Ward Cleaver Makes a Playdate

He rattled off his routine: Get up, go to the gym, have lunch, take a shower, surf job sites. “The one thing I didn’t include,” he said, “is the lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for a half-hour, going, ‘Dear God, do I have to get up again and do this again?’”

Howard Young, 57, a purchasing manager who had been at his company for 13 years before being laid off last year, was out of work for six months before finding a new job in January. “I know that my mother was home a lot during the ’50s, and she was the type of person who liked to work a lot. She would watch TV …  sort of get into a rut, get very depressed. I found myself getting into a rut, too,” he said. “The only thing that saved me from getting into a worse rut is the fact that I consumingly hate morning television. That absolutely helped.”

What was before a warm and welcoming place to look forward to going at the end of the day is now a prison. “I want to think of my home as a relaxing place where I’m not subject to … stresses,” Mr. Elrod said. “Since I don’t have a job, a lot of the stresses about finding a job-I suffer that at home.”

When he was still in college, Mr. Biddle used to regard coming home as something of a reward. “Now it’s an endless plain of getting out of my bed, sitting on the couch. And we don’t have any chairs, really, so it’s always a constant state of like, reclining. There’s nowhere to be, like, upright and uncomfortable. So yeah, it’s a lethargic daze all the time.”

Back in Queens, Norm told The Observer he’d heard about a job at a major international corporation. He sat down at the table in his airy, open-plan living space and opened a pristinely white MacBook, which he operated with a wireless mouse. A few minutes later, he looked up from the screen and remarked that Betty White is starting a new clothing line.

The void created by unemployment is easily filled by the Internet, and unemployed men seem to devour blogs in much the same way as ’50s housewives devoured Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. Mr. Young said he spent quite a bit of time reading blogs about depression and anxiety. “They were almost in a way self-fulfilling,” he said.

Brad described his own and his friends’ unemployment as being “kind of like, ‘All right, something new just came out on iTunes 30 seconds ago, and I know because I’ve been sitting at my computer refreshing the screen all day long; there’s nothing else to do.’”

Mr. Elrod prefers Salon, and The New York Times‘ Economix blog, but isn’t sure all the extra time he spends on them has actually made him better informed. “I remember when the airplane crashed in the Hudson, I didn’t know about it until my wife mentioned it that night, and I was on the computer all day!”

He eventually clicked over to the hiring site, laughing when he espied the front page. “I love corporate job sites,” he said sarcastically, gesturing to the blandly attractive, ambiguously ethnic woman welcoming him to the site.

 

‘Canned Chili’

THERE ARE WAYS that men make domestic malaise feel a little more masculine. Nearly all the unemployed men we talked to made sure to emphasize their regular workouts. (Friedan wrote of housewives’ meticulous beauty regimes: “The strained glamour is in itself a question mark: the lady doth protest too much,” which may or may not apply here.) For some men, child care is apparently still a pleasant novelty: The Observer encountered John Harvey, a 35-year-old surgeon who’s between jobs, having a water-balloon fight in Central Park with his 5-year-old son, Somers. Both were eager to tell us that Dad’s time not working has been a “lovely summer holiday.” “We’ve been spending a lot of time together,” John said. “It’s been really nice.” Somers agreed: “It’s been really good, yeah!”

And then there are the spectator sports! “World Cup pretty much dominated my life for about a month,” Mr. Barr said. “So there was someplace to go every day in the middle of the afternoon, and I pretty much hit half the bars/restaurants on the Lower East Side during that period. When World Cup ended, I kind of looked around and was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to come up with things to do.’”

Like the middle-class women who populated Friedan’s opus, this new mystified class expresses a dissatisfaction more existential than financial. Mr. Elrod has health insurance through his wife’s job. Mr. Biddle is getting by on savings and help from his parents. Mr. Barr can, well, afford to shop at Whole Foods.

But they keenly feel the unfulfilled promise of their expensive educations.

“Part of the frustration is this incredibly long build-up to nothing,” Brad said. “Like, ‘Why did I spend 22 years getting A’s and studying for the chance to eat canned chili?’ … I was in the airport watching people move bags from the curb to the curbside check-in, thinking, ‘At least they do something all day long, and I have $450,000 in education and fancy everything, and I’m sitting around all day and watching 2.5 movies a day?’”

One of Friedan’s most enduring observations is that her society defined men by personhood and women by gender: “barred from the freedom of human existence and a voice in human destiny.” Arguably, the same can be said for the unemployed men of New York.

“I guess there’s a certain feeling of a wholeness when you have work and you have a schedule to maintain, and when all that’s thrown in the crapper, it just puts you in a tizzy,” Mr. Young said.

“For me, the problem was always just a lack of identity,” Brad said. “Like, what am I if I do nothing all day long?”

“When you don’t have an activity with a capital A, yeah, you’re sort of like a cipher,” Mr. Biddle said mournfully.

In the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan suggested an elegant way to end housewife malaise for good: Women ought to work. “One sees the human significance of work-not merely as the means of biological survival, but as the giver of self and the transcender of self, as the creator of human identity and human evolution,” she wrote.

Unemployed men know their feelings of depression and anxiety are caused by not working, and they want nothing more than to work, but the economic obstacle is obvious and always present.

Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate who knew Friedan (their grandmothers were cousins), had an idea. “Men could wake up and retrain themselves-they could become teachers and nurses,” she said tartly. “And this whole notion we have that once a profession turns pink, it can never turn back, I mean, that’s a choice that people make. Nowhere is it written in stone that, like, men shalt not be nurses in large numbers.”

There’s a teacher shortage in math, reading and science, too. “We now know that the same range of potential ability exists for women as for men,” Friedan wrote in 1963. In 2010, if they’re dissatisfied, maybe men need to work like women.

“Obviously, I’m not communing with her ghost,” Ms. Bazelon said of Friedan, “but I imagine she might just get a chuckle out of this recent discussion that the era of men is over and that they’re in trouble.”

editorial@observer.com