Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

A Crisis of Male Ambition? Part II

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Yesterday, I posted on an article that I contend shows a disparity in mean male and female ambition.  I also noted one caveat using data from the Princeton University Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership.  Yet, spinning a convincing narrative of the ambitious male is as commensurately difficult as spinning an explicative narrative of the unambitious male—the male on the opposite end of the bell curve.  One take is that American society failed to spin a compelling and inspirational narrative for young men to follow.  Most importantly, we do not ask young men to think of their lives in terms of generational advancement (beyond increasingly vacuous narratives, such as the ubiquitous “American dream”).  Such a successful narrative may proceed as follows: “Your father worked as a small businessman in small town America.  However, you now have the opportunity to run a global firm out of that town, or a larger city if you prefer, except you will have manufacturing plants in India, China, and Brazil, too.  The great opportunities of this global and interconnected world mean that you can be more prosperous than your father was, or have a more diverse, cosmopolitan, and compelling lifestyle.  Yet, you will need to work and plan for it.  You will need to cultivate a global vision.  You will require greater education, for instance, a degree in Industrial or Mechanical Engineering, and perhaps an MBA.  And, by the way, there is a broad framework of federal and private student loans to allow you to achieve these goals and become an effective businessman.”  Lacking such a narrative, young men risk missing the context of generational advancement and progress within which they ought to position their educational and vocational goals/ambitions. 

Yet, I cannot neglect another narrative—a scathing self-inquiry into male culture.  It strikes me that there exists a cultural difference in the way young men and young women often socialize.  Quite simply, the capital needed to sustain a lifestyle similar to one of the unambitioned college male is not particularly prohibitive.  Again, anecdotal evidence indicates that such a lifestyle—assembling a house of young men working menial jobs (perhaps still in a college town), renting a house for several hundred dollars per month, and playing video games, eating pizza, and fraternizing during most of one’s free time—is an appealing form of social life for most young men.  It is high school or college, part deux.

It also strikes me that this form of socialization is not as appealing to young women.  Interestingly, American cinema provides further proof of this anecdotal evidence, given the popularity of such comedies like Old School, Van Wilder, and Animal House before them.  Indeed, an entire coterie of Hollywood actors—ironically and conveniently dubbed “the frat pack”—makes their living playing typecast male characters that are immature, incompetent, and unwilling to accept many of society’s greatest responsibilities.  Thus, group or gender collective behavior may drive the need for high-income or status careers—or lack thereof.

When it comes to the rest of the population—the males who find themselves within one standard deviation of mean ambition—I must admit that I find the situation particularly vexing.  An economy with high unemployment, shrinking economic sectors traditionally employing men, a youth increasingly postponing marriage (or viewing the institution itself as archaic), and some aspects of American feminism, all make it difficult for the American man with average education to aspire to a mortgage, a wife, and a family by the time he is in his mid-to-late twenties.  This is to say nothing of the overwhelming and obvious social anxiety many men feel to be, and—almost as important—for others to view them as, the family’s primary breadwinner.

Though American feminism reformed some of its ideas and conceptions, a great tragedy of early feminism—unfortunately, a tragedy of staid character—was the stark juxtaposition of career and relationship/marriage, positioning the dynamic as one of unequivocal diametric opposition.  Such a characterization is, of course, an unnecessary and tragic over-simplification.  A more proper characterization of the dynamic is that romantic life and marriage carry with them the potential for profound personal or spiritual grounding, out of which women can tackle professional advancement head-on.  My anecdotal evidence also hints that American culture and university life teach even young women of modest ambition that they should ready themselves to pursue professional advancement above all else—in some cases, for no other reason than that their mothers or grandmothers could not—and bear the loneliness that may result from shunning relationships and marriage until one’s thirties.

In summation, it seems that men occupy a perplexing position in the ambition distribution—both ahead and far behind.  Thus, we have important layers of nuance in the “crises of male ambition” to which I referred in the title of this post.  My hope is that this is a plausible start to explaining this newly highlighted disparity in vocational and educational ambition between the sexes.  However, I am unsatisfied with the amount of speculation and reliance upon anecdotal evidence.  A fuller treatment of this topic would necessitate a contextual positioning of this trend within what I believe is a broader trend of American cultural decline.

I believe strongly that the Millennial generation will inhabit, unavoidably, an America profoundly different than that of our parents—one that will require families to have reformed lifestyles and institutions, such as sound financial footing; well-paying jobs; robust family structures and values; and an international consciousness, not only on the business level, but to reshape and reinvigorate America’s role in the world.  Within this necessary contextual positioning, male ambition on the lower ends of the normal distribution appears grimmer: the stereotypical lifestyle of the unambitious male repulses insofar as it appears nihilistic in its total ignorance of some of these obvious and gripping realities.


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