Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Economist on the man crisis

A short time ago The Economist reported on the OECD report on the 'man crisis': a statistical report on how boys are falling behind in school, women outnumber men at University, and so on, which I blogged about here. Clearly stimulated by this, the current issue's cover story is a five-part 'essay' (an odd genre for The Economist) on men, entitled 'Manhood', with an accompanying Leading Article.

It's not as enlightening as one might hope; it is anecdotal and rather meandering. It has some amusing little titbits, like this:

Some liberal Scandinavian men find their new roles demoralising. Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian novelist married to a Swede, writes of walking “around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminised, with a furious 19th-century man inside me”.

But the overall tone and conclusion have interest as an insight into how a deeply 'establishment' and conventional publication, with a socially and economically liberal angle, sees the problem. (The same issue contains a ferociously anti-Catholic diatribe about abortion in Latin America; this certainly isn't part of a socially conservative echo-chamber.)

First, it acknowledges that there is a problem. The Economist respects numbers, and the numbers speak of high unemployment among working class men, who fell behind and dropped out at school, and an absence of the same men from the lives of children growing up. The women who provide the vox-pop insights are quietly furious about the situation.

Teena Davison, a cook in Tallulah, is raising four children on her own. One father is in Texas; the other is nearby but disengaged. “Sometimes they help out but basically I do it all,” she says. She gave up trying to make either man do his share. “I don’t want to go through it because they constantly lie, you know, tell the kids I’m going to get you this and never get it.” So, she says, “I don’t even bother with them [or] make a big fuss about it.”

Second, it analyses the problem historically in terms of two factors: the decline of low-skilled but reasonably well-paid blue-collar jobs, and the transformation of gender roles under the influence of feminism (and the Pill). They are hard to disentangle because they happened at the same time. It is not clear what the first has to do with it, however, since male unemployment often coexists with plentiful job opportunities, opportunities taken up overwhelmingly by women. Employment is only a problem because of gender roles and expectations - because of the kinds of jobs men prefer, or are better at doing.

Which brings us to the third point, the diagnosis. Essentially, the essay is a long wail about the fecklessness of working class men. At times it reminded me of the Private Eye spoof female columnist, 'Polly Filler', complaining about her partner, 'useless Simon', who watches TV all day. Men are workshy; they don't commit to their partners and don't look after their children. They fail to get the skills necessary to the modern economy. They drift from job to job, and in and out of unemployment. A bit more of this and we'll be told that the real problem is a moral one: men are just bad people. That wouldn't be The Economist's style, but that implication is not far away.

So what is The Economist's magisterial conclusion?

A. Things have changed, and it is good because these changes help women achieve what they want: the availability of service-sector jobs, control over their fertility, the ability (used by an alarming number of the interviewed women) to end relationships at will by chucking the man out of the family home; social pressures on men to do the washing up, and so on. Things are continuing to be changed more in the same direction by government intervention, on maternity and paternity leave for example.

B. Working class men need to change themselves to adapt to the new situation: they need to embrace the new role which feminist ideology assigns them, because they'll find, like at least some middle class men, that they can be happy that way.

Notice what's happening here? If women want something they can't have, the world needs to be changed so they can have it. If men want something they can't have, the men need to change so they don't want it any more.

I'm not making a judgement here, just an observation. There's something a little odd going on. Of course it might all make sense if the desires of the women were right, and those of the men were wrong.

IMG_1127But here's something else. As a free-market oriented publication, The Economist is usually very interested in incentives and bargaining. The working class men they are talking about are rational agents: they are responding to incentives. The change in behaviour The Economist describes from the hard-working, dependable working class men of yore to the selfish layabouts to today - both stereotypical generalisations, but with a grain of truth - is, therefore, a response to incentives. The Economist's powers of economic analysis seem to have deserted it here, however: the articles display no interest in how useful incentives could be restored in some form. It is common in articles about crime to see discussions of how to change the prospects and incentives of criminals; but working class men are clearly in another, lower, though sadly overlapping, category. Because what they want, what would incentivise them to work hard and be committed to their families, is something worse than the rewards of crime. It is Patriarchy.

The dead hand of male domination is a problem for women, for society as a whole—and for men like those of Tallulah. Their ideas of the world and their place in it are shaped by old assumptions about the special role and status due to men in the workplace and in the family, but they live in circumstances where those assumptions no longer apply.

Well, call it 'domination' if you like: when men went out and worked in physically exhausting and frequently dangerous jobs to support a wife they couldn't leave and who would not make a financial contribution to the home. 'Exploitation' is another word that comes to mind. But what astonished me, and clearly the author of the essay, is that the men interviewed still articulate the old ideal. The two quoted men both have illegitimate children with women with whom they do not live, but they still come out with this stuff:

“Being a man means supporting your family,” says Mr Davis. “You’ve got to do whatever it takes so they eat, [or] you’re no man at all.” Being a man, says Mr Redden, means you “work hard, provide for your kids, have a car and [maybe] get your own house some day.” Mr Davis goes further: “If I have kids and my woman has to work, that’s not what a woman should do. She should be home with the kids.”

There is, to put it mildly, a disconnect between these ideas of a man’s role and the reality of life in Tallulah. The busy women of Tallulah are far from rich, but they are getting by, and they are doing so without much help from men.

Yes, these women are getting by - but they are not exactly happy about the situation, and they are right not to be.

IMG_1129Some hard-up mothers have all but given up hope of finding Mr Right. They strive to become financially independent and insist on controlling their own households, notes Ms Sawhill. “They often act as gatekeepers, by denying a father access to his own children.”

Single motherhood is much better than living with an abusive partner. But the chronic instability of low-income families hurts women, children and men. The poverty rate for single-mother families in America is 31%, nearly three times the national norm. Children who grow up in broken families do worse in school, earn less as adults and find it harder to form stable families of their own. Boys are worse affected than girls, perhaps because they typically grow up without a father as a role model. Thus the problems of marginalised men tumble on down the generations.

What we have instead of Patriarchy is a social model which is totally dysfunctional. Men are four times more likely to kill themselves, comprise 93% of the prison population (in the USA), and are twice as likely to vote for extremist political parties (in Europe). Women complain they can't find a man to settle down with, and too many bring up children in financial and emotional poverty.

Looking at it from a rational choice point of view, what the old system offered was a big reward for massive investment by men. The reward was domestic happiness: security, comfort, and respect. If that was available today, working class boys would have a reason to work hard at school to get the skills which are rewarded in the job market of today, and working class men would have a reason to adapt themselves to the service economy, just as their forefathers lived through, and adapted themselves to, the wrenching changes of industrialisation and urbanisation, not to mention, in America, of migration. This reward, however, is not available any more: regardless of the man's investment, the existence of children, or the legal status of their relationship, the woman can pull the plug on it at any moment, deny him access to the family home and children, and take a share of his future earnings. And women frequently do these things. Furthermore, the contrasting fate of the feckless, of extreme poverty, even starvation, and loneliness, don't have the same motivating power, because of the welfare state and casual sex.

IMG_1128 You can't transform incentives in this radical way and not expect to see changes in behaviour. From a rational choice point of view men have no reason to make the traditional investment in a family, and therefore even in themselves in terms of education and skills. Instead, they have a series of relationships but need to stay light on their feet and ready to move on. The result is a system which doesn't fulfill men's deepest yearnings, but is also extremely tough on the women.

The changes aren't the fault of the women interviewed in the essay. They are responding to incentives as well. If we must assign blame, it must be laid on politicians and judges who have, over the decades since 1960, completely destroyed marriage as a dependable investment prospect, and haven't finished with it yet.

But then, perhaps it is easier just to blame the men. I mean, heck, they are all layabouts, aren't they?

Photos of the Stations of the Cross from the Chapel of St Patrick, at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris. A traditional role model for men.

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  1. There is an interesting investigation of the patriarchal nature of the most important section of The Economist's target audience here:

  2. I think what you have written here is spot on.

    I also feel that patriarchy is just one of the dysfunctional aspects in the current social model. The expected nature of relationships between parents and their children, the place of grandparents in the context of a new family, employer expectations of an employee, place given to the true religion, views on sexual activity, would be a few more dysfunctional aspects that come to mind.

    I feel that the presence of such disordered aspects make it near impossible to apply a fix to the social model along the lines of a single element. If one tries to introduce patriarchy back again, it fails because the other dysfunctional aspects foster an environment that leads it to fail.

    The real solution would be to go back and embrace the complete traditional social model that we knew to have worked. But who would want to do that in this day and age? Most want at least most of the life they see today (with its luxuries and offerings) minus the effects. Many may even argue that the goal of our research today should be to find ways to do just that.

    1. The possibility of contracting a genuinely binding marriage between consenting adults would make a huge difference. That's the place to start.

  3. I am quite sure that you (and probably the Economist - I must buy it and read the article) are considering a serious problem, perhaps the most serious social problem. Men have lost their traditional role and there is nothing similar to replace it. Without a clear understanding of how to behave bad habits will drive out good. I am also sure that elements of your analysis are correct but I am not convinced that you have the whole answer.

    Firstly I am not sure that men and women are that venal or susceptible to the incentives imagined in your analysis. I am quite certain that the prospect of domestic bliss in their 20's would have no impact on the academic commitment of 13-year-old's.

    Secondly I am not so sure the "good old days" where that good. A new patriarchy would offer something better to the boys I teach but I am not sure it is what I want for my daughters (who have not been brought up to rely on a man for protection and provision).

    Thirdly though I am not an historian I get the impression that the traditional “Being a man means supporting your family,“You’ve got to do whatever it takes so they eat, [or] you’re no man at all.” is relatively modern. I think that up until the middle of the Industrial Revolution wives and even children made an economic contribution to the family. The biblical description of "perfect wife" certainly concentrates on the financial contribution and rather than talking about obedience describes and woman of independent will who acts autonomously.

    Where I think your analysis is probably correct is around the erosion of marriage and family life. These days we are regarded as individuals who happen to be in families (if we make that "lifestyle choice") rather than regarding the family itself as a unit. The other difficulty is example. I think I take my family responsibilities seriously because I come from a long line of men who have done the same. I certainly hope it isn't because it gives me ethical access to status and sex. Having seen that family responsibility is what men do naturally I see it as manly. Not many boys these days get the same example.

    A final reflection: clear roles for men and women can help us recognise and take up our role in caring for others but they can also be tyrannical. There are many ways to be a "good man" as we can see from the lives of saints. A rigid set of expectations could be as harmful as the current situation.

    It's an issue that needs more reflection.

    1. Women's contribution to household income: yes you are right, that is part of the pre-industrial family model and today possibilities of earning without leaving the family home are returning. The men quoted are recalling patriarchy in the most recent historical form it took. What is important for the article and for my argument is that they are talking about patriarchy.

      13-yr-old boys: they are following the lead of older boys and men. They can see that hard work leads not to a stable and prosperous family life, but to exploitation by the family courts. The OECD study found that boys are twice as likely as girls to say 'school is a waste of time'. This wasn't the case fifty years ago, or in any era you care to mention before.

      'Ethical access to status and sex' is one way of putting it. It would be more accurate, however, to say that the entire social system within which hard work by working class men had a coherent context has collapsed. We are not talking about marginal changes to circumstances, but a total transformation. To carry on behaving in the same way would be - as The Economist might express it - to fail to adopt oneself to reality.

      'A rigid set of expectations': who said anything about 'a rigid set of expectations'? Why should it be 'rigid'?

  4. The genetics model of ability and effort is hiding the very real problem for many persons especially for Males attempting to compete in the information age. The middle to upper class men and women who write on the Male crisis are only reflecting very large differences of more relative support, knowledge, and skills provided them from a more stable, knowledge-rich environment. From their position and indoctrination of the genetics model from a young age they can only believe boys and men just don't want to change with the times. No it is not about ability and effort on the part of the Male but very real differential treatment from infancy from the old physical world but is killing Males and families in the information age. Boys and girls begin equal at birth but due to the belief boys should be strong and girls protected the two genders are receiving very different preparation to compete in the information age. The treatment boys are receiving from infancy is creating hurt and lack of preparation for skills to compete in today's world.
    To understand this we must redefine average stress as many layers of mental work we carry with us that take away real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, concentrate, and enjoy the learning process. This differential treatment creates real differences in learning by group.
    The problem involves two entire different treatments of Males and Females early as one year of age. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year designed to create agitation fear and tension so they will be prepared to fight, defend and be tough. This is coupled with much less kind stable very little verbal interaction and less mental/emotional/social support knowledge and skills for fear of coddling. It is this aggressive treatment that creates the toughness or maintained, higher average layers of anger fear anxiety preparation for defense. This remains as higher average stress that takes away from real mental energy needed for academics. This increases over time and continued by society from peers teachers and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others -parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, lower social vocabulary poor sentence structure; also higher average stress: more layers of mental agitated conflicts and fears taking away real mental energy that hurt learning and motivation to learn; also more activity due to need for stress relief; more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on the pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem self-worth low to keep them striving even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games and sports to receive small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics that denies any connection with differential treatment and the lower academics, lower esteem, and other problems removing all good sense when it comes to raising boys today. I feel there is an almost emotional cannibalism allowed upon Males, even young Males who appear weak, all to make them tough.

    1. You've obviously never interacted with small children.