Millions of dads won’t admit it, but what they really want for Father’s Day isn’t an Apple watch or a Tom Brady jersey or a hair transplant.
What they really want is good financial health. For lack of a better term, they want to feel more like a man.
That’s not a socially acceptable way of putting it, but the fact is society still largely expects men to be breadwinners. And every respectable father wants to provide a better life for his kids than he had growing up.
We call it the American Dream, and making it come true has increasingly become a pipe dream.
People born in 1940 had a 92% chance of making more than their parents, according to a Stanford University study. People born in 1980 have a 50% of making more than their parents, and the chances have continued dropping every year since then.
It’s no coincidence that median real income for men has been on a 45-year decline. Adjusted for inflation, it was $53,609 in 1972. It was $52,146 in 2017, the most recent year reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages, according to Northwestern Mutual’s 2018 Planning and Progress Study. That presents a huge challenge for both sexes, but the struggle affects them differently.
Men are conditioned to be stoic Conan the Barbarian characters that protect women and children from evil. That’s a big task, and you never heard Conan fretting over rising credit card interest rates or his measly 401(k) account.
It’s hard to escape the Conan concept, even in church. According to 1 Timothy 5:8, “A husband is required by God to care for the good of all in the family. But if any man does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
No man wants that on his resume.
It’s not just pop culture and religion that promotes Conan-hood. It’s also genetics. A 2014 report titled “How a New Father’s Brain Changes” found that women think about cuddling or feeding babies. Men think about saving money for college. Good luck with that these days.
Failing to fulfill fatherly duties can have serious implications. Men account for almost 80% of suicides in the United Kingdom. After the rate hit a 15-year high in 2014, a study found that 42% of men felt pressure to be a family’s main breadwinner, as opposed to only 13% of women.
About 40% of Americans believe it’s extremely important for a father to provide for children, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. Only 25% think that for women.
None of which means every father needs suicide counseling, but there’s no question men feel less masculine when they’re struggling financially. Bread-winning has become more difficult thanks to globalization, technology, government policies and other large-scale forces.
The practical fallout has led to worries Conan never had to deal with.
For one thing, Conan’s grown kids didn’t freeload off the Old Man. About 22% of Millennials are living with their parents, double the number that did in 2001.
One reason is student loan debt, which has reached $1.6 trillion. Parents aren’t responsible for most federally funded loans but they have co-signed for billions in private loans, and many have mentally co-signed for federal loans. A 2019 survey by College Ave Student Loans found that while 72% of parents plan to pay at least part of their children’s student loans.
All this is making it harder than ever for fathers to provide for their families. It also makes it harder for Dad to provide for his and Mom’s retirement.
One in three retiring Americans will find themselves in or near poverty in the next 10 years, according to a 2019 study by the Schwartz Center for Economic and Policy Analysis.
Now that’s worrisome, though don’t expect most fathers to say much about it. Males tend to internalize such things, partly because they don’t want to seem vulnerable.
But there are red flags to look for. Paying bills with credit cards is a big one. Or putting off vacations and being overly frugal, like turning off every light to save electricity. That’s another thing Conan never did.
So what can be done to help ease this strain?
If you’re over 23 and still living in the room you grew up in, you might consider a more independent living situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean moving out, but you could pay some household bills as if you were living on your own.
You could also try to turn out the light when you leave a room. It won’t make much of an impact on the electric bill, but the token gesture would show a beleaguered father you care.
Being in debt raises that anxiety level. Unfortunately, paying off someone’s credit cards is not a gift most people are in a position to give.
What they can do is find ways other people have escaped the hole. Invariably, those people did it by modifying their spending habits.
Economics have gotten a lot more complicated than when Conan was taking care of business, but society still expects a man to be a man.
Anything you can do to help would be a Father’s Day gift your dad would truly cherish.
Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.
- Parker, K. Livingston, G. (2018, June 13). 7 Facts About American Dads. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/13/fathers-day-facts/
- Looney, A. Lee, V. (2018, November 27). Parents are borrowing more and more to send their kid to college – and many are struggling to repay. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/parents-are-borrowing-more-and-more-to-send-their-kids-to-college-and-many-are-struggling-to-repay/
- Landhuis, V. (2015, September 1). How a New Father’s Brain Changes. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-a-new-father-s-brain-changes/?redirect=1
- Parker, K. Stepler, R. (2017, September 17). American’s see men as the financial providers, even as women’s contributions grow. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/20/americans-see-men-as-the-financial-providers-even-as-womens-contributions-grow/