Friday, 13 January 2017

Jobs for the boys

Today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced a widely-reported research document showing the huge growth of part-time working amongst British men in recent years. Specifically, amongst men aged 25-55 in low-wage occupations, those working part-time work has risen over the last 20 years from 5% to 20%. The 20 year timescale indicates that this is a long-term trend, not just an effect of recession.

There are various issues arising from this. Those highlighted by the IFS are that part-time work is much more common now amongst men in low-wage occupations than it is amongst men in higher paid occupations; and that the trend for women is exactly the opposite (the percentage of women working part-time in low-wage occupations has fallen).

These seemingly dry statistics are extremely important. Interestingly, they do not show increasing inequality (which the report shows has actually fallen) but they do imply increasing insecurity and precariousness in employment. In particular, they probably help to explain at least part of the populist convulsions in the UK and elsewhere which are largely driven by angry, white, working-class men whose place in the world has been threatened. Within that, the regional discrepancies in men’s employment and wages are also important, as they then join together with resentment against the ‘metropolitan elite’ to drive populism.

However, the particular aspect I want to focus on is the way that these figures speak of a kind of crisis of masculinity. For generations in Britain (and elsewhere) masculine identity has been bound up with being ‘the breadwinner’. That is both an economic and a cultural – and psychological – notion. Economically, it requires stable, secure and reasonably well remunerated employment. That is the ‘bread’ bit. Culturally, it enables having a successful place in the world. That is the ‘winner’ bit. And taken together, it is a potent identity: bread + winner = breadwinner.

It is important to understand that the loss of this identity is both economic and cultural because it explains why the corresponding improvement in women’s situation does not ‘compensate’ for the deterioration in that of men. It’s not enough to add together the overall household position and conclude that nothing has changed because economically the household is just as well off in absolute terms and (if the IFS Report is right) even in relative terms. That does not assuage the cultural and psychological hurt of lost identity and meaning.

A generation ago, as explored in Paul Willis’s fantastic ethnography Learning to Labour (1977), young boys could disdain education because an unskilled factory job was there for the taking. That world has disappeared, but the sons and grandsons of those in the study have not moved on (see also Dolby et al., 2004). The sub-title of Willis’s book was ‘how working class kids get working class jobs’, but those jobs – in the form they once existed – have massively declined.

The most under-achieving educational group in the UK is now white working-class boys, three-quarters of whom fail to achieve five good GCSEs. This directly impacts upon their employability, as does the more nebulous issue of behavioural skills (time-keeping, self-presentation etc). Thus just as the opportunities for good jobs erodes so does the capacity of white working-class British boys to get whatever good jobs there may be, feeding directly into the populist anger against immigrants seen to be ‘taking’ the jobs. It is a situation that was starkly exposed by the 2010 BBC documentary The Day the Immigrants Left.

The biggest problem in all this is that three separate issues have come together: the changing nature of work in developed countries; immigration; and what it means to be a (working-class) man. Populist politics speaks to the first two, but it has nothing to say about the third. The period that saw the transformation of work and the global economy also saw a transformation, through feminism, in understandings of what it meant to be a woman. I don’t mean by that the tired old trope that feminism has, somehow, undermined or de-masculinized men. That’s nonsense because it is not a zero-sum game in which ‘advances’ for women come at the ‘expense’ of men. I mean that what has still not occurred, and urgently needs to occur, is a transformation in understandings of what it means to be a man.

That is not to say that the only problem here is the cultural understanding of masculinity. Economics and culture are indivisible, which is why the feminist movement has always been about changing both economic and cultural realities. It has to be both. And because it has to be both, the populist approach to the new situation of men is inadequate, because it is solely economic. If (and, in my view, when) it fails to deliver it will leave working-class men even angrier and even more economically marginal. To avoid that, the old equation that real men = real jobs needs tackling on both of its sides.

Yes, we need more real jobs for both men and women. But we also need men to understand that being a ‘breadwinner’ is not the definition of a ‘real’ man and, moreover, that there are many different ways and many different potentials for masculinity that have little or nothing to do with work. Part-time work may well be a problem for many economic reasons, for both men and women; but it doesn’t carry the meaning of not being a ‘full-time’ man. To put it another way, if feminism broke the link between femininity and unpaid homemaking then what we need to do now is to break the link between masculinity and paid work.

Dolby, N., Dimitriadis, G., & Willis, P. (2004). Learning to Labour in New Times. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour. How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough, UK: Saxon House.

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