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The Decline of Men? I doubt it

October 17, 2011

I was checking the news last week, and one of the gaming websites I read had a small piece about an American author writing an article for CNN, bemoaning how terrible things have happened to men recently and it’s all the fault of computer games. This doesn’t seem like newsworthy material, but when I followed the link to his article I found even more rubbish in it than I had expected. Blaming games for everything is depressingly common, as is the assumption that only teenage boys and men who behave like teenage boys play them, and I’ll cover this later. More importantly, I found that what he means by “the very decline of [men]” is that over the last few decades women have been starting to catch up with men in terms of employment rates, education and wages. Basically, he is annoyed that men have less privilege than they used to, and believes drastic action is needed to reverse this! So I decided to be drastic and take his article apart, revealing his flawed arguments at a time. I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind, but it serves him right for writing a stupid article.

The article itself is by one William J. Bennett, who was apparently Secretary for Education in the mid-80s (which is kind of alarming after reading this). He starts off with the oh-so-popular cry that now women are doing so much better than they used to be, men must therefore be suffering. This doesn’t seem to understand that women were significantly worse off before, and, while things might be improving more for women than for men, men are still generally better off.

The article then goes into a mish-mash of random statistics and hypotheses, as Bennett tries to set the scene of a long, dark decline in young men’s lives compared to those of young women. He talks about how women earned 57% of all US university degrees in 2006 compared to 40% in 1970, and that women’s earnings have improved by 44% between 1970 and 2007 while men’s have only improved by 6%. Oh noes, how unfair on us poor men – now our wages are only 20% higher than women, instead of 40%! (The 2009 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings puts the UK gender pay gap at 22%, down from 22.5% in 2008.) Also notice that the numbers he cites are from before the recession, during which everyone’s wages have fallen . . . if you even still have a wage.

Next, he stops comparing statistics directly between men and women. He says that “in 1950, 5% of men at the prime working age were unemployed. As of last year, 20% were not working”. After grabbing some statistics from the US Department of Labour, I guess that by “men of prime working age” he means men aged 16-24, as the 2010 US figures show that for men aged 16-19 the unemployment rate was 29%, and for men aged 20-24 it was 17%. What he doesn’t say is that for women aged 16-19 the unemployment rate was 23%, and aged 20-24 it was 12%.* For men and women aged 25-34, the unemployment rates are 10% and 9% respectively – almost identical to the unemployment rates across the whole country. Checking back to the figures for the year 2000, unemployment rates for all these groups are much lower, as they are for 1970, 1980 and 1990. In fact, up until 2008 unemployment for young men (and everyone else) is fairly flat if you discount the short term ups and downs of the economy. A much better comparison would be to say “from the 1970s until 2007, around 10% of young men were out of work; in 2010 it was 20%” – but that would highlight the fact that the recession of 2008 caused this particular rise, and not all the other rubbish he talks about.

Having established what he thinks is a convincing foundation with statistics, Bennett then leaves the real world behind completely. His next line claims that “men still maintain a majority of the highest paid and most powerful occupations, but women are catching them and will soon be passing them if this trend continues.” I’m not sure what he means by “soon be passing them”; according to studies on the boards of Fortune 100 companies, women held about 20% of board seats in 2010, an improvement of 1% since 2004. (Also, notice the domination by not just men but white men in that study.) If this trend continues as Bennett fears, at 1% every 6 years, women will overtake men in just 185 years! Better than the FTSE 100 companies in the UK, though, where only 6.5% of board directors are women, and the number of companies with any female directors is falling.

He then gives some more stats that are irrelevant to the whole thing: he mentions the rise of children living without fathers (I’ve covered my views on and experiences with divorce previously, so I won’t go over it again); that more women regularly attend church than men (47% and 39% in 2010, respectively); and most bizarrely, that more than 40% of children in America are born out of wedlock. He doesn’t compare this to anything, or talk about it going up or down, so I think we’re supposed to be shocked by that number alone. He talks about marriage later so he presumably thinks it’s important, but this is a fascination I don’t share, as I know from my parents that being married or unmarried doesn’t determine the quality of a relationship and the upbringing of children.

Finally, he gets to the main points of his article – the reasons why men are “in decline”:

“Man’s response has been pathetic. Today, 18-to- 34-year-old men spend more time playing video games a day than 12-to- 17-year-old boys. While women are graduating college and finding good jobs, too many men are not going to work, not getting married and not raising families.”

Here he  uses a random statistic about gamers to bolster his own strange view of the world, while ignoring other facts that don’t fit – for example, that after adult men (at 45% of gamers), adult women are the next biggest gamer demographic at 37%. If more women and fewer men are going to college and getting jobs, it can’t have much to do with gaming. Also, if fewer men are getting married and raising families, surely that must mean fewer women are too? The vast majority of marriages are heterosexual. In the US, too, there are more women than men to begin with (155 million to 151 million; population figures from the US Census Bureau via Wikipedia). The marriage data from the American Community Survey, taken last year, shows that roughly the same number of American men and women married in the preceding twelve months – if anything, slightly more men got married than women did.**

So we reach my original issue, which doesn’t seem as important as the ones above, but is still a problem. Like a lot of people, including most of the games industry itself, Bennett has fallen for the old-fashioned assumption that computer games are for children, or teenagers at best. The ESA study above shows how far from the truth this is, but it doesn’t stop everyone parroting the idea – hence the gasps of shock when adults are revealed to play computer games (people are still ashamed to admit it until someone else has). This also explains why the media get so outraged when someone mentions a game containing violence or nudity: games are obviously for kids, so these games must be also aimed at kids! Never mind that a lot of countries actually restrict these games’ sales to children, like our 18 rating in the UK;  in the US Mature-rated games are sold to children much less than M-rated music or movies. Even the games companies don’t always see past this, and continue to make and market games to their apparent target audience of teenage boys (some examples of this are the atrocious Dead Space 2 adverts or the widely-criticised Duke Nukem Forever). It doesn’t make sense to keep targeting such a small market, especially when they don’t actually have much disposable income. Why not make games that appeal to more mature people of all sexes? There are many more of them, they have more money, and a lot of the teenagers will keep on buying games anyway if the games are good. (I want to work in the games industry myself, but I worry that I would be fighting a losing battle in trying to shift attitudes.)

The saddest part of the end of this article is that some things he says may actually make sense, but his proposed solution doesn’t. Men are allowed more social tolerance for immaturity than are women (witness the million adverts starting from the premise that men are stupid children requiring constant nannying) and often permitted, even encouraged, to treat women as objects rather than people. But I wouldn’t say these mindsets arise because of mixed messages towards men. On the contrary, this seems to be by far the main message aimed at us by advertising, television and the media, including computer games (see Sociological Images’ post on the marketing for Duke Nukem Forever for a prime example.)

Everyone seems to know what you have to be to be a man, and everyone wants to tell you, regardless of whether you want to be that or not. The mixed messages he talks about are coming from people like me, who cry out “why must we behave like this?” There is no “deciphering” needed to figure out how be a man: we just are men because we are. There is no specific role of men, no list of requirements to fulfil, just as there isn’t for women. There also seems to be more criticism of men who aren’t or don’t want to be masculine (like me) – it is more acceptable for women to be ‘like men’, as this is seen as aspirational (see for example this Sociological Images post on androcentrism), but being called ‘feminine’ or being compared to a woman is still considered by many to be a mortal insult for a man. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we have it worse, especially as it only arises from femininity being seen as inferior to masculinity; just that it is a problem we need to address along with many others.

We could do with more people out there saying men can do what they want, but more importantly we need more people saying that men and women and everyone else can do what they want, be whoever they want, and that the only people that will judge them are the people that should not matter. (All too often they are in a position of power and do matter, but the more we get our message out, the more likely it is that these positions of power will eventually be taken by more open-minded people.)  We are all people, and we should try to behave like good people, but we don’t need the media, religion*** or Bennett to tell us how to do this, and we do not need to follow any other rules based on any physical or mental differences between us.


*With women making up a smaller percentage of the workforce in total it makes sense that their unemployment figures are slightly lower – there are still more men in work than women, because women are more pressured to stay at home or work part time (I believe part time workers do not count in the US Labour Force figures).

**And more women got divorced than men did. Thinking about this, the disparity is probably accounted for by a) US citizens marrying non-US citizens and thus only half of the couple showing up on the records and b) widows and widowers remarrying, thus creating a new marriage datapoint without also creating a divorce datapoint.

***Religion helps a lot of people in living good lives, but is hardly a prerequisite for doing so. [Ed.: People who imply that religion is the only thing making them behave like good people scare the crap out of me.]

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