Review: 'Man Out' by Andrew L. Yarrow

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October 7, 2018

Today, about 14 million working-age men are neither employed nor looking for work. Thirteen million men ages 18 to 34 still live with their parents. Male membership in civic groups has fallen a half to two-thirds since the 1960s. Just half of men are husbands, compared with three-quarters a half-century ago. After decades of increase, male life expectancy actually fell in 2014.

By any of a number of measures, there is a large glut of American men who have been sidelined from work, from family, from health, from life. Man Out, the recent book from journalist and Progressive Policy Institute senior fellow Andrew L. Yarrow, combines a thorough examination of the literature with dozens of interviews to produce a clearer picture of who these men are and why they have fallen out of American society.

Half of the original contribution of Man Out is in this framing. Economists have long bemoaned the trend in male labor force participation; criminal justice reform advocates routinely highlight how many men are in prison; and the ever-widening gender gap in voting provokes partisan fears about angry white men. What Yarrow does is stitch these disparate stories into a single narrative about the large pool of men in America who live at the intersection of one or more of these pathologies.

Yarrow guesses there are about 20 to 25 million "men out," compared with 120 million or so adult men in the population today. In that group he counts the out-of-labor-force, older men who have remained unmarried too long or divorced, younger men who haven't left home, fathers denied access to their children or who are absentee, serial consumers of computer games and pornography, and former prisoners. Many of these groups overlap, which is of course Yarrow's whole point—that these men represent a unique, and under-discussed, social problem.

The consequences of this sidelining are profound. For the men themselves, labor-force drop-outs are less happy and more socially isolated, and are more likely to experience serious health conditions and regularly take prescription opioids (all phenomena likely to be exacerbated by a prison stay). The friends and families of these men face challenges too, with parents forced to support their adult children, wives divorced from their shiftless husbands, and many single mothers and their children forced to go it alone as fathers vanish.

Man Out synthesizes much of the research on these issues but contributes nothing new, data-wise. What it does add is its ethnographic component: the interviews Yarrow conducted with dropped out men, putting names and stories to the statistics. Sprinkled throughout the book, these interviews show that sidelined men come from all walks of life. Many are poor, but some are not. They are white and black and from all over the country.

The impression that emerges from Yarrow's conversations is that these men are unified by a sense of drift. They may have lost or left a job, have dropped out of college, but they intend to find a way back—eventually. Even the former prisoners to whom Yarrow spoke exhibit a sense of resolve to rectify their situation, despite soon finding themselves in front of a judge once again.

The most effective insight of the book follows naturally from this shiftlessness, this floating disconnection. To be sidelined is to drop off of the normative path of life—a job, a wife, kids, etc. But, today, to what extent is there a specifically gendered normative path for men to take?

"No concept is as charged and confusing for men today as 'masculinity' or 'manhood,'" Yarrow writes in the chapter on "Masculinity, Mating, and Misogyny." "What does it mean to be male?... And how does the cultural ambiguity and ambivalence about being male lead many men to be on the sidelines?"

This rising ambiguity is experienced as a feature of our culture, but we cannot forget its basically material/economic roots. For most of American history, a man's role qua man was as the engine of economic productivity for society. The marketplace and labor were gendered male, and the male gender role was consequently constructed in relation to that domain, as compared against the feminine householder.

The great gendered transformation of the past 50 years can be framed in material terms as the steady decline of the male labor force participation rate—from 87 percent of men working in 1948 to 68 percent today—and the concurrent take-off of the female rate—from 32 to 60 percent at the new millennium. The mantra of second wave feminism—that women can do anything men can—has proved true.

Data from the Census Bureau show that women on average now have more education than men, and while poverty and income gaps persist, they are closing rapidly. Yarrow notes that in some places, like Manhattan, where the information economy predominates, the gender wage gap has actually reversed. Even in the intermediary civil sphere, women have replaced men—as Yarrow discusses, organizations like the Elks and the Rotarians would no longer exist without surging female membership.

Women's entry into the workforce—and their nearing parity with, or surpassing of, men in that domain—has not led to a concurrent increase in men's responsibility in the domestic sphere. As demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has documented, men who have dropped out of the labor force spend similar amounts of time caring for their household as employed women do (never-mind unemployed women). They spend less time caring for household members. That is assuming that they are in the household at all—the surging out-of-wedlock birth rate falls disproportionately on women, with single mothers outnumbering single fathers four to one.

We should not for a moment labor under the presumption that we should want to undo this transformation, or that we even can. Liberation has accrued innumerable benefits to women, who have themselves been far too long "sidelined" in American life. The idea of going "back" to an early 20th century paradigm is the redoubt of only the most dedicated male revanchist.

But at the same time, we must realize that all social transitions have losers. That word has two connotations—the pejorative sense, which is often applied to sidelined men, but also the descriptive sense that refers to the losing party under a set of rules. Yarrow's men out are defined in relation to their gender, but they are so despondent in large part because that gender has little if any positive meaning. In America today, what does it mean to be a man?

Yarrow finishes Man Out with the requisite stack of policy recommendations. In so doing, he separates material conditions, calling for boosted spending across the board to address the individual symptoms of sidelining, and cultural conditions, offering a litany of vague proscriptions for how to make men behave better. These are fine, and arguably a start as far as articulating a new masculinity goes. But what Yarrow's recommendations fail to do is specify a material role for men qua men—a sense of what men's place in society is.

As a book, Man Out recommends itself for its framing, collection of data, and unique interviews. But the paradigm under which Yarrow tries to solve its central problem is doomed to failure. Until we are willing to give men roles as men, because of their masculinity, those who stray off of the narrow path still available to them will inevitably remain "out."

Published under: Book reviews