In case you missed it, Susan Chira penned an important article in the New York Times on the current state of male unemployment and its cultural implications. The piece is worth reading in full, not least because it serves as a good jumping off point for getting at the underlying data, which is staggering when taken as whole.
Towards the end of her piece, Chira suggests a solution: we need to rethink “conventional ideas about masculinity”.
But in the long term, Isabel V. Sawhill and Richard V. Reeves, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, argue that men must resign themselves to working in “pink collar jobs” — those known by the acronym HEAL, for health, education, administration and literacy.
Economically, “women have adjusted better than men,” Ms. Sawhill said. “They’re the ones who are winning.” Women dominate the (often lower-paying) service jobs that are the backbone of the new economy. Men make up just 20 percent of elementary and middle-school teachers, 9 percent of nurses, 16 percent of personal aides and 6 percent of personal assistants, Ms. Sawhill and Mr. Reeves noted.
We’re not sure Chira is fully on the right track. Having men “go pink” is part of a certain sensibility that thinks that masculinity needs to be weeded out—that the coming generations of men will end up being more like women in certain respects, and therefore will ‘fit’ better in a brave new world of home health aides, wedding planners and K-12 teachers.
That sensibility is transforming schools into less welcoming places for boys who exhibit what have traditionally been thought of as stereotypically male behaviors. Those boys, unless drugged, don’t do as well in those environments. But that may be less a criticism of boys and masculinity than one of the ways in which our blue model school system is bent on churning out docile, easily managed, approval-seeking young people. The system is better at creating Fordist drones rather than the innovators and disruptors that we need. Entrepreneurs are definitely going to be part of the new age, and we need to make sure that independence and free-thinking is not being stymied at an early age.
Chira is right to call for a re-imagining of masculinity. As we have written before, factory work was once considered feminine and beneath the dignity of men; what constitutes “manly work” is anything but an absolute. But at the same time, Chira is looking at it the wrong: our traditional ideas of manliness contain elements of permanent value that we ought not throw away. We need to carefully think through a lot of our assumptions about gender roles, and build both the identities and the educational systems to help our boys succeed. Our society’s future depends on it.