A society is healthy when its culture counterbalances its economics. That is to say, when you have a capitalist economic system that emphasizes competition, dynamism and individual self-interest, you need a culture that celebrates cooperation, stability and committed relationships.
We don’t have that. We have a culture that takes the disruptive and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism and makes them worse. This truth is poignantly captured by Kathryn Edin, Timothy Nelson, Andrew Cherlin and Robert Francis in a paper titled “The Tenuous Attachments of Working-Class Men,” in The Journal of Economic Perspectives.
The researchers conducted 107 in-depth interviews with working-class men. Many of the men told them that the economy doesn’t allow them to provide the same standard of living that their fathers could provide.
That has created the culture of the side hustle. The men feel that they have to have three or four occupations, and they bounce around among them so they can stay employed full time. One man, who had been trained as a diesel mechanic, also got certified as a barber and enrolled in a visual production training program at a state college.
Many of the men work off the books as handymen. Many spend long stretches out of the labor force, hanging around with friends and bumming off others. Some have entrepreneurial dreams that seem, from the outside, unrealistic — like making a living as a novelist or a DJ.
Their private lives are as loosely attached as their economic lives. Many of the men expressed the desire to be good fathers to their children — to be more emotionally expressive around their kids than their own fathers had been with them. But they expressed no similar commitment to the women who had given birth to those children. Some found out they were fathers only years after their children were born.
“Nearly all the men we spoke to viewed the father-child tie as central while the partner relationship was more peripheral,” Edin and her colleagues write. Naturally, if the men are unwilling to commit to being in a full family unit, the role they actually end up playing in their children’s lives is much more minimal than the role they really want.
The men are also loosely attached to churches. Most say they are spiritual or religious. But their conception of faith is so individualized that there is nobody else they could practice it with. They pray but tend to have contempt for organized religion and do not want to tie themselves down to any specific community.
“I treat church just like I treat my girlfriends,” one man said. “I’ll stick around for a while and then I’ll go on to the next one.”
Another said he believed in God, but he rejected the idea of “a God with strings telling us how to live. That didn’t work for me.”
The researchers emphasize that while economic forces have disrupted the men’s lives, they are insufficient to explain the detached mode of life that has become common.
Cultural forces have also played a role, namely the emphasis on autonomy — being your own person, focusing on your own personal growth, shucking off any constraints. This ethos, at least in the cities where the interviews happened, has replaced the older working-class ethos, based on self-discipline, the dignity of manual labor and being a good provider, they conclude.
“Our interviews strongly suggest that the autonomous generative self that many men described is also a haphazard self,” the authors write.
In short, at the very moment information-age capitalism detaches many working-class men from stable careers, the autonomy ethos teaches that it’s right to be semidetached, that the best life is one lived in perpetual flux, with your options perpetually open.
It’s not working, even though the men have the best of intentions. This way of being too often leads to an alienated life. It certainly doesn’t work for the children. Every week, it seems, I meet some young person whose life was decimated when Dad left.
As I’ve mentioned, a year ago, I co-founded something called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. This week, we’re bringing nearly 300 weavers from all over the country to Washington, D.C., to see how we can take some of their best local community-building efforts and turn them into a self-reinforcing national movement.
Part of the work is to build thick communities across the country, so everybody, including detached young men, will have a chance to be enmeshed in thick and trusting relationships.
But another purpose of the event, called #WeaveThePeople, is to get people to think differently. It’s to get more people to see that the autonomous life is not the best life. The enmeshed life is.
There need to be better economic policies, like wage subsidies, to improve these lives. But cultural change is needed, too — a shift in what kind of men we admire and what sort we disdain. The lone wolf man has had his day; the weaving man is what we need, the one strong enough to bind himself into a community.