This is the great paradox of our time: In 2017, it has never been easier for us to satisfy our wants, but we seldom have been more dissatisfied. In the United States, in Europe, in Latin America, and even (more quietly) in parts of Asia and in Australia, there is a sense that things are not going quite right, that the old order — not only in politics but also in commercial and religious life — is dead on its feet. People have turned to leaders and movements of very different kinds — Hugo Chávez, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, black-mask anarchism — in search of alternatives. In a sense, they are all the same: Those who had felt themselves to be on the outside looking in are now on the outside looking out.
Once, the question the ambitious and dissatisfied asked themselves was: “How do I climb that ladder?” Current tastes run more toward smashing the ladder and the hierarchies for which it stands in the name of . . . whatever: feminism or anti-feminism, black liberation or white nationalism, global justice or national sovereignty.
We spend our days surrounded by great miracles and minor irritations. My friend Jay Nordlinger recently recounted how Joseph Stalin allowed the film The Grapes of Wrath to be shown in the Soviet Union, believing that to see an indictment of capitalism from within the beast itself would be salutary for the proletariat. The proletariat took another lesson from the film: The Joads, apparently the poorest people in America, had a Ford, a luxury no working man in the workers’ paradise could dream of. A similar story is told about the television series Dallas: The Soviets thought their subjects would recoil from the mischief of J. R. Ewing and his Texas oil cronies, but all the poor Russians could see was that American servants lived better than Soviet doctors and professors. If we could share our daily tales of woe with our great-grandparents — e.g., my complaints about the Wi-Fi on airplanes — they would not take from that the conclusion we intended.
We do not have a problem of privation in the United States. Not really. What we have is something related to what Arthur Brooks (“the most interesting man in Washington,” Tim Alberta calls him) describes as the need for earned success. We are not happy with mere material abundance. We — and not to go all Iron John on you, but I think “we” here applies especially to men — need to feel that we have earned our keep, that we have established a place for ourselves in the world by our labor or by other virtues, especially such masculine virtues as physical courage and endurance. I suspect that is a big part of the reason for the exaggeratedly reverential, practically sacramental attitude we current express toward soldiers, police officers, and firemen. Of course they are brave and deserve our gratitude, but if we had felt the need to ceremonially thank everyone for their service in 1948, we’d never have done anything else with our time. In 2017, there are many more jobs for courtiers than for soldiers, and the virtues earning the highest return are not bravery or toughness but conversational cleverness, skill in social navigation, excellence in bureaucracy, and keenness in finance.
But of course the martial virtues are not the only masculine ones, and men can hardly complain when the commanding heights of our culture and economy, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to high-level chess, are occupied disproportionately by men.
But what kind of men? Young ones, mainly.
Here is something interesting via Stack Exchange: The average age at which a chess grandmaster born before 1945 was awarded the title “grandmaster” was slightly over 26 years of age. Among chess players born after 1970, the average age for being recognized as a grandmaster is 23. For those born after 1975, it is 22; after 1980, 21; after 1985, 20; after 1990, 18 years and six months. Related: Of the ten largest U.S. companies as measured by market capitalization, none was founded by a man over 50. Only a handful were founded by men over 40, and some of those men, notably Thomas Edison, had impressive careers prior to the founding of their corporate legacies. The average age of their founders at the time of their founding was 29. John D. Rockefeller was 31 when he founded Standard Oil, but he’d already owned a refining business before that. Jeff Bezos was 30 when he founded Amazon. Bill Gates was 20 when he founded Microsoft. Albert Einstein was 42 when he was awarded the Nobel prize, but he won it for work done in his early 20s. Charles Darwin was 50 when he published The Origin of Species, but he was 22 when he set sail on the HMS Beagle and 30 when he published his famous account of that trip.
The newly unemployed man of 40 seeking to reinvent himself is not in the most promising position.
Two things are going on here related to American unhappiness: The first is that as our economy becomes less physical and more intellectual, success in life is less like war and more like chess, and extraordinary success in life — i.e., being part of the founding of a successful new company — is a lot like being a grandmaster: It is an avenue that simply is not open to everyone. It requires talents that are not distributed with any sense of fairness and that are not earnable: Hard work is not enough. Peter Thiel is both a successful entrepreneur and a ranked chess master — and these facts are not merely coincidental.
You can blame Thiel a little bit for the second factor in American unhappiness: Facebook. Facebook and other social-media communities are a kind of ongoing high-school reunion, the real and unstated purpose of which is to dramatize the socioeconomic gulf between those who have made it in life and those who have not. We simply know more about how our more successful friends and neighbors live than our ancestors knew about John D. Rockefeller, about whom they thought seldom if at all. Our contemporary tycoons have reality shows (some of which blossom into presidencies, oddly enough), but social media is itself a kind of reality show for everybody else.
Our contemporary tycoons have reality shows (some of which blossom into presidencies, oddly enough), but social media is itself a kind of reality show for everybody else.
It is not that a modern bus driver can’t live as well as Ralph Kramden did — he lives much better. But Ralph Kramden had something that made his relative lack of financial success much more bearable: Alice.
Even in this age of plenty, when work has become for so many of us more pleasant and more interesting than it was a generation or two ago, most of us are not going to have the kind of jobs that high-school guidance counselors like to call “careers,” which is to say, jobs that are so important and meaningful to us that they form the anchor of our sense of self and our sense of self-worth. Most of us will just have jobs, things that we have to do in exchange for money, positions about which we do not necessarily have any strong feeling other than perhaps the fear of losing it.
But the marriage and family that once was a source of security is today a source of insecurity, an unstable and uncertain thing scarcely defended by the law (it is far, far easier to walk away from a marriage than from a student loan) and held in low regard by much of society. Again, this works differently for men than for women: A single mother is still a mother, but a father who lives apart from his children and their mother is not a father in full. If he is not fixed in this world by being a father and a husband, and if he has only ordinary, unexceptional employment, what, exactly, is he? Self-sufficient, perhaps, and that isn’t nothing. But how does he stand in relation to other men, to his neighbors, and to those who came before him and will come after him? His status is vague, and it is precarious.
And there is the paradox within our paradox: The world is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, and many of us have trouble finding our place in it, in part, because it is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, so much so that we have lost touch with certain older realities. One of those realities is that children need fathers. Another is that fathers need children.
But these are what my colleague David French calls the “wounds that public policy will not heal.” Our churches are full of people who would love to talk to you about healing, but many have lost interest in that sort of thing, too. And so they turn to Trump, to Le Pen, to Chavismo (which is what Bernie Sanders is peddling), and, perhaps, to opiate-induced oblivion. Where will they turn when they figure out — and they will figure it out — that there are no answers in these, either?
And what will we offer them?