Have Men Changed? Curing the Culture of Complaint

We live in a culture of complaint, as Robert Hughes first called it in 1993. Maybe a malicious physician transfused the once belittled stereotype of the angry old white men into the national bloodstream. Some younger men now glorify their righteous anger.

It shouldn’t have been surprising to find the written word “unfairness” used 36% more often in 2018 than in 1961.

Raucous whining was not always tolerated when I grew up. Loud expressions of self-pity and bellyaching served as the stock material of situation comedies. Fulminating males like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Conner’s Archie Bunker depicted the stuff of laughter and futility.

A “real” man projected quiet, decisiveness, and courage, enduring disappointment in silence. Pushed far enough, he settled matters with his fists or on the playing field. After a loss, he got up, shook hands, congratulated his opponent, and returned to do better the next day.

This male accepted the rules. Dads of his kind lived next door to everyone in the 1950s and ’60s. They weren’t an easy bunch, however. A few pushed the family around or worse. Some drank to excess but had comrades and friends who believed in shared sacrifice. Shouldering responsibility was taken for granted.

A dark side lived inside them: crushing, unspoken privacy. One had the sense they kept secrets, things about which they harbored shame.

The “real man” role demanded they carry too much weight, but not the kind measured in numbers on a scale. It came from the psychological armor covering their tender parts. The burden of maintaining a livelihood also added poundage. The home was for the spouse to care for in a time of unmentioned gender discrimination.

Their battlefield, they’d been told, was downtown.

These gents did not kick down or suck up, but the toll of all they were and what they weren’t stalked them. Such fellows put their hearts into fulfilling the standard image of manhood. The ticker continued to beat but also beat them down, failing at an alarming rate in a time before statin medication and a healthy diet.

Much has changed. I’ve described a myth, of course, but one that featured select qualities worth admiring. Its white and black quality matched the lack of color in the movies and on TV. Black men, too, aspired to the white man’s model. They understood endurance.

These fathers were solid. Hard at times, yes, but when a broad hand rested on your shoulder, it encouraged and melted you. You wanted to embody it, to create yourself in the mold out of which it emerged.

The best of men still aspire to a modified version of the old fiction. A new gentleman’s design encourages him to show love to his offspring, listen more, and recite fewer solutions. The spouse is a partner saluted in her desire for fulfillment beyond her mother’s old and conventional slot.

Kids today still want certainty and security from their parents, who, if they allow themselves to remember, recall their own place as children once: young people needful of adults to rely upon.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) acknowledged the challenge: how to persuade your family you will protect them from everything when you aren’t sure you can ensure your own survival.

Bacon believed achieving this required hocus pocus, a magic act of sorts. Guardians hide something, a least for a while:

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.

For most, this entails self-deception, burying enough self-doubts to accomplish the charade, both in the competitive workplace and at home.

Perhaps the irate men of today are finding the masquerade more difficult. They return from work without a living wage of the kind their poppas achieved — if they have employment. Many seek a reason for this outside themselves and, it must be admitted, there is no shortage of unfairness to point to.

Our triple troubles of unemployment, inequality, and pandemic enable the defensive closing of too many minds. Certitude takes the place of thoughtful examination. Belief in demigods squeezes out the supreme beings who are neglected once the sabbath is over.

Simplified answers drip from those who would misuse the widespread terror of failing at the basic job of meeting family expenses and caring for one’s kids. Their demagogic rants offer an example their followers imitate.

Francis Bacon recognized this dilemma, too, offering the remedy of mindful inquiry, not unsupported jumps to judgment:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Despite the distracting and desperate circus performance sometimes masquerading as leadership, the modest, neighborly man and woman deserve respect. The world would do well to toast their everyday labor to make an honorable living and a home.

These decent souls put their families ahead of their own needs. They form the ranks of our best public servants, the people who do their jobs with integrity. This group of adults continues to give us reliance on the democratic republic we live in. Their oath of office binds them to serve the Constitution and not loyalty to any person.

Hope and the possibility of trust survive, partly due to the faceless and nameless citizens who do not place their advancement on the auction block.

Most of us recognize the same values and work to instill them in our children: enough fortitude to overcome hardship, enough effort to meet challenges, and enough humanity to comfort our fellowmen.

In the face of disease and want, the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) add to Bacon’s 400 hundred-year-old guidance. Roosevelt was a daughter of privilege who lost both her parents by age 10. A timid and frightened child by her own report, she became a voice against racism and disadvantage. Her life was a triumph over anxiety and the second-place status of women:

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.


The painting Freedom from Fear, reproduced above, comes from the Four Freedoms, a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

As noted on the United Nations website, “First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt (photographed above) was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East-West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.”

As further noted on the UN website, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.

Understanding Angry Old White Men


He might be your father, brother, or uncle; a friend or a neighbor. He goes off like a roadside bomb or sits and simmers before boiling over. He could also be you: a grumpy, irritable, angry old white man. The kind of creature whose head revolves like a searchlight, looking for something or someone to piss him off; the guy who yells, “Get off my lawn!” Bitterness personified.

Endocrinologists point to low testosterone as a possible cause, especially past 60, when some males begin the hormonal decline. I’ll focus on the human rather than the chemical equation: what it feels like to be an aging white male. Don’t discount the hormonal changes, but research them elsewhere.

Let’s start with what constitutes a young man to better understand the same person in 50 years time.

Males pass through a stage of feeling almost invulnerable and immortal, at least on occasion. They rush to fight wars, compete for mates, and try to climb higher than others. Women perform a selection of these tasks, but few teenaged girls believe themselves indestructible.

I was neither a great athlete nor the smartest person I knew at any point in life. Yet, I know whereof I speak. There are moments when a young man believes he can do almost anything. For some the hubris comes in athletics, in academics for others. The babe-magnets fancy themselves as sex machines. Kids I knew took pride in intimidation, rocket-like racing, placing first in fierceness, or towering over others as regents of recklessness. Even those who broke rules grew in foolish conceit. Boasts were heard about consuming the most beer in the bar.

This silliness seems built-in, tied to the need of early men to attract females and save their own skin from beasts and bullies. Ambition and power fed your chance of spreading your genetic seed, an evolutionary but unconscious imperative. From a survival standpoint, wars wanted winners and trees needed climbing for their fruit.

Among my youthful acquaintances, I’m sure much of this was already present in the watery womb. But I am not talking about angry kids; rather, how the sense of immortality and competitiveness necessary in youth sets some men up for a disappointing and overwrought old age. If a man lived through injustices and disappointments early or late, his rage — once bottled up or transformed into ambition — now goes nowhere productive, at least to no meaningful arena for a staged competition. Such battles as he fought in the world of work or on the athletic field are foreclosed. You can still be an award-winning body builder at 65, but all the comparisons are with people your age. A real man of the old school knows the difference.

The indignities of aging seem to cause women less trouble, or at least less public aggravation. They are better sports and, ironically, superior at manning-up to the depredations of time. The suicide rate of old bucks skyrockets. Data from the American Association of Suicidology indicates the elderly made up only 13% of the population as of 2010, but accounted for 15.6% of all suicides. Moreover, men over 65 committed 84% of suicides by seniors, and this percentage grew as they aged.

Grumpy2Unless you are a rare old man, indeed, you’ve lost a step, an edge, a bit or more of your balance and grace. The IQ and neuropsychological tests display the results; so does the mirror. Even the beer drinking boaster takes longer to recover from his hang-over.

Some domains are uniquely problematic for the male. My physician tells me there are only two categories with respect to an enlarged prostate: those men who have one and those who are going to get one. Nor does the sexual trigger work as dependably and well. A 55-year-old male patient proclaimed: “I’m not the man I once was, but once I’m the man I was.”

I could go on to infinity about aches, pains, loss of hair and color, sun damage to the skin, and more frequent urination. The sixty-something male is sexually less relevant (his studly days having passed), evolutionarily irrelevant for the same reason, invisible to almost everyone (including young women), and gets called “sir” much too often for comfort.

The twenty-first century adds to this list: frustration over mastering the exponential growth of technological change, the supreme domain of youth. You are probably sick of reading my catalog of slow decline, so just imagine the poor guys who are living the descent and whose age-related sleep problems give them more time to stew.

Either retirement or involuntary unemployment is perhaps the biggest loss and driver of a man’s ire. Unless he is extroverted, job site friendships tend to fade away and he has not usually nurtured intimacy outside his family. Too many men lack an identity beyond labor. Women suffer labor pains in childbirth, but men suffer them by the absence of meaningful work. By 60, unless you are so grandiose as to run for President or be a major CEO, your working future is foreshortened.

The situation is different (but no less frustrating) if you remain on the career treadmill due to financial necessity or a failure to accomplish long-time goals. Few of us are like Warren Buffett, Picasso, Stravinsky, or Frank Lloyd Wright, producing wonders late in life.

Voltaire said, “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” Once his formal working life ends, unless the old man possesses enough cash, interests, and friends, he is in trouble. A narrow vocational focus sets him up for a painful retirement or unemployment. Labor provides a sense of worth and accomplishment. Men need to be useful. A job normalizes and distracts him, keeps depression at bay while dissipating the “fight” in the surly chap we are describing.

There is considerable data linking an early retirement to an earlier death: Retirement kills. A vocation orders any life, providing a timetable and a list of tasks. Without the scaffolding that structures perhaps 50 hours or more a week (if we include travel to and from the job) retirement or unemployment can be disorienting and frustrating. It is only a short step to depression, alcohol abuse, anger, or all three. Think again about the place of vice on Voltaire’s list of “three evils” and remember: one of the “seven deadly sins” is wrath.

Time is a cruel and ironic jester to the angry old white male. The latter is both idle during the day and imagines too little lifetime ahead. Moreover, the years pass with a psychological rapidity unknown to the young. Three-hundred-sixty-five days still make a year, but somehow the revolutions around the sun go faster.

The irrelevant elder must either reinvent himself or suffer an internal upset that has eyes: it looks for a target. Neighbors, politics, friends, relatives, children, young people, and minority groups are the usual suspects. The partisan broadcast media stir the political pot and fuel the sense of unfairness. Their incentives, whether a genuine belief in how to right the lopsided world or the lure of big money and influence, spell trouble for those whom they transfix. The poor old exasperated white man is their white bread and butter, regardless.

Once king of his castle, he finds his loyal subjects (aka, his children) have their own lives. Perhaps his proud and powerful fortress is both emptier and shabbier with the passage of time. Since it is not manly to weep, he rants.

Ensign_of_the_21º_Gruppo_(Angry_Wasp)_of_the_Italian_Air_Force.svgNone of this is good for blood pressure or happiness. Nor is the irritable and ancient buck likely to read this or anything else for advice. His anger seems righteous. The problem is perceived to be elsewhere. A spouse hesitates to complain or utter worries about the mental state of a man who resembles Caligula, the insane Roman tyrant. Still, a family intervention might be needed, with the group of relatives and friends reinforcing each other’s concerns about their kinsman. A trusted physician is another possible voice to enlist for advice, diagnosis and treatment of any contributory medical issues.

Therapy or retirement coaching is indicated, but only if you can get this injured soul to submit with an open heart. The odds do not favor a trip to a counselor. Regardless, our subject has a selection of possible tasks to complete for a better life:

  • Develop hobbies if they are absent. Join community organizations or volunteer for causes he believes in. Serving as a mentor to the young can give value to the experience of a lifetime.
  • Erect a new structure for his days both to keep him focused off his grievances and on to something to give him meaning. If possible and necessary, get back to work part-time or start a new business.
  • Learn cognitive-behavioral methods to control rage.
  • Make new friends or search out old companions, especially if they can make him laugh.
  • Learn to take the aging process as a less personal affront. Life has not singled anyone out.
  • Go back to school. Take a free MOOC (massive open online course) such as those found at Coursera, join a lifelong-learning program (National Lewis University), or something like the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. The latter two examples provide not only the stimulation of learning, but face-to-face interaction with same-aged peers who might become new friends.
  • Limit exposure to the news stories or political pundits whose job is to fan the glowing, incendiary embers inside.
  • Join a story-telling group. Old men with a gift for performance can deliver some wonderful reminiscences, so they might as well be put to good use with a receptive audience.
  • Stretch and exercise regularly. Take good care of the body.
  • Any excavation underneath the anger to an elderly person’s hurt is a dangerous business. Grieving is the work of the young and middle-aged. The old rarely have enough future time or opportunity to redeem the past. Some can handle grieving the failure to achieve early goals and life’s losses, but many can’t. For those carrying too much disappointment, age dictates a more supportive therapy rather than one to search the depths of the soul.
  • Learn to appreciate what remains.
  • Consider antidepressant medication.

Lost time, diminished abilities, and the realization of mortality drive a few people mad — mad in both senses of the word. There is no time to waste. Most men are offered two opportunities for heroism: the risk-taking of a robust youth and a walk into the twilight of life. Dylan Thomas’s recommendation to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (listen to him below) doesn’t serve most of us well. The twilight can be beautiful or terrifying. Which one depends on luck and attitude. Since we control but one of these, the only real choice is to change the latter from terror and anger to gratitude for what we still have, acceptance of what we don’t, and pride in a life well-lived.

The image of the Angry Man is by Emery Way. The cartoon is the Ensign of the 21° Gruppo (Angry Wasp) of the Italian Air Force by       F l a n k e r. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.