Bankers no longer buying bottle service? Laid-off construction workers unable to summon the swagger to whistle at a pretty girl? Urban tales of the emasculating effects of unemployment in a society that still measures men by their bank accounts are perennial. But that doesn't explain the recent media frenzy over Dating a Banker Anonymous (DABA)— a blog where the female partners of Wall Street warriors ostensibly vent about how the economic meltdown has morphed their men into "emotional train wrecks," deflating their sex lives along with the Dow. As co-founder Laney Crowell admits, the site was a "joke" in which the rants were in fact amped-up parodies, snookering readers because they echoed an emerging bit of conventional wisdom: that this recession is messing with men's heads.
Most guys still derive the bulk of their self-esteem from work, psychologists say, which makes the latest unemployment data ominous for the male ego: of the 3.6 million people canned since the downturn began in December 2007, more than four fifths have been men. Women are poised, for the first time in history, to become the bulk of the labor force, while fewer than seven in 10 men over the age of 20 are employed at all—the lowest number since World War II, says Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress.
That's the bad news. The worse news is that despite stories (in the New York Post, Advertising Age, and The New York Times, among other publications) that some men are embracing new roles as diaper changers and domestic engineers, the fall in workplace testosterone is unlikely to lead to a decline in the kinds of behavior usually associated with boom-time male hormones. That's because the fundamentals of American manhood have gone remarkably unchanged over the last century. Sure, we men today may be taking care of our kids, our skin and our feelings more than Grandpa Ralph ever did, but we still grapple with the same core problem: proving that we weren't just born male—we've become Men. And during economic crises, men humiliated by their loss of work often compensate by reasserting their worst hypermasculine impulses—doubling down on old alpha-male stereotypes, rather than happily baking the bread that women now win in the workplace.
Let's start with the myth of the new diaper daddies. The American Time Use Survey shows that in fact laid-off men tend to do less—not more—housework, eating up their extra hours snacking, sleeping and channel surfing (which might be why the Cartoon Network, whose audience has grown by 10 percent during the downturn, is now running more ads for refrigerator repair school). Unemployed women, in contrast, spend twice as much time taking care of children and doing chores. Nor do former working stiffs necessarily reconnect with their families: following alcoholics and drug addicts, they're the most likely demographic to beat their female partners.
But if we look behind us, male misbehavior during recessions shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as American men have responded to layoffs with consistency through the years: seeking solace in the bottle, railing against women, walling themselves away in all-male enclaves and searching for vicarious achievement through sports and popular culture. During the first three decades of the 20th century, for instance, when thousands of men lost their jobs in a series of recessions and many more found themselves crowded by a new breed of fast-talking, cigarette-smoking gals around the office, the male reaction was typical.
According to "Manhood in America," sociologist Michael Kimmel's history of masculinity under trial, big-city saloons flourished, despite flooding the market with more than one taproom per 200 residents, while bookstores overflowed with guy-friendly tales of the mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan (1910) and the new adventures of Tarzan of the Apes (1912). Men also carved out their own new space in the house, christening "the den" around 1905 in the depths of another 20-something-month economic meltdown. Meanwhile, rather than extend a hand to the fairer sex, men blamed women for their professional woes. Author Norman Cousins even offered a straightforward, albeit ridiculous, solution to the Great Depression: remove the silk-kneed imports. "Simply fire the women, who shouldn't be working anyway, and hire the men," he advised. When that didn't happen—women were paid far less than men—many laid-off men went to the gym—which was good news for Angelo Siciliano, a.k.a. Charles Atlas, who opened his first training center in 1927. By 1942, Atlas Bodybuilding was the most successful mail-order business in U.S. history thanks to men who pumped their bodies as their egos deflated.
So how do we break this cycle of sitcom behavior? A good first step would be for men to stop defining masculinity in market terms—and for women to feel comfortable with that. As the DABA girls suggested, laid-off men are often less sexy to their female counterparts. During the Depression, one study found that almost 60 percent of men experienced a chilling effect on their conjugal relations. "When money goes, love flies out of the window," said one man. Of course, not everyone is losing in this shifting male landscape. PornHub.com now has more monthly traffic than Fox News.