear in my expectations but I am very warm.” He agrees that many men today are “lost”, and believes “they need a stint in the Army following rules and discipline and turning in to proper men”.
But is it as simple as that? The younger generation seems to have become more metrosexual. They cook, clean and take care of their children. They use grooming products and wax their bits and are far more “feminized” than the 40-plus-something men I am meeting: since 2013, sales of male-specific toiletries have surpassed shaving products.
So are the middle-aged men I meet part of a lost generation? Too old for male manicures and too young to be the breadwinner, the Real Man laying down the law with a wife at home who fixes them a G&T when they get back from work?
Terry Real, a psychologist and the author of How Can I Get Through to You? Reconnecting Men and Women, thinks the time has come for men to readjust their sights. Our culture’s masculine code, he says, dictates that “men don’t need relationships, men don’t need to be connected, men don’t need to be heartfelt”.
The answer, Real says, is to understand and then reject that old, outdated part of the masculine code, which gave a sense of entitlement, a sense that men can “go home, rip open our belts, pop open a beer, belch and be loved. We just don’t get away with that anymore.”
As for Henry, he has hope. He has recently found a job, has a new partner and has come off the dole. “It’s a start,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you? Even when you’re 50.”
Original article: http://goo.gl/wAiiHs