My father’s generation of men, who came of age during World War II, was defined by work. By that I mean paid work—not the essential but socially invisible unpaid work done by their wives. On Labor Day 1971, President Richard Nixon defined the American work ethic as the belief “that labor is good in itself” but also as the embodiment of the nation’s “competitive spirit.” There was a troubling paradox here for every working man whose main job was bringing home a paycheck. Is doing any job to the best of your ability enough, or do you have to do better in competition with and by comparison with others?
I doubt that the question of whether the very act of work was invested with intrinsic goodness occurred to most of my father’s contemporaries when they were in the prime of their lives. Even if the question did arise, the necessity of working to take care of a family overwhelmed any pointless speculation about whether a job was dignified or undignified, personally fulfilling or barely tolerable. My father was an accountant who had once, he told me late in his life, wanted to become a high school history teacher—before the Depression forced him to drop out of college.
Feminists have described the suppression of women’s worldly ambition as they price they had to pay for a postwar middle-class social covenant in which they were in charge of the home and men were in charge of paying for the home. The men of my father’s generation, however, were largely silent about the covenant’s cost to them. Many struggled with competing demands of home and work just as hard-pressed working mothers do today; the difference is that social convention required the men to keep their mouths shut about whatever they were feeling.
One can only imagine the ridicule that would have greeted a male executive in 1953 if he had written a cri de coeur like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” an essay in The Atlantic on her decision, in the best interest of her family, to leave a top-level policy job in the State Department for a tenured professorship at Princeton University. “I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women,” she acknowledged. “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.” This litany suggests that the “all” in “having it all” is relative. (Even that much turned out not to be quite enough for Slaughter, who took a job as head of the prestigious New America Foundation after her essay was published.)
Slaughter, married to another tenured professor at Princeton, is making luxury choices unavailable to most women or men in this country—now or in the past. So is Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her best-selling book Lean In, describes the choice of a “life partner” as “the single most important career decision that a woman makes.” You can have it all, Sandberg says, if you choose a man who wants you to have it all and proves it by sharing responsibility for child-rearing. (Slaughter disagrees; one major point in her essay is that too many women cherish the myth that the right partner will enable them to have it all. This disagreement did not, however, prevent Slaughter from writing a highly favorable review of Sandberg’s book in The New York Times in March. Let no one doubt the potency of the new old-girl network.)
The experience of men who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s indicates that no one can have it all—however ardently that ideal world is desired by both women and men of vaulting ambition and achievement. The notion that men “had it all” because they made all the money while the children were maintained on the back burner at home by the wife represents an extraordinarily unimaginative view of the emotional satisfaction that can, and cannot, be bought.
Both Tom Brokaw’s idealized and idealistic portrait of what he calls the “greatest generation” and the cynical Mad Men, whose male characters are roughly divided between the men who fought in the war and the younger generation born during the Depression, are equally obtuse about the conflicted hearts of the men they portray. Brokaw, known as a hardheaded reporter, abandons any objectivity and skepticism when it comes to the war generation. They are, he says, simply the greatest. “While I am periodically challenged on this premise,” he writes, “I believe I have the facts on my side. . . . They love each other, love life and love their country, and they are not ashamed to say just that.” Does it really make people “the greatest” simply because they were the right age to participate in what Americans still consider the last good war?
Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, goes to the opposite extreme. Born in 1965, which places him in the post–baby boom cohort known to sociologists as Generation X, Weiner presents male characters who elicit and exhibit little sympathy or empathy. Regardless of their backgrounds, they inhabit an immensely wealthy, white upper-middle-class universe as adults. Their work is lucrative (at least at the top levels), but it could hardly be seen as intrinsically dignified, since the advertising business is dedicated to selling products that, in many instances, are not only unneeded but in some cases positively harmful.
The show’s antihero, Don Draper, although he is rich by the standards of the decade and leads a glamorous life, may occasionally brood about some issue at the office, but he’s always back the next day at his desk, from which he urges the other members of his team to figure out how to continue to sell more of everything from cigarettes (in the wake of the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report providing the first irrefutable evidence that, yes indeed, smoking does cause lung cancer) to new products like diet soda. Don may occasionally betray misgivings about a product or a client with an ironic twist of his mouth (so well suited to convincing everyone from schoolteachers and aspiring actresses that he’s a sensitive guy), but he’s not about to trade in Madison Avenue to become the public relations director for the American Cancer Society.
Significantly, given the tendency of the American media to ignore class differences, there are no male blue-collar or low-level white-collar characters in the world of Mad Men. The universe of the underpaid and underemployed is represented entirely by women. With the exception of a gay character, who is fired after refusing the advances of a client, the men on this show are rich, powerful white sons of bitches.
Neither the sentimentalization nor the demonization of my father’s generation by today’s media captures the constrained reality of life for blue-collar and ordinary white-collar men of the grateful generation. For that reality, we must turn to works by men closer in age and experience to the heart of the matter.
In 1971, the genius interviewer Studs Terkel, who died in 2008 at ninety-six, captured the real voices of laboring men—and by that I mean white-collar and blue-collar men—in his oral history Working. (Unusually, given that the feminist movement had only recently begun to impinge on the consciousness of Americans in the early 1970s, Terkel also included women in his book, and his interviews underline the fact that in working-class families, the stay-at-home mom was often an economically unrealizable ideal even in the days when Father was thought to know best. The indulgent and somewhat dim-witted dads in Father of the Bride and Father Knows Best represented not a middle-class but an upper-middle-class family ideal.)
Terkel focuses on men like Steve Dubi, born in 1913 and an inspector for forty years in the steel mills that once clogged the South Side of Chicago. He says, “I got nothin’ to show for it. I live in a home the bank has a mortgage on. . . . I own a car the finance people have the title to.” Speaking about his son, a well-known priest and social activist in Chicago, he emphasizes that he “had nothin’ to do with makin’ him what he is. I told you I am nothing. After forty years of workin’ at the steel mill, I am just a number. I think I’ve been a pretty good worker. That job was just right for me. I had a minimum amount of education and a job using a micrometer and just a steel tape and your eyes—that’s a job that was just made for me.”
Whether they lived in the world of Don Draper or Steve Dubi, the last men on top were united by their determination to keep what they had precisely because most of them did not grow up anywhere near the top. Those who went to college on the GI Bill—having emerged from the war in their early twenties—were often the first in their families to obtain a higher education. My father, born in 1914, dropped out of college in 1932, after his father died and left his mother penniless. By the end of the war, he had too many responsibilities to take advantage of the government education subsidy. Discharged from the army at thirty-one with a wife and year-old daughter, he did not have, and would never have, the luxury of thinking about whether he was happy in his work.
I remember Dad standing in our kitchen at 4:30 in the morning in the frigid winter months of tax season. The accountant who once wanted to be a history teacher would often be leafing through some book while gulping down his coffee, because he knew that he would be too tired to read when he returned home after a 14-to-16-hour work day. One might well ask whether men who had to work that hard ever thought of themselves, or should have been thought of by others, as the ones on top.
Excerpted from The Last Men on Top by Susan Jacoby. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Jacoby. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Susan Jacoby is the author of nine books, most recently The Age of American Unreason, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. She writes The Spirited Atheist blog for On Faith, a website sponsored by The Washington Post. She lives in New York City. For more information, visit www.susanjacoby.com.