Father's Day is here, providing a moment for millions of American males to feel appreciated – and they can use it.
On a variety of fronts it seems that fatherhood, manhood, and even boyhood are under strain or attack, beset by changes in the economy and society.
Among the signs:
•Jobs traditionally held by blue-collar men have been disappearing or becoming less secure. The recession of 2007-to-2009, aptly dubbed a "man-cession," accelerated the trend, leaving the unemployment rate for men today at 9.5 percent, versus 8.5 percent for women. In about 1 in 4 married-couple homes the wife is the main breadwinner.
•Women are outperforming men in schools and universities. Among the population 25 to 29, some 36 percent of women have a bachelor's degree or more, compared with 28 percent of men, the Census Bureau reported recently.
•Social changes, from the rise of sperm banks to the growing prominence of women in US culture (look out Mitt, Michele Bachmann is gaining), may be adding to a sense of male anxiety. No one argues against women's rights, but it may have grown tougher for men to define their distinctive value.
•Challenges for males start early on, with higher rates of things like emotional disturbance or falling behind their peers in school.
Of course, the notion of widespread male anxiety shouldn't be exaggerated. The reality is also that millions of men and fathers are successful and secure, esteemed by themselves as well as by their wives and kids. And they still retain the competitive edge in hiring and promotion and earnings, in certain occupations.
Moreover, some societal challenges are faced by women as well as men, from juggling career and parenting roles to adjusting to fast-changing technology.
Yet challenges particular to men are real, with presidential initiatives, nonprofit ventures, and TV shows arising as a result.
Television sitcoms are often a reflection of trends in the wider culture, and the coming fall TV season exhibits a rising role for embattled or uncertain males.
On one network alone, a show called "Man Up" will explore the travails of a young generation of men, while "Last Man Standing" focuses on a middle-aged father, played by Tim Allen, who feels adrift in a changing world.
"Three modern men try to get in touch with their inner tough guys and redefine what it means to be a 'real man,' " ABC says in its description of "Man Up."
"It's a woman's world. He just has to live in it," says one trailer for the new Tim Allen show.
Although the TV shows mine men's insecurities for comic effect, cultural experts say the programs hint at a genuine need for a new understanding of manhood.
He says US society is falling short in inculcating a sense that men "have a distinctive role to play in their communities and their families." And "because we haven't held a high bar for our yong men, [often] they are not stepping up in ways that are helpful and productive."
The reality, Mr. Wilcox says, is that men as fathers can make a big positive difference in their families, helping children gain a sense of self-discipline and emotional health.
By some measures, fathers have become more engaged in family life over the past quarter-century. But, in a troubling contrast, more fathers than ever are absent from the home – and thus playing a smaller role in the lives of children.
Although the absent-father trend became visible sooner and more sharply among African-Americans, it is a wider issue, especially touching poor or moderate-income Americans.
President Obama has created a Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative to highlight the importance of fathers in the lives of children.
Wilcox and other experts say such efforts can be an important part of the solution. In fact, a failure to strengthen fathers' role in the culture could make men's challenges worse, since being raised largely by a single mom can be tougher on boys than on girls, Wilcox says.
But they call for other efforts as well. One is to shore up the institution of marriage.
Another is a focus on making sure men (whether young or middle-aged) have the skills needed in the job market.
Many factories are hiring, but "brain, not brawn, is required" to run the precision equipment, economist John Silvia writes in a recent analysis of the unemployment problem.
And most jobs today are in the service sector, where education is also vital to a good paycheck. Skill, and not mere wilingness to work, is a key driver of employment, says Mr. Silvia, who is chief economist at Wells Fargo.
He notes that as of April, Americans without a high school diploma had a jobless rate of 14.6 percent, versus 9.7 percent for high school graduates and 4.5 percent for college grads.
With an eye on those labor-market needs, some education experts call for school reforms that target the specific needs of boys, to better promote their early development and to keep more of them learning beyond high school.