Age shapes a different man
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ~Robert Frost
We live in a patriarchal society. Since the 1960s, the world has witnessed a revolution that’s given women more opportunities, rights, and choices than their mothers and grandmothers ever had. Recently, the Me, Too movement has kept gender issues and stories of sexual abuse, sexual violence, and discrimination against women on the front pages. However, women protest that nothing much has changed for them. Witness the recent Supreme Court decision that took away women’s reproductive rights. Women outnumber men on college, law, and medical school campuses yet they still have trouble finding a man who will do their share of the housework, discuss their emotions, and support female aspirations.
There’s been a backlash against “toxic masculinity” whereby men are expected to adhere to a notion of “manliness” that perpetuates domination, homophobia, and aggression. Together, these societal shifts have led to an exploration of male inequality and a flurry of articles about younger men being “left behind” and women showing better leadership skills.
What’s happening for older men?
With the context of so much discontent among women and young men perceived as falling behind, I keep wondering but what about older men? I wanted to hear directly from some older men so I interviewed several older men in their 70s, 80s, and 90s.
First, a few words about the men. The seven are clearly not a scientific sample or representative of the entire USA but they are articulate and willing to talk about their lives. I told the men I would not reveal their names or identifying information. They are college-educated, professionals and businessmen, Democrats and Republicans, married and divorced. One is a widower. Four of them are in their 70’s, two are in their 80’s and one is 90 years old. The only one who is still working is 90. They grew up all over the eastern U.S. and the middle west: New Jersey, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Connecticut, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, and West Virginia. Two of them have been in men’s groups and have reflected often on these issues of masculinity. Two others told me they had never really thought about these issues. Despite their differences, I expected the interviews would have some common themes and they did.
I asked each of them three questions designed to understand how their view of being a man has changed as they age. I’ve listed the themes that emerged and included the exact quotes of those I interviewed.
1. When you were about 30, what did it mean to you to be a man?
Theme: Men have different roles from women. “Men are providers.” “The breadwinners.” “You support family.” “Women were a different tribe.” “Men worked and women took care of the home and children.” “Men were dominant and took charge of major decisions.” “Women were expected to submit.” “I picked the house, my wife decorated it.” “My Dad was always an idol.” “My father was hyper-masculine, a Marine type with little emotion.” “I grew up with images of athletes and heroes.” “My father was a hard-working and respected person.”
Theme: Men didn’t usually express emotions. “I was afraid to express my opinions.” “Valuing emotions was not part of my growing up.” “I didn’t share my unhappiness.” “I used to act like I knew everything.” “I should have expressed more of what I felt.” “I tried to please people and needed their approval.” “I played the corporate game.” “I was afraid to speak up with my opinions.” “I didn’t learn to listen for feelings.”
Theme: Men felt pressure to be successful. “I was concerned about what I would accomplish.” “I was stressed about finances.” “Pressure to succeed.” “I wanted to be a community leader.”
My comments: Back then (the 1960s, 70s, and 80s), men almost never questioned their dominance. It was just the way society and culture were. Most men developed their understanding of manhood from their dads. If their dad was absent or was alcoholic, it made being a man more challenging. Three of these men had alcoholic fathers.
2. Now that you are older, how has your understanding of being a man changed?
Theme: Men care less about achievement now and more about relationships. “Less burdened about making money.” “Less competitive.” “Less interested in staying in shape.” “Enjoying more.” “Less work in the household.” “Friendship matters more.” “Family and relationships matter most.” “I am dedicated to enjoying my family.” It’s more about being than doing now.” “I have less interest in staying in shape.” “I look back on all my focus on physical prowess as toxic masculinity.”
Theme: Men are more aware of having feelings now. “I share my feelings with my wife now.” “No problem with apologies.” “I am more assertive.” “More caring about people’s feelings.” “It has been difficult, an ongoing effort, to put value on emotions.”
Theme: Gender roles have blurred over the years. “Both men and women can take care of the house and fix things.” “I am still the caretaker of the family.” “I do more of the cooking now; we divide up the tasks.” “My wife was a feminist: she gave me an education pretty quick.” “Still have male pride; I don’t want people to know about my limitations.”
My comments: I was struck by how all of these men have shifted their focus from success and accomplishment to a focus on relationships. They feel less burdened with family responsibilities and less obligated to be manly. It is interesting that three of the men gave major credit to their feminist wives for helping them evolve in their views on gender and masculinity.
What stands out most for me is how the majority of the men are now much more attuned to their own feelings and those of others. It was stunning, however, how little they were taught about feelings and how little attention they paid to emotions in their youth and as young men. As Jason Wilson put it, we need to “expose the deception [of the] world’s definition of what a real man is” because we cannot “continue to try to resolve conflict with conflict.”
These men are proud of their changed views on masculinity and gender roles. They are far less stressed and happier now as older men than when they were young which confirms my earlier research that showed most older people are happy. One of the men who reported that his Dad was a good model for him, said his dad was his guide for his entire life and reported little change in his own attitudes.
3. What advice about being a man would you like to give younger men?
Theme: Pay less attention to achieving and more to feelings. Get help along your way. “It is all about the journey instead of focusing on accomplishment.” “Focus on being not doing.” “Don’t worry so much.” “Don’t be so fearful of emotions.” “Don’t put off spending time with friends.” “Denying your emotions will get you into big trouble.” “Therapy is a good thing.” “Reach out for help when you need it.” “You can’t do it all by yourself.”
My comments: I see the next frontier for men’s development is to challenge the myth that men should be self-reliant at all times. Among the group of seven, this was a real issue for three of them. Getting help is not failure. It is key to aging well and well-being.
Lastly, being a man is more challenging than it needs to be because of unrealistic and harmful societal expectations that take men a lifetime to overcome. As actor Justin Baldoni explained, “I realized that I was living in a state of conflict, conflict with who I feel I am in my core and conflict with who the world tells me as a man I should be. But I don’t have a desire to fit into the current broken definition of masculinity, because I don’t just want to be a good man. I want to be a good human…What we need is balance.” Perhaps the takeaway for younger men is to start earlier in exploring their emotions, working harder on becoming a true partner, and asking for help. Of course, for men and women alike, we are all works in process.
The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are. ~Carl Jung