Show Hide image

How to be a man

The altered relationship between men and women.

The feminist revolution has fundamentally altered the relationship between men and women. But has the rise of identity politics and the loss of the “family wage” left too many men trapped in perpetual adolescence?

In little more than one generation, the pillars that supported traditional masculine identities have collapsed. Millions of skilled working-class jobs that once gave men status and purpose have gone. The male solidarity that was the backbone of the labour movement has gone.

So has the family wage, and increasingly men can no longer follow their fathers and grandfathers in the role of family breadwinner. Old-fashioned, maybe, but any parent of the bride wants to know the prospects of their future son-in-law.

In 1968, 86 per cent of household gross employment income came from men and 14 per cent from women. In 2008-2009, 63 per cent came from men and 37 per cent from women. Work once provided men with the means to self-respect and self-reliance. For growing numbers, that, too, has gone.

The cultural revolution of the 1960s has given men unprecedented sexual opportunities, but the collapse in the "family wage" and changes in the structures of social reproduction have diminished their prospects for enduring relationships of social anchorage - marriage, fatherhood, head of household - which conventionally affirmed their patrimonial status. The effect for many, particularly at the top and bottom ends of society, has been a prolonged form of masculine adolescence without obligations of paternity or responsibility for others. While women have taken on the burdens of the neoliberal revolution, many men appear to have been disorientated by a profound sense of loss.

Traditional ways of being male, rooted in the Industrial Revolution and its domestic division of labour, are becoming obsolete.

At the last election Labour was 5 percentage points behind the Conservatives among women, but among men it trailed by 10 points. It is now difficult to imagine Labour, once steeped in the culture of masculine solidarity, championing middle-aged men. Yet it is middle-class and skilled working-class family men - the C1s and C2s - particularly those working in the private sector and living in the south-east, that Labour must win over if it is to gain an electoral majority in England.

Last year when the party's Blue Labour tendency argued for a politics of masculinity, accusations that the idea was anti-women abruptly ended public discussion. As one tough-minded male Labour member advised the party, "Men do not debate feminism with women."

In the past three decades the culture of class and gender in the UK has been changing profoundly. The women's movement has had a big influence on Labour politics, not only through the growth in the numbers of female MPs, but in the recognition of how gender affects the economy and society. Feminism has cast a powerful light on men's misogyny and sexual violence, on the unequal division of care and domestic responsibilities, and on inequalities in the household and at work. Yet the lack of dialogue between men and women in the party puts gender at risk of being equated with "women's issues".

Many of the matters raised by feminism concern men. However, usually men keep silent about themselves and the language of feminism does not lend itself to engaging their wider support. Labour needs a popular politics around gender that grows out of the experience of men and women living in relationships, in family life and more widely working together and sharing in society and the public sphere. It needs to find ways of speaking to men about their concerns as workers, husbands and particularly as fathers.

Labour-market trends seem certain to continue to erode the security of working-class families, pitching more skilled men into low-paid, low-status and precarious employment. Economic recovery, when it comes, will bring fewer skilled jobs, a higher proportion of part-time positions and a growing professional and managerial class. In 1977 the wage share of workers in the bottom half of wage distribution stood at £16 of every £100 of national income generated. Today it is just £12 of every £100 and the decline continues. Many young men are being left behind. They lack education and do not possess the right emotional affinities for the new kinds of service-sector work. They are finding it increasingly difficult to create an independent life for themselves.

Double burden

Labour once spoke for these kinds of men, but no longer. If it is to reconnect with them it has to strike the right balance between being radical and being conservative. Men's lives are paradoxical in that they combine a determination to uphold a sense of esteem and masculine authority in public with a willingness to change and adapt to their new, more egalitarian and emotional domestic realities.

The first priority of men who are fathers is their family. A survey by the Fatherhood Institute, Family Man: British Fathers' Journey to the Centre of the Kitchen, points out that British fathers' care of infants on an average working day rose from 15 minutes in 1975 to two hours in 1997. At weekends, fathers of under-fives spend about the same length of time with their children as mothers. Fathers' second priority is work in order to give their children the best start in life they can manage. Over the period of fathers' increased involvement men's working hours have grown longer. As skilled work disappears and the squeeze on wages intensifies, many men are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfil their obligations to their family and children.

But they have not been turning back to Lab­our. The rise of a xenophobic English nationalism is closely related to this collective class experience of dispossession. For some men, the loss of England's place in the world resonates with their disorientation and pessimism. Defending an English way of life from Islam, or Europe, or immigration, is about defending the dignity of their fractured identity. Over recent decades, this narrative of national decline has sparked off recurring moral panics about young men's antisocial behaviour, about the emotional impoverishment of masculinity and about the failure of fatherhood.

Despite the significant impact of the women's movement on Labour in its last years of government, the party fell back on an overly technocratic state and an abstract language of rights to move forward feminist objectives. As well as the positive changes, this had the unintended consequence of contributing to an image of feminism as "political correctness" - an unaccountable, divisive and elitist practice of top-down moralism. Labour needs to recover the best traditions of the women's movement, which point to a bottom-up politics that builds relationships, encourages self-determination, and protects individuals from harm.

A politics of masculinity is about family and work but it is also about place and nation, because men invest part of their identity and sense of belonging in these imagined communities, be that through sport or patriotism. So Labour needs to develop a progressive English patriotism. At home, more men are living in a more egalitarian, more democratic and more companionate family life. Labour needs to help grow this democratic settlement between men and women.

Two priorities would be a living wage and a public system of universal childcare organised around the principle of child development. A decent wage gives both parents more time at home. Children's centres help establish a common life and give young mothers and fathers connection to the wider local community. A new politics of masculinity should not be about the exclusion of feminism.

To speak about men is not to disregard women. Rather, it recognises the ways that men and women are unequal and different but it seeks to establish common ground through greater equality. It is a politics of what we might call social liberty, which was once called fraternity, the expression of life's diversity among equals.

Jonathan Rutherford is the editor of Soundings journal.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex