Monday, September 20, 2010

Men's Lib - Why it’s time to reimagine masculinity at work and at home

Newsweek is looking at men this week - they highlight the two basic responses we are seeing in the culture at large: returning to old models vs. looking at new options. This is a more balanced article than the recent one in The Atlantic - I love this quote from Michael Chabon: “The handy thing about being a father,” he later concludes, “is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that going back to old models - as Lionel Tiger and Harvey Mansfield advocate - is not going to work. Men have for most of their existence determined their value by their social role and utility (defined by their job or community standing). This is no longer valid.

On the other hand, finding self-worth entirely within is not going to work either. We are social beings and we are socially embedded - our roles will define us no matter what they are. So we need to adopt roles that are more suited to our life conditions - we need to be fathers, husbands, coaches, and so on, none of which are new - but for the first time they may be our primary roles, with work roles taking a back seat.

Men’s Lib

To survive in a hostile world, guys need to embrace girly jobs and dirty diapers. Why it’s time to reimagine masculinity at work and at home.

Matt Sayles / AP

Photos: From patriarcy to paternity leave, a timeline of American male ideals

Manhood USA: A Timeline of Male Ideals

What’s the matter with men? For years, the media have delivered the direst of prognoses. Men are “in decline.” Guys are getting “stiffed.” The “war on boys” has begun. And so on. This summer, The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin went so far as to declare that “The End of Men” is upon us.

There’s certainly some substance to these claims. As the U.S. economy has transitioned from brawn to brain over the past three decades, a growing number of women have gone off to work. Men’s share of the labor force has declined from 70 percent in 1945 to less than 50 percent today, and in the country’s biggest cities, young, single, childless women—that is, the next generation—earn 8 percent more than their male peers. Women have matched or overtaken men as a percentage of students in college and graduate school, while men have retained their lead in alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, violence, and criminality. Factor in the Great Recession, which has decimated male-heavy industries like construction and manufacturing, and it’s no wonder so many deadline anthropologists are down on men. But while the state of American manhood has inspired plenty of anxious trend pieces, few observers have bothered to address the obvious question: if men are going off the rails, how do they get back on track?

Without an answer, some men have turned to old models and mores of manhood for salvation. Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger, for example, wants to reclaim “maleness as a force, as a phenomenon.” Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield advocates action and aggression. And the term “retrosexual” has all but replaced “metrosexual” in the lifestyle sections of national magazines, which are full of stories about affluent urbanites wearing hunting garb, buying designer axes, and writing about the art of manliness on blogs with names like (ahem) the Art of Manliness. Throwback masculinity dominates other media as well, with The Dangerous Book for Boys (a work of dad-and-lad shtick) and Shop Class as Soulcraft (a cri de coeur for manual labor) topping reading lists, and television shows such as Dirty Jobs, Ax Men, and Deadliest Catch re-romanticizing soot-collared work. A rapper’s saggy jeans, a hunter’s concealed weapon, a suburbanite’s man cave, a hipster’s obsession with Don Draper: all might be seen as variations of the same coping mechanism. The impulse transcends race and class.

But suggesting that men should stick to some musty script of masculinity only perpetuates the problem. For starters, it encourages them to confront new challenges the same way they dealt with earlier upheavals: by blaming women, retreating into the woods, or burying their anxieties beneath machismo. And it does nothing to help them succeed in school, secure sustainable jobs, or be better fathers in an economy that’s rapidly outgrowing Marlboro Manliness.

The truth is, it’s not how men style themselves that will make them whole again—it’s what they do with their days. The riggers, welders, and boilermakers of generations past weren’t wearing overalls to feel like men, as Susan Faludi, the author of books on both sexes, has pointed out. Instead, “their sense of their own manhood flowed out of their utility in a society, not the other way around,” she writes. “Conceiving of masculinity as something to be”—a part to play—“turns manliness into [something] ornamental, and about as ‘masculine’ as fake eyelashes are inherently ‘feminine.’?”

Since the 1950s, the image of the American woman has gone through numerous makeovers. But masculine expectations remain the same—even as there are fewer opportunities to fulfill them. As a result, says Joan C. Williams, author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, “men have a choice: either feel inadequate or get a lot more creative.” What’s required, then, is not a reconnection with the past but a liberation from it; not a revival of the old role but an expansion of it. The End of Men isn’t nigh, nor is macho dead. But its definition should be broadened to include both Mr. T and Mr. Mom. It’s time, in other words, for a New Macho: a reimagining of what men should be expected to do in the two realms, home and work, that have always determined their worth.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. American culture is competitive and conservative, and there are good reasons why inner-city fathers, hedge-fund honchos, and former GM plant managers aren’t taking several months off from work to care for their kids—or exploring new fields, like nursing, where few of today’s men dare to tread. Most guys, in fact, don’t even need rescuing—at least not yet. They’re still overrepresented in business and government, earn more on the dollar, open bigger movies, and clean fewer dishes.

But the gender wars aren’t a zero-sum game: when men lose, women and children lose, too. So as women assume positions once occupied exclusively by men, and the more “manly” sectors of the U.S. economy continue to shrink, a more capacious notion of manhood—the product of both new policies and new attitudes—is no longer a luxury. In fact, it may be exactly what’s needed to keep the American male, and America itself, competitive in the 21st century.

The home is a natural place to start. As the novelist Michael Chabon discovered on a trip to the grocery store with his son, society still expects very little from fathers. “You are such a good dad,” a woman told him as he waited in line to pay. “I can tell.” Exactly what she could tell was a mystery to Chabon, who recounts the story in his 2009 essay collection Manhood for Amateurs. But clearly no woman would earn kudos for toting her kids around the frozen-foods aisle. “The handy thing about being a father,” he later concludes, “is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

The modern standards aren’t much better. Despite apparent progress—young couples believe in coparenting and sharing the household chores—very little has actually changed. The average wife still does roughly double the housework of the average husband: the equivalent of two full workdays of additional chores each week. Even when the man is unemployed, the woman handles a majority of the domestic workload, and it’s the same story with child care. If both parents are working, women spend 400 percent more time with the kids. Meanwhile, the number of fatherless kids in America has nearly tripled since 1960, and the percentage of men who call themselves stay-at-home dads has stalled below 3 percent. The old roles, say sociologists, are hard to shake.

There’s growing evidence, however, that they can be expanded. Consider contemporary family life in Sweden. In the past, new parents split 390 days of paid leave however they liked—monthly, weekly, daily, and even hourly. Women used far more of it than men. But today, new fathers no longer rush back to work, leaving the mother to raise little Sven all by herself. The reason for the change? Smart public policy.

In 1995, Sweden passed a simple but revolutionary law: couples would lose one month of leave unless the father was the one who took it. A second use-it-or-lose-it month was added in 2002, and now more than 80 percent of Swedish fathers take four months off for the birth of a new child, up from 4 percent a decade ago. And a full 41 percent of companies now formally encourage fathers to go on parental leave, up from only 2 percent in 1993. Simply put, men are expected to work less and father more.

By altering the roles of the Swedish father and the Swedish worker, Sweden’s paternity-leave legislation has, in turn, rewritten the rules for Swedish men (and, by extension, women). “Swedish dads of my generation and younger have been raised to feel competent at child-rearing,” writes Slate’s Nathan Hegedus, an American who experienced the system firsthand. “They simply expect to do it, just as their wives and partners expect it of them.” If a man refuses time at home with the kids, he faces questions from friends, family, and, yes, other guys. Policy changes produced personal changes—and then, slowly but surely, society changed as well.

Around the world, similar shifts are already underway. In Germany, the percentage of new fathers who take a break has jumped sevenfold since the country passed its own Swedish-style law in 2007. In Japan, which recently offered dads more paid baby time, the government honors dedicated fathers by spotlighting “stars of ikumen,” or male child rearing. And with the passage of paid-leave laws in Britain (where Prime Minister David Cameron took several weeks off to care for his infant daughter) and Australia (which is hardly a dandified nation), the U.S. is now the only wealthy country that doesn’t bankroll a bonding period for either parent.

This could change sooner than you think. Recent polls show that majorities of Republicans (62 percent), Democrats (92 percent), and independents (71 percent) now support the idea of paid paternity leave.
Read the whole article.

No comments: