The Recovering Musician
Justin, 27, has thick, dark, brown hair and the nervous energy of someone still remembered in some circles for his balls-out drum solos on classic Joy Division and Talking Heads covers. Since quitting his band two years ago, Justin has struggled to find anything he could put his heart into as much as his music. After falling into advertising sales almost by accident, he’s blown through a series of less-than-inspiring account manager jobs, and spends his weekends drifting between his old haunts in the West Village and “partying way too much,” he allows. His mother, who divorced his father when Justin was just 10 years old over his dad’s substance abuse “is not exactly speaking to me right now because she’s afraid I might be headed in same direction. I know I should probably get help, but, you know, it’s really hard for a guy to go to someone and ask, ‘Can you help me?’"
The Bobcat Owner
Peter, 34, is an advertising headhunter and owner of an online wine retailer, which he runs with his wife, Denise, out of their four-bedroom house just outside of Denver, which they also share with a 30-pound adult male bobcat, named Simon. A muscular six-footer, Peter used to box competitively in Golden Glove events and still puts in time each week working out his frustrations on the heavy bag. For several years, Peter’s headhunting business averaged more than $500,000 in billings a year, but that was before the economic downturn delivered a standing eight-count to advertising hiring. Last year he made a grand total of $15,000 (including his wine sales), and he's been furiously selling off his condo in Breckenridge, his antique Defender SUV, and whatever other perks he can. “I spent like a total ass,” he says, with a laugh. “I bought three Rolexes. I don’t even wear a watch.”
The Club Impresario
Brandon worked at one of the big New York City ad agencies riddled by layoffs last year. When his time came, “it definitely sucked,” says the 29-year-old, one of the few African-Americans at the firm, “but I come from a background of always having a side-project going.” Last year, Brandon teamed back up with his former college roommate and party-promoter partner to open a nightclub a block from the White House in Washington, D.C. To pull it off, they borrowed $350,000 (“thank God for the three F’s—Friends, Family, and Fools,” he jokes), and spent eight months overseeing the construction. When his partner, a married father of three young children, announced to his wife that he was quitting his job as a lawyer at a big downtown D.C. firm to join his old college pal in the venture, she said, “You’re doing what?!”
The Movie Star
Eion, 34, is a professional actor in L.A. who played one of the Space Monkeys in Fight Club and boasts an impressive array of scars and broken bones from taking the role off-screen into various bar and street fights over the years. “I just had an attitude, there’s no other way to put it,” he says. In one particularly gruesome life-imitating-art altercation while on vacation in Brazil, a pair of assailants tried to “curb stomp” him, a la the movie American History X. “One guy had my mouth pinned open just above the curb. Then I got that strength you only get when you know you’re about to die, and wriggled away just before the other guy tried to stomp down on the top of my head.” Three years ago Eion was again in South America when he had a different kind of life-altering experience. While traveling through the remote Sacred Valley of Peru, he came across a group of children walking 12 miles each way to school. Nine months later Eion and two dozen friends returned to the valley, built a playground at the school, and bought the kids a bus, which they retrofitted to run on vegetable oil. Now Eion has partnered with the production company for Extreme Makeover and is pitching the video of that experience as the pilot for a series chronicling similar one-week philanthropic events he hopes to perform all around the world. Working title: Imagine This.
While traditional labels like “Entrepreneur,” “Dreamer,” “Hustler,” “Idealist,” are often used to describe the current wave of young men coming of age, the approximately 20 million American males born between 1976 and 1985 are anything but traditional. Sure, a lot of young men today possess these traits in one form or another, but the four types above—“The Recovering Musician,” “The Bobcat Owner,” “The Club Impresario,” and “The Movie Star,” form the first, unique statistical snapshot of what the evidence suggests is a new era of young American manhood: impatient, technologically-proficient, aggressive, philanthropic—and each, in his own way, perfectly representative of the Made Possible generation.
Earlier in 2010, we spent an hour or more interviewing each of the men above. They are but one loosely connected strand out of the more than 750 guys between the ages of 25 and 34 that Made Possible has interviewed and polled online, in focus groups, and in one-on-one interviews since fall 2009—all collected to form our groundbreaking study. We interviewed engineers and plant managers in the Midwest, office-park types in the South, and guys in dozens of other professions all across the country. The study was tilted toward college-educated men, but we also talked to many with high-school or associate degrees. We struck a roughly equal balance between married and single guys, guys with kids and not. Every ethnic group was represented.
Never before has the phrase “anything is possible” rung truer. Today’s young men can accomplish more with a single Blackberry or iPhone in their hands than entire floors or buildings of men could just two decades ago. Horatio Algier’s twenty-first-century cousin, the Sergey Brin and Larry Page Google story, isn’t just a myth, but a viable business plan being written in garages, dorm rooms, lofts, and cubicles every day. At the same time, "The Great Recession" has dealt a powerful reality check to the Y-chromosome Generation X and Y disciples of these narratives. Coupled with the momentous social changes also ushered in by their generation, forces seem to have conspired to leave them doubting their place in the world even as they’re set to claim it.
As part of the first generation to grow up with computers, today’s young men possess enormous technological advantages over their predecessors. In many ways, they’re smarter, more confident, independent, and coldly analytical in their ability to sort through problems, people, and P&L statements and dispatch with bullshit. And yet they’re also more medicated (two years ago, it was reported that one in twenty American men take antidepressants), more stressed (43 percent report regularly suffering stress-related headaches), and cut off from the mentors and other traditional frameworks that might provide guidance and support.
They’re the first males who from the time they were in diapers shared bathrooms, soccer teams, dorms, grad-school classes, job opportunities, and executive suites with the opposite sex. The dream of the feminists of true gender equality, so elusive for 40 years, has actually come to fruition with this generation of young men. According to Michael Kimmel, sociologist and gender studies scholar, “In the workplace, there is more or less a resigned acceptance of political correctness. Younger men are less homophobic, less sexist, and less racist, and it shows in their daily encounters.” Yet they live in a world where in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, women already earn more than their male counterparts; where women outnumber men on college campuses by some two million; where they hold 57 percent of bachelor's degrees and 58 percent of graduate degrees; and where nearly twice as many of the jobs lost over the past two years and nearly all of the blame for the financial crisis has been borne by—not young women, but young men. Young women have become a fearsome consumer force in this country, eclipsing the favored role with advertisers and the media long held by 18- to 25-year-old males. Increasingly, the image young men see projected of themselves in popular culture (perhaps you've heard of this little movie series called "Twilight"?) is determined by the single-biggest, most fearsome consumer demographic of all: teen girls.
Despite these changes, young men have good reason to feel optimistic about the future. And, indeed, 93 percent of respondents to our survey say they either “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement “anything is possible,” and 83 percent have either a “very clear” or “clear” idea of what they want to accomplish. Which is why it’s so striking that 79 percent also admit to having significant insecurities about their future, and 63 percent say they fear that financial factors will prevent them from achieving their goals. “It seems like a paradox, but it’s really not,” says Lee Chapman of Crosscut Advisor, LLC, the New York City-based research and strategy firm that worked with Made Possible to highlight these consumer insights and market changes. “These guys are very analytical and realistic about their chances. When anything is possible, what are the chances you will be the one to achieve it? They understand what the opportunities are, but they also know everything that can go wrong. It’s like Al Pacino’s speech in Any Given Sunday, “Life’s a game of inches… One half a step too late or too early you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, you don’t quite catch it.’ These guys see the inches all around them.”
A New Playbook
Part of the problem is that so many of these young men seem to be flying blind. Guy Garcia, a social historian and author of The Decline of Man, a best-selling book published in 2008 that analyzes social currents, spent a lot of time thinking about why so many young men, blessed with so many advantages, seem so stressed out. He thinks it starts with a lack of shared agreement about how to even approach the game. “You have to remember, for 50 years there was a kind of playbook that all guys could follow for being a successful man,” says Garcia. “There were variations, of course, but by and large if you attended certain kinds of schools, pursued certain kinds of careers, got married, worked hard, abided by certain fundamental precepts about character and how to comport yourself, there was a pretty clear path to the kind of life that would allow you to take care of your family and achieve a certain amount of security. At this point, it almost goes without saying: That playbook no longer applies.”
What’s equally apparent, though, at least based on our research, is that a new playbook seems to be emerging. For every young guy in our survey struggling to find his way, there are others who’ve clearly figured out some highly adaptive strategies for the post-9/11, post-tech-revolution, post-financial-meltdown, post-feminist, post-New Moon young man. More intricate and nuanced than the linear strategies that guided their father’s generation (think of it as the West Coast Offense to the old Power I), this new approach to winning the war of inches is still very much in beta, but enough consensus is forming to at least identify a handful of basic precepts:
1. “No one's that smart.”
Gar Kellom, Ph.D., the director of the Men's Center for Leadership and Service at St. John’s University in Minneapolis, has been conducting some fascinating studies about perception and reality of the young men's need and desire for emotional connection and peer support with other young men. He recruits small groups of friends and conducts a series of private one-on-one interviews in which he asks each member of the group how interested he is in talking with his friends about his feelings, anxieties, and the big issues in his life. He has them rate this interest on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most interested. “They almost always rate themselves an 8 or 9,” he says. Then Kellom asks the men to rate their friends’ interest in doing the same thing. “And they always assign their friends a 3 or 4. Then I go to the next guy in the group, same results. So, if everyone in the group is rating their own interest in 8 or 9, who’s really a 3 or 4? The obvious answer is nobody.”
Kellom then shares the findings with the whole group, “and it blows them away,” he says. He subsequently uses that a-ha as the impetus to organize ongoing gatherings to encourage more honest dialogue. Kellom blames the disappearance of traditional all-male enclaves, like men’s clubs, for contributing to the isolation and stress of young men today. “We tend to associate not talking about your feelings with previous generations, but I actually think it’s gotten worse. But once you break through that, it can be really powerful.” Kellom reports in his early studies that one party-hardy St. John’s fraternity was so moved by the experiment, they’ve since taken to holding a weekly “Sensitive Guys Night,” meeting at a different off-campus bar to order bottles of wine and talk about their feelings. “Hey, don't knock it,” says Kellom. “They’re a lot less stressed now.”
Scott, 34, a top music-entertainment network executive, has noticed a similar aloofness and inhibition in his younger colleagues. Scott has long felt the key to his own professional success has been “identifying one or two older mentors in an organization who you know will always have your back. I really can’t emphasize enough how important that’s been for me.” So he was surprised recently when his company started a mentorship program and five younger members of the marketing team were randomly assigned to him to bring along. “These guys had open-door access; they could ask me whatever they wanted. And two were really into it, but the other three almost couldn’t be bothered. They seemed to feel they were busy enough with their work as it was, and, I guess, there wasn’t much they thought I could teach them.”
Scott thinks the attitude probably stems to an extent from today’s social networking culture. “These guys have much bigger networks than I’ll ever have, but I’m not sure they have one or two people they can really count on or even want to count on. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good at working in teams, but at a certain point they seem to prefer going off and figuring it out on their own, as opposed to truly collaborating and seeing what other people think. Then they wonder why, when they hand in an assignment at five o’clock the night before a presentation, it’s not at all what I had in mind.”
2. “There are no secure jobs anymore. Get over it.”
It’s hard to overstate how big an issue lack of job security is for young men today. “It’s like with cancer,” commented one man. “They tell you everything can give you cancer. Same with jobs and money; I have no certainty on anything.”
“I sweat like crazy,” commented another. “The stakes are so high today, I get a pit in my stomach.”
And yet respondents seemed to fall into two distinct groups when it came to this issue: One that’s fairly paralyzed by it, and another that’s accepted it and is developing a strategy for dealing with it.
“It’s something I talk about a lot with my father,” says Brandon, the ad copywriter-turned-nightclub impresario. “He thinks the most important thing is to get a job with a pension. He worked for one place his whole life. But I’m not sure that exists anymore. I can’t tell you how many people I know in advertising that are out of work. Lawyers. Teachers, even. That’s why you always gotta stay one step ahead of the game, and have your side hustle to fall back on. Almost everyone I know, even the people with jobs, have something going on the side.”
Another respondent had this to add: “I really don’t think it’s that hard being a young man today. I suppose it’s tough if you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t like risk. But if you can live with a little bit of risk, just look at all the opportunities.”
3. “You might as well love what you’re doing.”
Justin, the former rock musician, recently applied for an account manager job at The Village Voice. He was nervous, as usual, and had to endure three rounds of interviews. In the last interview, a role-playing exercise, where two of his prospective bosses pretended to be potential clients, Justin was trying to wow them with his command of display rates and CPMs when halfway through the exercise the newspaper’s ad director made a comment that brought Justin up short: “This is all fine, but, you know, that’s really not the reason we’re interested in you. We’d really like to see you bring more of your musician’s background into the process. We’ve got plenty of typical ad people. We don’t want Justin the Ad Guy. We want Justin the Drummer.”
For Justin, it was an eye-opening experience, and it gets to a key insight from our survey: “Fake it until you make it” may have worked during the bubble, but in this economy, no one is going to pay you serious bank to pretend to be something that you’re not and pantomime a career.
There’s another reason, too, for finding a job you’re passionate about, and that’s because, as another respondent astutely put it, “most things really worth doing today are friggin’ difficult!”
Most days for the eight months before the opening of his nightclub, Brandon would be at the job construction site at 6 a.m. and not leave until 3 a.m. When we reached him to interview for this project, he was riding the $40 D.C.-New York City Chinatown Mega Bus to pick up his things before heading back down I-95 for the opening party, and contemplating whether he might have to give up his apartment and temporarily move in with his folks to save money. “I really don’t want to go there,” he says, “but if that’s what I got to do to keep my expenses down until we turn the corner, so be it.”
After featured roles in Fight Club, Band of Brothers, and some dozen other major film and TV projects (including the USA Network spy drama Covert Affairs), Eion has had more personal resources to sink into his possible dream, but that’s just barely put a dent in the order of difficulty. “Early on I pitched the project to one big agent at William Morris, and he was like ‘This is beautiful, there’s no way I could sell this. Don’t you understand, I sell shit!’ I heard that kind of thing all the time.”
Eion understood that the only way for his Peruvian project to work was if it was entertainment first and foremost. And to do that, it had to feel more like a movie, all within the relatively puny budget of a self-financed spec reality show. That meant an almost entirely new way of filming the project.
Bailey tells of a piece of equipment his team employed for capturing the sweeping aerial shots of the Sacred Valley without having to burn the cash on renting a helicopter: a hang glider with a special gyroscope camera fitted to the bottom, developed by an Austrian-born freelance cinematographer and hang gliding enthusiast. To film the scene, the man would literally run and jump off a cliff.
Adding to the drama, the man had brought his rebellious teenage son on the shoot to assist and as a kind of bonding experience to try to repair what was obviously a strained relationship. “Let’s just say there was a lot riding on getting this shot,” says Bailey. “So the first day, the father and son, they’re running down the slope and just as the father’s about to take off ... the whole contraption completely smashes apart. Wrecks the camera, which was $10,000 gone right there. You can tell at this point the son thinks his old man is a total loser. But then his father wants to try again with the backup camera. I’m like, jeez, I don’t know, if we lose this camera, too, we might as well all go home. But he’s pleading with me. So, I’m like: okay, bro, you’re on. So they head back up the slope, they’re running down, the son is steadying the wings … and he makes it this time! Gets the most amazing overhead shots you’ve ever seen. In the process, he ends up setting some sort of record for highest ever-recorded hang glider flight in the Andes. I still can’t believe I let him do it, but sometimes, I guess, that’s just what you need to do, right?”
4. “The more things change...”
As a headhunter for the country’s top advertising agencies, Peter, the bobcat owner, has become something of an amateur psychologist of the nation’s best and brightest. “You should see some of these guys,” he says. “They’re killers.” According to Peter, even the most proficient and highly compensated strategists and search rock stars, though, can fall prone to a condition he believes is sapping young men of their confidence and leaving them prone to self-doubt. “I call it the pussification of America,” he says.
In Peter’s surprisingly well-thought-out analysis, gender equality has been an undeniable boon for workplaces, but it’s created a new “play nice” culture that’s throwing young men off balance. “I don't care what people say, men and women are different. They’re built to respond differently to confrontation and other situations at work, they just are. But these guys don’t feel they can act that way because it could be interpreted as too ‘rough’ or ‘aggressive.’ The problem is, then they hit a rough patch, and they immediately start doubting themselves even more. It’s like, their manhood is right there below the surface. So if they’re criticized in a meeting or told a project is being moved to a female member of the team, it immediately becomes very personal.”
If it wasn’t apparent, Peter doesn’t have these problems. After frittering away $1.5 million in three years, he has other issues, to be sure, but the droll Denverite seems to have a fairly tight leash on his insecurities, and sharing his house with a wild predator and spending several days a week practicing his jabs and kidney punches may have something to do with it. “Hey, it’s not like I don’t have to do my share of negotiating,” he says. “I’m negotiating stuff all the time. Just recently, my wife decided she doesn’t want me hitting people anymore. I’m still allowed to get in the ring and shadow box around, but no smacking people in the face.”
Redundant as it sounds, guys need activities and places where they can just be guys, says Guy Garcia. The author cites his own example of a weekend he recently spent in the woods with his brother-in-law and a bunch of their friends. “It was just a time to stay up late, drink beer, and be jackasses for a day,” he says. At a time when women’s increasing economic power is changing the terms of negotiations in all aspects of men’s lives, it’s these sorts of outlets that help guys “stay true to themselves,” Garcia says, and achieve the most precious male commodity: perspective.
It’s Your Moment
New paradigms and eras aren’t willed into being. They happen gradually as far-flung pods of like-minded souls start arriving at the same conclusions. Then the scriptwriters and musicians pick up on the vibes, and eventually, usually well after the movement is underway, everyone points back to a shared experience, like an episode of the Ed Sullivan Show or Bronx block party, and says, Yeah, that’s the moment we knew.
If 750 men are to be believed, a new era of young American manhood is now in the process of happening. And if you want proof, just tee up the TiVo to past episodes of two of the best shows on TV still aimed at young men. Remember that scene in the season six finale of Entourage. The one where Ari and his wife, have wound up back in couples therapy, and we learn that the money he wants to use to buy the rival Terrance McQuewick Agency, in fact the money he’s been using all along to fuel his conquest of the entertainment industry, is actually hers. And she’s not especially sure she wants to let it ride, especially since she suspects his real motivation may be to settle old scores. It’s then that Ari, sitting beside his wife on the couch, turns from the therapist and, in maybe the most impassioned 20 seconds of the series, declares, “My wife, of all people, should know that when it comes to business, my judgment is never clouded ... So please, please, support me like you always have and I will deliver for us like I always have.” At which point his wife, having heard what she needs to hear, softens and smiles—“Do what you need to do, Ari”—and he swivels back to the therapist: “Can we fuck in here?”
And what about that devastating scene in Peggy's apartment during the third-year finale of Mad Men, when after three seasons of essentially refusing to rely on a single other human being, 60’s ad man Don Draper, his marriage now over, the new business he's been forced to start now just a handful of guys with a phone in a hotel room, sits hat in hand before his long-suffering subordinate, begging her to come work for him again. "I don't know if I can do this, but I'm pretty sure I can't do it alone," he tells her straight out. "Will you help me?
Jump to Mad Men, 2010: In the finale, after returning from his California visit with his three kids, Don proposes to his secretary, whom he had brought along to help with the kids. A surprising development to most—especially Don’s aforementioned protégé Peggy. In fact, the news outshines Peggy’s own major announcement: her discovery and signing of the struggling agency’s first new account since losing Lucky Strike, effectively ending the young company’s darkest time. “You know, I just saved this company,” Peggy tells Joan, the office manager, later, “but it’s not as important as getting married… again.” To which Joan informs Peggy of her recent “promotion” to Director of Agency Operations—“A title, no money of course.” Joan then tries to downplay her annoyance by telling Peggy that she “learned a long time ago not to get all my satisfaction from this job.”
“That’s bullshit!” Peggy retorts.
It’s definitely a bit of irony for these two characters that started out in the first season with the same goal: finding a husband.
The takeaway is clear: Sure, women hold a lot more of the cards now, but in the final analysis they’re still waiting for men to man up—and to recognize that they can’t do this alone.
It’s your moment. To quote Al Pacino’s closing remark In Any Given Sunday: “Now what are you going to do?”
Mark Cohen, former deputy editor of Men’s Journal and editor at Doubledown Media, has written for the New York Times Magazine, Men’s Health, and GQ and was the White Collar Reset columnist for AOL's DailyFinance.com. He is now a full-time marketing consultant for Merrill Lynch.