As I See It: Isolation
March 9, 2009 Victor Rozek
During the Great Depression, it was common that people greeted each other with a question. In shops, bars, and on the street, anxious men glanced self-consciously at one another and asked the only question that mattered: “Are you working?” Absent a social safety net, work was everything. It staved off hunger and the specter of bread lines and tent cites. It provided today’s security and tomorrow’s dignity; and made you the object of envy among the unemployed.
For women, it was different, albeit no less painful. Some found jobs for starvation wages; many weren’t expected to work outside the home; and most had a solid, familial sense of self that was not dependent on being employed. Unlike men, they were able to withstand the economic pounding without taking the blows personally.
If history and research can be trusted, when the dust from the current financial collapse settles, the women will again be standing taller and straighter than the men. The reasons are worth pondering, especially if you’re male and in danger of losing your job. And the trend is not encouraging. According to Newsweek, 30 percent of males over the age of 20 are unemployed. And, of the 4.1 million people who have lost their jobs in 2008, four-fifths have been men.
But losing a job is an external event over which we have little or no control. Our response is a matter of choice, however, and determines how much power the event ultimately has over us. And, by and large, women have healthier responses than men.
The quandary for men is that they tend to internalize adversity, and are more likely to exacerbate it by responding to events with a combination of aimlessness (like TV and Internet surfing) and character flaw (like booze and drugs). The culprit is not sex, but that most mythical of American male values, rugged individualism, and its crowning imperative, self reliance. For the male, invested in the self-made-man image, the belief that “I have to do it alone” leaves few options if he can’t actually do it alone.
American men grapple with a dynamic tension created by two seemingly contradictory wants: the desire for freedom and the need for connection. Technology was expected to tip the scales toward connection, but in spite of cell phones, texting, email, and all of the other knickknacks of connectivity, we are more isolated than ever before.
Here are some numbers courtesy of Harvard Medical School psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, authors of The Lonely American. Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 “the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three to two.” But that number is only reflective of people who are actually willing to self disclose. “Even more stunning,” say the authors, “the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled.” By 2004, a quarter of those surveyed reported having nary a single confidant. “The country is now filled with them,” say the authors. And since women are far more likely to reach out and create community, most of the people without close friends are men.
Demographic data support American’s growing isolation. The last census showed that “. . . one of four households consists of one person only.” A one person household is like a one man band, an oxymoron that fails to account for the fact that there is no one home to share your music. And excessive aloneness exerts a high price. Medical research has shown that isolation takes its toll on health and well being. Loners die sooner, have weaker immune systems, are more vulnerable to an assortment of illnesses, and don’t handle stress as well as their socially connected counterparts. The authors cite a study of 308 American cities that found that “deaths from alcoholism and suicide increase when people live alone.”
The tendency to isolate is so strong, however, that even when men are in relationship the default, more often then not, is going-at-it-alone. As Olds and Schwartz put it: “As self-reliant Americans, we are automatically prepared to question the value of our strongest bonds and to step away from them when necessary, relying instead on ourselves.” Thus, isolating can result in ignoring or even mistreating those closest to us. Tony Dokoupil, writing for Newsweek, references the American Time Use Survey, which shows that “laid-off men tend to do less–not more–housework, eating up their extra hours snacking, sleeping, and channel surfing.” Nor does unemployment spur reconnecting with a partner. “Following alcoholics and drug addicts, [unemployed men] are the most likely demographic to beat their female partners.” Conversely, unemployed women spend twice as much time with their kids and tending to the house.
The dream of the defiant hero, standing alone to face down life’s adversities dies hard. The great irony is that many men think they are emulating the Lone Ranger even as they sit home watching him; sifting endlessly through cable channels, beer in one hand, remote in the other. Evidently, in an interdependent world, the sole qualification for claiming self-reliance is not “solving the problem,” but never asking for help.
Not surprisingly, male identity is still closely linked to the job. Unlike Depression-era people, we no longer ask “Are you working;” rather we want to know “What do you do?” Your job title or occupation immediately stratifies you in the social bedrock. And when that identity is lost, there is an urgency to replace it with something of stature. When nothing is available, says Dokoupil, “men humiliated by their loss of work often compensate by reasserting their worst hyper-masculine impulses, doubling down on old alpha-male stereotypes.” In past recessions, that has meant finding refuge in sports and popular culture, hitting the bottle or the gym, and vilifying women as the cause of the problem. Not much has changed.
Times are tough, but isolating will only make them tougher. If you can’t take care of your finances, you have to take care of yourself. IT is insular by nature. Coding can be a solitary pursuit, and developing a relationship with a computer is less demanding and more predictable than the messiness that comes with people. To get through the rough patches, IT professionals may have to make a conscious effort to reach out.
Ultimately, our protection lies in connection. The truth of Franklin’s adage after the signing of the Declaration of Independence–that we must hang together or we shall surely hang alone–goes far beyond politics. Talk with your partner, reconnect with friends, deepen ties to co-workers. Stay current. Talk about something more meaningful than A-Rod’s steroid problems, or who T.O. will play for next season. Be a listener. Eat meals together, and turn off the television. Ask for help and offer it.
We are facing a systemic problem that will need to be solved in community. As should be evident by now: Winning at the expense of others eventually brings everyone down. Close relationships support people in the same way that cables support a suspension bridge. More cables provide more safety and a greater likelihood that the bridge will survive the worst stresses and storms. Each cable does its part. Without them, the bridge collapses. “Loneliness,” say Olds and Schwartz, “was never the goal. It’s just the spot where too many people wind up.”
Don’t allow yourself to end up there.