Deaths of despair”-- That’s the term for the startling rise in middle-aged mortality among whites without college degrees over the past twenty years. The national epidemic of alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide are expressions of the struggle with hope and meaning in the lives of men and women facing bleak futures.
Deaths of despair are symptomatic of a much of a much broader problem facing white men today in particular, regardless of their level of education or income: our personal and cultural difficulties in seeing men whole. We live within very narrow definitions of what it means to be a white man, particularly in terms of our connective and relational needs.
More on this broader problem in a later post. For now I have a modest proposal to help the middle- aged men who have been left behind in our globalized, multicultural society. This will require a different way of looking at what men need in their lives.
When we think of this situation for men, the remedies often involve more job creation. More than a fifth of American men — about 20 million people — between 20 and 65 had no paid work last year. Half the men not in the labor force report they are in bad physical or mental health. Men account for only 42 percent of college graduates, handicapping them in a job market that rewards higher levels of education.
And it’s only going to get worse as we lose manufacturing and blue collar job as the economy continues to reward more educated workers.
Yet the problem facing men is not simply one of finding work—it is also one of hopelessness, a sense of unimportance, of having no value in this society. A sense of meaning and purpose is only really found in relationship to others. Traditionally for men work has been a way of feeling valued and of contributing to and taking care of those they love. The erosion of hope and a sense of purpose among undereducated and underemployed men in our society is well-documented.
What if our society focused on providing men the opportunity to feel that they are of value and needed, allowing them to realize their potentials as true caretakers of others?
To really address this void of meaning and value requires us to think differently about men. It means coming to see men as needing the experience of direct nurturing and caretaking of others. We certainly see this aspect of men in the transition to grandfatherhood. How many aging men are transformed by the arrival of a grandchild?
There are several places where men are needed. One of them is the schools. As of 2014 only 1 in 5 elementary school teachers were men, and their representation in child care, preschool, and as teaching assistants was even lower. To truly consider this idea means getting beyond the mistrust that can accompany the arrival of men in schools.
Boys in particular miss the absence of men in schools; for many boys schools are more feminine than masculine, part of “woman’s world.” Just as we need to adjust our stereotypes about men’s relationality, we need to do the same about young boys. Contrary to gender stereotypes, boys are very relational. Emotional self-regulation is one of the most important skills that children learn as they progress through school. The absence of men in the early years of school children can increase the difficulty boys having in learning how to regulate and manage their emotional life, since so many of the role models they have are women.
We don’t need to convert truck drivers into chemistry teachers. Rather, why not a national program to bring men into schools as teacher aides and classroom supports? The focus of this program would be exactly those men who are currently underutilized. Let us train them to be mentors to be boys who need trustworthy men to help them in the complicated transition to manhood.
One way to do this would be to create a program analogous to a Vista program or Teach for America that would provide socially valued and defined ways for men to participate in schools, along with a corresponding stipend and health benefits. At the moment VISTA volunteers do not provide direct services but instead focus more on organizational capacities. What about schools at the local and state level developing programs in their communities for men to become supervised school volunteers and even teaching assistants?—roles that would allow them presence in the classroom, participating in any of a myriad of ways in the daily life of the classroom. They could help with set- up in the morning and clean up in the afternoon, they could bring stories from their lives into the lessons of the classroom, they could help with tutoring, they could provide needed support for students who need more one-on-one attention from an adult.
Such programs would provide men direct contact with younger generations, helping them to feel their importance to the young in a socially validated and respected manner and creating opportunities for young boys (and girls) to experience the social and emotional benefits that relationships with men offer.
Sam Osherson, PhD, is a therapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, and an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Fielding Graduate University. He consults to schools through the Stanley King Counseling Institute and his most recent book is The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam War.