As soon as I started freelancing and social media's algorithms picked up on it, I started seeing a very specific type of ad. You've probably seen these too.
They generally feature a young man in his mid to late twenties. He has a sharp jawline, he's well-dressed, and either sitting in an exotic sports car or looking out the window of a high-rise loft. You've never heard of him, but he has thousands of followers online and (allegedly) makes tens of thousands of dollars each month from some online hustle. He shares quotes on Instagram about how the hustle is life, how rich people don't rest, and how if you want to sleep with hot women you have to live as he does.
And what's this? If you download his e-book or buy his digital course, he'll teach you how to do all of these things too! Maybe you just need to sign up for a digital service that's totally not a pyramid scheme so that you can also make money hand over fist. Money is the end-all, be-all and with enough money, you'll suddenly be blessed with good genetics and a ripped torso.
I don't know about you, but I'm sick of these advertisements. I understand what they're doing– it's a tactic known as aspirational branding or aspirational marketing– but it never feels sincere. It feels like a group of marketers in their fifties and sixties sat down in a board room and asked each other what younger men want. What they created was some sort of monstrous caricature of masculinity that is mostly obnoxious, but occasionally alluring.
My main issue with this type of advertising is that it doesn't seem to be marketing a way to make money, get in shape, or improve your relationships; they tend to be marketing an easy way out. They try to position themselves as pointing out loopholes or easy tricks to success, but if it were that simple, don't you think more people would be using those tricks to become rich and successful?
The very idea of what they're selling to young men is flawed. Here's what we see as the goals to which today's modern man actually aspire.
Having a Sense of Purpose and Meaning
While questions about why we exist are typically thought of as the territory of theologians or philosophers, I've never met a young man who wasn't also wrestling with these questions on a smaller, more personal scale.
One of the clearest examples of this that I've come across was actually in an article that we published a few months back about why Jordan Peterson appeals to so many young men. In that article, one of the key points that resonated with our readers was that a lot of young men disagree with Peterson on a level of political ideology, but they cling to him anyway as a figure who guides young men toward self-determination. As one of Peterson's followers quoted in that article put it, "it’s really about responsibility, that’s the heart of it, to take ownership of your actions and not to be frightened to do the things that you need to do."
The get-rich-quick schemes that litter my Facebook and YouTube advertisements fail to speak to this desire to have a sense of meaning. They preach a gospel of gaming the system but they fail to answer the question of why it matters.
Speaking on a personal level, I started BlakeWrites because it gave me a sense of purpose– I was tired of seeing so much content for men that was irrelevant to my friends and me, and which encourage outdated, toxic ideas about masculinity, so I started my own publication. I wish I could say that things with BlakeWrites have been as easy and profitable as the unfounded promises of those aspirational ads I've been ragging on, but I can honestly say that it has not been. Not even close. It has been a ton of hard work. It has been emotionally and financially draining at times. I've made a ton of mistakes and have been quite stressed by this endeavor at times. But you know what? It's worth it. Even when I'm feeling frustrated or burnt out, I can remind myself that it gives me a purpose: improve the lives of young men all over the world through content that helps them live better, more authentic lives.
It's hard, but I believe that if something is worth having, it's worth working for. Simply having a sense of purpose and direction outweighs the downsides.
Feeling Like they Have Control Over Their Own Lives
Not only do today's men want to have a sense of purpose, but they want to know that they can pursue and achieve this purpose on their own accord and their own terms.
Today's social and political landscape make this seem increasingly difficult. For example, my generation is the first generation in the history of the United States that is not expected to have a higher quality of life than our parent's generation. Millennials are exceedingly indebted and are entering into a job market where wages are stagnant and lagging behind the average cost of living in most parts of the United States. Globally, climate change and social conflict leave us with a sense of unease and discomfort at the prospects of tomorrow.
In spite of this growing sense of uncertainty that many of us feel, we're also sold on this narrative of the self-made man. As men, we're expected to be able to build ourselves up from nothing and have total control over the outcome of our own lives. When we fail to measure up to this– even if our inability to achieve these goals is caused by impediments over which we have no control– it leaves us frustrated, defeated, and hungry for something more. I think that's what makes the "aspirational marketing" we often see as effective as it is ridiculous. It speaks to these deep internal desires to be the authors of our own narratives. We want to believe that we can make the kind of money and have the kind of freedom that these folks are trying to sell us on because deep down we know that if we had what they promised, we'd be totally in control of our own lives.
This disconnect between the values we hold dear and what is attainable creates what sociologists refer to as anomie. ThoughtCo defines anomie well, describing it as follows:
People who lived during periods of anomie typically feel disconnected from their society because they no longer see the norms and values that they hold dear reflected in society itself. This leads to the feeling that one does not belong and is not meaningfully connected to others. For some, this may mean that the role they play (or played) and their identity is no longer valued by society. Because of this, anomie can foster the feeling that one lacks purpose, engender hopelessness, and encourage deviance and crime.
Perhaps the mixed blessing of anomie is that it is nothing new. In fact, Émile Durkheim was writing about this concept as far back as 1893. Though our society has evolved quite a bit since Durkheim's original discussion of the issue, and I would argue that today's marketing engine and social media have only deepened the divide between reality and aspirations, the fact that this has been an ongoing issue for societies means that we've also had quite a bit of time to think about the solutions for this issue.
That's not to say that there is an easy solution. Spoiler: there's not. But, what it does mean is that there are a variety of methods and approaches toward rewriting your narrative so that you can remain the valiant protagonist without being crushed by the weight of external or perceived expectations. If therapy is an option for you, chatting with a therapist about what you're feeling is perhaps the easiest way to cut through the BS of anomie.
Otherwise, learning to be critical and self-reflective with your goals on your terms can be a good starting point– you'd be surprised by how much you can uncover about yourself and where your sense of stress or discomfort comes from just by doing some honest journaling about what is going on in your life a few times each week. In my experience, that's one of the best over-the-counter methods of building your skills of insight. As anyone who binge-watches Dr. Phil clips on YouTube will tell you, gaining insight is the first step to unraveling a lot of your problems. Along with insight, being part of a growth-oriented community can also help to alleviate some of the discomforts of anomie, which leads me to my next point...
Knowing that They Are a Valuable Member of Their Communities
I say this as someone who is entirely an introvert: people need community. Even the most introverted among us (again... me) needs to be a part of a closely-knit network of other people. Humans are an innately social creature, and our survival and success as a species depend almost entirely upon our abilities to interact with each other.
Using the United States as a case study, participation in traditional community structures (such as religious organizations, social organizations, political organizations, or altruistic organizations) are all measurably in decline and have been since the late 1960s. As our society sprawls outward and we replace in-person interaction with technological interaction, it's likely to only further decline.
Keep in mind that I'm saying this as a 25-year old who works in tech– I'm not a Boomer shaking his fist about these kids and their damn smartphones. I'm speaking from a place of experience and sociological research in saying that interpersonal human interaction cannot be fully replaced with digital interactions; in my mid-20s, I've never had more opportunities to connect with other people, but I've also never been more isolated. Chances are, if you've read this much of the article, you've likely also been in a position where you've felt alone even when you're surrounded by other people. That's what happens when there's a lack or breakdown of community in your life.
As a young man living in today's world, knowing that I am a part of something bigger than myself is crucial. Being part of a community innately comes with a sense of purpose and belonging. One of the longest-running forms of community– organized religion– illustrates this well. I highly doubt that people develop a sense of faith simply because they find it fun. Instead, with faith communities comes a sense of belonging, a support system, a moral architecture, and the belief that you are a part of something grand and divine.
I don't say this to get you to run to your local church/ synagogue/ mosque/ temple. I could write an entire blog series on all the problems I have with organized religion and still not say all that there is to say about the downsides of these communities. But, speaking as a sociologist, I recognize the benefits of having an established and closely-knit community.
Other forms of community, such as joining social clubs (think book club, entrepreneur group, etc), community organizations (local government, nonprofits, etc), and personal development groups (such as group therapy, classes at a local college, etc) all come with the same benefits if organized religion isn't your thing. The important thing to keep in mind with other forms of community is that these other forms of community are often time-constrained (i.e. they run for a set number of weeks or months), so you'll have to be intentional about making sure that you continue on with active community-involvement once the initial participation window closes.
A lot more can be said about community– if you want an in-depth read that is semi-Boomerish but still quite informative, I definitely recommend checking out Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. It's pretty lengthy, but it's a staple in understanding the role of the community.
There are no Easy Ways Out
Being a young man today isn't easy. The deeper aspirations I've outlined above aren't simple tasks you can check off a to-do list or buy online. But working toward them is absolutely worth it. Having a sense of purpose, being part of a community, and knowing that you are the author of your own narrative is the only way to live a truly contented, satisfied life. Get-rich-quick schemes, bulging muscles, and fast cars won't get you there. If your aspirations are purely material, you're not aiming quite high enough.