CINCINNATI — On workdays, Eric Cromer climbs into one of his two American-made trucks by 6:20 a.m.; he likes to be a little early, and he’s been that way since the long-gone days when his GM assembly line shift started promptly at 5:18 a.m. He’s still loyal to General Motors despite what happened; his GMC Sierra bears a sticker on the driver’s side door frame declaring its origin in Indiana, though these days many of those trucks are built in Mexico. His own job at GM — where he’d worked for nearly 16 years, including a stint bolting brackets behind dashboards, and from which he’d be approaching a comfortable retirement right now at age 52 had things gone differently — evaporated, along with thousands of other jobs, when the Moraine, Ohio Assembly plant closed in the 2008 recession. Back then, Cromer — a self-described hillbilly who had a wife, an 11-year-old daughter and a high-school education — found himself looking for a job at a moment and in a place where there were barely any.
Technically, it was a choice, though it didn’t seem like much of one. Either way, he was looking at a pay cut from his roughly $30-an-hour-plus-benefits GM job. His father-in-law was retired from a good job driving semitrucks for UPS, but Cromer didn’t like the idea of so much time on the road away from his family.
Nursing, meanwhile, had never occurred to him. One day back around 2007, on a morning commute, he’d been killing time talking to a GM colleague on the phone, with rumors already circulating that the plant they were both headed to might soon be shutting down. The colleague, Ken Harris — whose dad had worked with Cromer’s father at GM — had mentioned a male cousin who was a nurse, and mused about going into the field himself. “To me it just seemed like the most far-out thing,” Cromer recalled recently. He had never in his adult life worked outside an industrial setting. He didn’t know if he could handle all that blood. Also, he admitted, “it seemed more of like something for females to do.”
Thousands of men have found themselves at similar crossroads in their lives as the economics of the U.S. has shifted, and with it the country’s very culture. In Ohio in particular, the once-dominant manufacturing sector has been replaced by education and health services among the state’s leading employers — meaning that a male-dominated industry has shrunk while a female-dominated industries have grown. The U.S. unemployment rate is at a near-historic low, but that statistic doesn’t count the more than 7 million men of prime working age who aren’t seeking work at all. About one-third of men over 25 with only a high-school diploma are out of the labor force. Nor are most of them staying home to take on child care: The Pew Research Center has estimated there may be about 2 million stay-at-home dads (versus 7 million fathers the Census Bureau records as not living with any of their children), and fathers are far more likely to be in the labor force than are men in general.
The decline of male labor force participation, along with a male-dominated rise of suicide and overdose deaths, flagging marriage rates and absentee fathers, is prompting cries of “crisis” from academia and Capitol Hill, most famously inspiring Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley to write a whole book on the subject. In Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, Hawley advocates a return to what he calls traditionally masculine values grounded in the Bible, with the man in the role of leader and provider, guarding his family Eden against chaos (and importantly, in his view, against the political left). Hawley is not alone in decrying the loss of a certain vision of masculinity, nor in proposing his ideas about how to fix it, which in his case amount less to a policy program than to calls for men to work more, marry more and watch less porn. The more reactionary and transgressive corners of the online manosphere reach instead for outright misogyny and dominance-seeking while they decry the women and/or assorted elite cucks who supposedly hold them back from their true destiny as men. What they have in common is a sense of male oppression, rooted in real problems and often blaming imaginary enemies, that’s helped transform the politics of the entire country.
In theory, a guy like Cromer could be a target audience for this kind of argument. He’s lived the reality of the “male malaise” abstraction, including job loss and divorce. He saw the deadly toll it took; three men he knew from his plant committed suicide. But he never embraced the idea that his circumstances were a product of an attack on men, whether by the cultural left or women or anyone else. When I met him, he’d never heard of Josh Hawley. He didn’t have much time to think about his own manhood or anyone else’s, because he’d already found his own way out of the crisis and was frankly too busy with work. His story offers a provocative what-if scenario, an alternative history for the last fraught 15 years, that maybe could have rewritten or at least changed the current, dark narrative of the American male.
Cromer has been in his new field for more than a decade now. These days he’s turning into the parking garage by 6:50 a.m., where he shows his badge to a police attendant who lets him through before the place starts to fill up. He descends from the truck and marches through a set of revolving doors, down the hall toward giant portraits of the U.S. President Joe Biden and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough. He walks past tan walls and hand sanitizer stations, past an information desk and a pharmacy, over a rug that bears the seal of the Veterans Administration, which also appears, depending on the day, on his uniform: black pants, black shirt. At the end of the hallway, he takes an elevator up to the sixth floor, and he’s ensconced in the break room with plenty of time before his shift formally starts at 7:30 a.m. A few women might already be chatting around the table, and on a special occasion there might be coffee and donuts. Pretty soon, maybe a dozen women and some men will be there, a lucky few in chairs but most standing in a circle, to discuss what happened on shift the previous night: the number of new admissions, which equipment is glitchy, the number of discharges or surgeries expected.
And then Eric Cromer, R.N., will start his 12-hour shift at the Cincinnati VA hospital.
‘He led by examples, not words’
Cromer is an average-sized, gray-haired dude with well-defined smile lines around the eyes and a slow Appalachian accent. He draws a sharp distinction between the terms “hillbilly” and “redneck,” the latter of which in his view connotes lack of deference to social norms or decency. By contrast a “hillbilly,” per Cromer, is “someone of modest means from Appalachia that makes do with what they have and works for [a living] and is respectable, simple and resourceful.”
It was work, in fact, that had brought Cromer’s family to southwest Ohio in the first place. Cromer’s dad, Sherman, grew up on a farm in Hazel Patch, Ky., the youngest of nine children. Sherman Cromer later told his own kids how, with every seed he planted in the corn fields, he was plotting his escape. “He would see his brothers come in from the city, driving big fancy cars — they had moved to Cincinnati, many of them were working in factories, building trades and the military,” Eric Cromer said in his eulogy for his father’s funeral last winter, “and Dad had no intention of doing anything less.”
It wasn’t just Sherman, though; he was one of millions to migrate from rural Appalachia to the employment-rich industrial Midwest in the decades after World War II. Thus Eric, the younger of two boys, grew up in Sycamore Township, partway between Cincinnati and what was then known as the “Little Motor City” of Dayton, Ohio, in a modest neighborhood full of family and other Kentucky expats. His dad had a factory job, just like he’d planned, and Eric, like many other sons of GM workers, was poised to follow. Cromer couldn’t have known it then, but his youth in the 1970s through the 1980s marked the beginning of the end of an industrial era; the years in which he rode bikes with his brother and learned carpentry from his dad also kicked off a long, steep decline in the types of manufacturing jobs with which Sherman, and so many others, supported their families. But the crisis hadn’t come yet, and in the meantime, Sherman was doing well enough to start a small real-estate empire, buying and leasing houses he fixed up himself.
Eric had the standard role models for a boy of that era — his father, his shop teacher, Ronald Reagan. Sherman was a union guy, a Reagan Democrat dad in the “strong, silent type” mold, not much of a sharer of feelings — he left the room when Eric’s mom gave the boys the sex talk. But, Eric said in his eulogy, his dad “was the kind of Christian man who didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, but rather he showed it with his hands and his heart. … He led by examples, not words.” He’d take the kids to open houses at the GM plant in Norwood, Ohio; he took such pride in attention to detail that he got assigned to help put the gold bird decal on the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Ams, “about the coolest thing a 10-year-old could brag about,” Eric said. The shop teacher, Mr. Eaton, taught him how to weld and once remarked to the class that knowing how to fix your own stuff was worth about $10,000 in extra annual salary.
The forces that would one day derail his career — automation, trade, outsourcing — were growing stronger even as Eric took his first job as a welder and then followed his dad to GM and got involved in the union and its politics. He was a pro-labor moderate Democrat like his dad; he was a big fan of former President Bill Clinton’s. He was welding in 1994, when NAFTA was signed (and here he differed from Clinton, heeding Ross Perot’s warning about the “giant sucking sound” of jobs moving south as a result); he was driving a forklift at the Chevy Blazer factory in 2000, when China joined the World Trade Organization. The changes soon caught up to both Eric and his father. The Norwood plant where Sherman spent much of his career, which at its peak employed close to 9,000 people, shut down in 1987. A red Camaro that rolled off the line one August day that year was the last car it ever produced. About two decades later, Eric’s Moraine plant, already down to about 2,000 employees from a peak of about 5,000, produced its last Chevy Trailblazer and shut down too, two days before Christmas. The period of mass migration that had brought Eric’s father to Ohio was over, and so was a kind of blue-collar standard of living — comfortable house, a few cars, some kids he could afford to send to college — that he had grown to expect.
‘You’re not one of these ‘self-employed’ guys, are you?’
Cromer never set out to be some kind of trailblazing model of a modern male, challenging stereotypes about what manly work could be and whether in fact, contra Florence Nightingale, men could make good caregivers. (The female founder of modern nursing not only barred men from the schools she founded in the 19th century, she also contended that “men whose hands were hard and horny through labor — hands once used perhaps to the plough, and more recently to the firelock — were not fitted to touch, bathe, and dress wounded limbs, however gentle and considerate their hearts might be.”) Cromer’s flirtation with nursing ran into a more modern kind of skepticism. Some of Cromer’s union buddies, not to mention his wife, questioned whether he was really cut out for the schooling or the caregiving, since he was neither the studious nor the nurturing type. And Cromer was convinced that his father-in-law, a retired Teamster, was heartbroken by the idea and thought, despite never actually saying, that the job was only for women or gay men. (His father-in-law, now his ex-father-in-law, says he never felt this way and was mainly disappointed with the Cromers’ disintegrating marriage.)
In any case, the market didn’t have time for traditional attitudes about manliness. “There were no jobs,” Cromer recalled recently. “It was really scary.”
Such jobs as there were tended to offer less than half the hourly salary Cromer was used to — maybe $12 an hour, without benefits. With nursing, at least, he’d get some help for retraining, and he could possibly start at $20 an hour. The disapproval he perceived from two of his closest family members was painful, but holding out for a nonexistent job he thought they’d approve of would be even more costly in actual dollars. Meanwhile, his friend Ken Harris was actively evangelizing the nursing field to other men at the assembly plant, and several — by no means most, but several — were also going to give it a shot. When Cromer did finally enroll in his first class, he recalls now, there were about 50 other students, only about six of them men. (And only about four of the men wound up finishing.)
Cromer could easily have been among the dropouts; looking back now, he says he has no idea how he got through school. He was by then pushing 40, and what meager study skills he’d had in high school (Class of ’89, GPA somewhere around 1.8), had atrophied. All he could figure to do was to read his textbook over and over every night. The job loss deepened preexisting cracks in his marriage, which fell apart soon afterward; and although federal aid through Trade Adjustment Assistance covered his tuition of $20,000 or so, bankruptcy followed divorce. He took to washing down Xanax with margaritas to manage the stress, which then caused him, some days, to oversleep and miss class. His dad, now retired, heard about this one day and showed up by Cromer’s bedside at 6:30 a.m. to urge him to get up and get on with it. (Sherman Cromer saw the dollar signs in a nursing career — his wife, Eric’s mom, had recently become a nurse herself around age 60 — and thought it was a great idea.) Eric Cromer later switched to evening classes just to get his dad off his case.
Clinical rotations during school were hard to get used to, especially when caring for people who were incontinent or otherwise unable to tend to their own hygiene. During one rotation, an elderly woman refused to let him bathe her; Cromer told the instructor this had hurt his feelings but was secretly relieved. He got his certification as a licensed practical nurse in 2010, a bit less than two years after his layoff, which qualified him to work in long-term care and little else. His first job was in a dementia lockdown unit, which he describes now as “quite a shock.” But what he really grew to like, over time, was learning about the science, how different drugs did different things, and especially watching wounds heal. “I would do what’s called wound vacs a lot … where you would actually go put a vacuum on someone’s wound. … You would watch that wound progress from being this big gaping hole, usually in the bottom of their foot or somewhere,..