Last Tuesday the RSA staged the provocatively titled event, The End of Men: And the rise of Women. As a naturally curious (and foolhardy) individual (by which I mean man, I’m just too scared to say), I simply had to attend.
The event was based around Hanna Rosin’s new book – bearing the same provocative title – the central thesis of which is that certain powerful economic trends are leading women to dominate the world of work (and other fields) in a way that they have never done before. Using a mixture of official statistics – such as the fact that ¼ of women in the UK are now their family’s main breadwinner compared with 4% in 1969 – and personal observations, Rosin argued powerfully that the decline in manufacturing in the US and UK has left large numbers of men – working class men in particular – without the work that had always defined their identities as men and enabled their traditional role as breadwinners. This trend is appearing in other countries too, as many economies become more service orientated and less dependent on manufacturing. Essential to Rosin’s account is a phenomenon that she described as “Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man”. She continued:
“By that I mean that women have over the course of the century vastly changed the way that they behave in the public sphere. So, it used to be that women didn’t work at all, and then they didn’t work when they got married, and then they didn’t work when they had children… The other thing that happens is that women take over professions that are dominated by men, like pharmacy and certain categories of medicine. Men never do the opposite. This shows up in personality tests too: women continually define themselves using an increasing number of adjectives over the past 50 years that we used to regard as male, like ‘dominant’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘competitive’. Men do not do that. They in fact back off into a corner, they run away from professions that women enter and they run away from the descriptors that they think of as overly feminine.”
I found this fascinating for a number of reasons, most obviously because it underlines the sense in which profound social phenomena are almost always explained by a complex combination of economic and cultural factors. In this case, it is the economic fact of the increased pace of globalisation and the decreased importance of traditional manufacturing to western economies AND the cultural fact that women find it far easier than men to adapt their behaviour and adopt characteristics traditionally associated with the opposite sex. The so-called ‘End of Men’ cannot be explained – or addressed – by invoking only one of these factors; we need both if we want to build a proper picture of what is going on.
This led me to cast my mind back to the riots of last summer, and the discussion relating to what caused these events to take place. In particular, it reminded me of the debate in the media over whether the causes were economic or cultural. On the one side there were those who argued that the riots were essentially caused by poverty, rising inequality, and social deprivation. On the other, there were those who thought that the riots were caused by some or other pernicious aspect of modern culture. This dichotomy always appeared to me to be to crude and unappealing. It seems obvious that poverty played a crucial part, given that the riots were sparked and tended to take place in deprived areas and many of the looters were themselves from deprived backgrounds. But it also seems obvious that a hyper-materialistic consumer culture also played a role in the wanton looting.
Another cultural factor which I think played a part is the absence of positive male role models in the lives of the many of the rioters (90% of whom were male). This is point that Tottenham MP David Lammy has made powerfully and eloquently, and something that many who are most sensitive to the economic causes seem reticent about admitting. Now, clearly the economic fact of poverty and deprivation already relates to the culture of fatherlessness in various complex ways: financial strains can often make it difficult to keep a family together, for example. But, if Rosin is right about powerful economic and cultural trends leading to large numbers of men leaving the workforce altogether, then the potential damage that this lack of positive male role models could do to young men makes addressing this problem all the more pressing.