Older Men Grapple With Masculinity, Social Isolation and Ensuing Challenges

By Jennifer Dawn Carlson

My dad was a workaholic. He would toggle between work and more work, and then brief­ly relocate to the dark corners of sports fandom and politics, then return to yet more work.

My family wondered whether he’d have a heart attack on the day he retired, sud­denly unable to face life without the buffer of occupation. We weren’t wrong; he retired a few months early once diagnosed with a terminal disease.

Though we had a hard time parsing it, we realized that throughout his life, my dad was emo­tionally closed off from family and friends; he barely had the emotional wherewithal to face life, let alone death. But that wasn’t the hardest part.

My dad’s disease led to a paradoxical and tragic isolation: though frequently surrounded by friends and family, he became a prisoner in his own body, withdrawn emotionally and physically. He was stoic—perhaps understandably—as animated by the American male archetypes portrayed onscreen by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—characters who rarely showed their feelings. Men in our society largely are discouraged from expressing a full range of emotions, absorbing the dic­tum, “Boys don’t cry.”

While it has taken time for me to come to terms with Dad’s emotional limitations, his loneliness and self-isolation have become clear in retrospect: these are serious mental health challenges that beset many older adults, and while women tend to seek out support for depression at higher rates than men, loneliness and social isolation have put aging men at increased risk—helping to explain why older men are at the highest risk for suicide in America. I have also realized a second, related part of the puzzle that was my dad: stoicism and withdrawal often are how men grapple with mas­culinity as they are compelled to live it in our country.

Bullied in Childhood, Isolated as Adults

In my research as a professor of sociology and government and author of the book “Citizen-Protec­tors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline,” I have come to see how social isolation, loneliness and the demands of masculinity, plus aging, can form a deadly stew.

Crying would be a justified response to much of what boys and men face growing up in America. Twenty-two percent of all students ages 12 to 18 are victimized by bullies, but boys are more likely to be physically bullied. Such victims experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health-related issues; more physical health problems; negative impacts on school performance; and suici­­dality. There are long-term mental and social impacts, including lasting difficulties in forming fulfilling friendships and relationships rooted in trust and reciprocity.

The emotional and mental health effects of bullying occur in the short term and prevail through­out life. If bullying is a powerful vehicle by which boys are policed into masculinity, as sociologist 

C. J. Pascoe has shown, then the fall-out is not just a masculinity identity (albeit fragile), but also social isolation. As boys enter late adolescence, they disengage from inti­macy, lose social connectedness and experience increased isolation—the cost (called the “crisis of connection” by psychologist Niobi Way) of becoming men in today’s American society.

Social Spaces, Masculinity and a Vicious Cycle

Social institutions, such as the workplace, that men inhabit tend to reinforce the precarity of mas­culine identity and the stigmatization of emotional expression—making withdrawal feel normal and natural. Jobs in a late-capitalist economy tend to emphasize cut-throat competitiveness, and stable employment with benefits has become harder to find.
In being unemployed or underemployed, men may increasingly feel isolated and useless in a society where worth is based on being a provider—a theme detailed in “Citizen-Protectors." The gun-carrying men I interviewed didn’t find guns appealing because they represented a kind of totem for aggressive manhood, but because gun possession allowed them to assert a sense of social relevance, dignity and even authority to their families. And research finds that not only are men more likely to be gun owners, but married men in particular.

The social and cultural spaces in which men are encouraged to suss out their social worth of­ten are defined by “traditional masculinity”—the military, gun culture, sports or certain substrata of politics—where men are encouraged to embrace aggression and competitiveness. But merely viewing social spaces as places where men learn to assert their masculinity is too simple; yes, there are nu­merous examples of masculinity insecurity and resultant bravado found in them, but also they can be spaces where many men try to negotiate how to build emotional capacity and intimate relationships. As Michael Messner shows in his memoir, gun culture (that includes father-son activities like hunting) provides a rare space for male intimacy. Guns connect sons, fathers and grandfathers through bonds of intimacy, but also insulate them from vulnerability because firearms are tools of domination and violence.

But these social opportunities come up short—with dire results. While it is true that the vast majority of men do not engage in violence against others, it also is true that boys and men are vastly overrepresented as perpetrators (and, for that matter, victims) in most violent crimes.

Social isolation—and the tools available to men to deal with it—may help to explain why some boys and men turn to violence to exact control or domination; for some men, masculinity is one of the few tools at their disposal, which helps to explain high rates of violence among men experienc­ing other social disadvantages, such as poverty and racism. It also appears to be the case in active shootings, which often are characterized by shooter fantasies of revenge and retaliation; only three of 166 active shooters since 1966 were women.

More generally, men are more likely to experience social isolation than are women, having few­er relationships and less depth of intimacy in those relationships. This gender gap translates to disparities in mental health and physical health outcomes that have been linked to social isolation, from increased stroke risk to suicidality. A vicious cycle is formed, as those experiencing homeless­ness, unemployment and-or poor physical or mental health are more at risk for social isolation. And older age is similarly shaped by social inequality, as are other life course phases, with profound effects for social withdrawal.

Solving the Problem, Reaching Our Full Potential

This cycle stands to rob us of our full potential as human beings. And our public conversations often reinforce it, calling men out as “broken” because they have succumbed to so-called toxic masculinity, but providing few tools to address the problem.

Whether by virtue of our changing social structures, increased economic inequality or the ef­fects of social lives lived online, our populace is losing its ability to sustain social intimacy and to build fulfilling emotional lives. Berating men for “toxic masculinity” is too easy; getting to the root of it requires a social science-informed appreciation of the causes and consequences of social iso­lation—for both men and women. Men are not the problem. Our toxic, alexithymic culture is.

This brings me back to my dad. Work was a viable option to prove his chops as a man, but it also was a debilitating crutch, allowing him to disengage from the emotional world that makes life meaningful. For him, and for other men who find themselves at the end of life experiencing ineluc­table isolation, facing the fall-out from the demands of masculinity came too late. But it doesn’t have to be this way: we can transform how we engage with one another, build social structures that encourage us to do so and find possibilities for full emotional lives.

Jennifer Dawn Carlson is an assistant professor of Sociology and Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, and is the author of Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2015).