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The Mature Masculinity in Fashion Systems
Mark Vanderloo

Mark Vanderloo

Blue-collar and badly educated men in rich countries have not adapted well to changes in trade, technology and equality.

Over the past couple of days I have highlighted the urgent need for a deeper examination of the emotional and practical challenges that women and LGBT+people face in the fashion industry. However, they are not the only ones that are carrying the consequences. Many blue-collar and less well educated men in the UK are finding it difficult to adapt to the profound shifts in the nature of their work following changes in international trade, technology and equality law.

Many men still subscribe to the adage “You’ve got to do whatever it takes so they eat, [or] you’re no man at all.” A report by the mental health charity CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) has found that men are struggling to cope with the pressures and expectations of their personal and professional lives. The report explores why male suicide  rates in Britain are at a 15-year high  (around 4,500 in 2013). Suicide is now the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20-49 in England and Wales, with males accounting for 78% of all suicides in the UK. Female suicide rates, in comparison, are declining. Roughly half of all the 1,000 men and women surveyed said they had experienced some form of depression, yet men were much less likely to seek help or confide in a friend. Only 53% of males who had suffered depression said they had spoken to someone about it. 69% of men who had suffered depression said they preferred to deal with the problem themselves.

When it came to work, 42% of men said they felt pressure to be the main breadwinner in the family, compared to just 13% of females. Of those surveyed, men were much more likely to have lost their jobs previously (54% compared to 35% of females) and to have lost their job more than once (25% compared to 10% of women). 29% of men believed their partner would think they were "less of a man" if they lost their job.

Looking at the business structure of fashion organisations in the UK, males tend to hold the majority of the ownership , investorship and leadership roles, as well as financial, IT and shipping & delivery departments, and other blue collar roles. Even at the highest level, these men and roles tend to be invisible in this industry of 'shiny objects' and glossy brands, both physically and in terms of their limitations, emotions, needs and burdens. How does this invisibility and 'absent presence' affect the internal and external communication of the business? Who is taking too much space and visibility in fashion organisations? Where are we learning and modelling this behaviour from? What is the hidden price of this dynamic, and is it just men who lose out?

The Weaker Sex article from the printed edition of The economist - May 30th 2015. At first glance the patriarchy appears to be thriving. More than 90% of presidents and prime ministers are male, as are nearly all big corporate bosses. Men dominate finance, technology, films, sports, music and even stand-up comedy. In much of the world they still enjoy social and legal privileges simply because they have a Y chromosome. So it might seem odd to worry about the plight of men.

Yet there is plenty of cause for concern. Men cluster at the bottom as well as the top. They are far more likely than women to be jailed, estranged from their children, or to kill themselves. They earn fewer university degrees than women. Boys in the developed world are 50% more likely to flunk basic maths, reading and science entirely.

One group in particular is suffering (see article). Poorly educated men in rich countries have had difficulty coping with the enormous changes in the labour market and the home over the past half-century. As technology and trade have devalued brawn, less-educated men have struggled to find a role in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are surging into expanding sectors such as health care and education, helped by their superior skills. As education has become more important, boys have also fallen behind girls in school (except at the very top). Men who lose jobs in manufacturing often never work again. And men without work find it hard to attract a permanent mate. The result, for low-skilled men, is a poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.

From nuclear families to fissile ones

Those on the political left tend to focus on economics. Shrinking job opportunities for men, they say, are entrenching poverty and destroying families. In America pay for men with only a high-school certificate fell by 21% in real terms between 1979 and 2013; for women with similar qualifications it rose by 3%. Around a fifth of working-age American men with only a high-school diploma have no job.

Those on the right worry about the collapse of the family. The vast majority of women would prefer to have a partner who does his bit both financially and domestically. But they would rather do without one than team up with a layabout, which may be all that is on offer: American men without jobs spend only half as much time on housework and caring for others as do women in the same situation, and much more time watching television.

Hence the unravelling of working-class families. The two-parent family, still the norm among the elite, is vanishing among the poor. In rich countries the proportion of births outside marriage has trebled since 1980, to 33%. In some areas where traditional manufacturing has collapsed, it has reached 70% or more. Children raised in broken homes learn less at school, are more likely to drop out and earn less later on than children from intact ones. They are also not very good at forming stable families of their own.

These two sides often talk past each other. But their explanations are not contradictory: both economics and social change are to blame, and the two causes reinforce each other. Moreover, these problems are likely to get worse. Technology will disrupt more industries, creating benefits for society but rendering workers who fail to update their skills redundant. The OECD, a think-tank, predicts that the absolute number of single-parent households will continue to rise in nearly all rich countries. Boys who grow up without fathers are more likely to have trouble forming lasting relationships, creating a cycle of male dysfunction.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, hairdresser

What can be done? Part of the solution lies in a change in cultural attitudes. Over the past generation, middle-class men have learned that they need to help with child care, and have changed their behaviour. Working-class men need to catch up. Women have learned that they can be surgeons and physicists without losing their femininity. Men need to understand that traditional manual jobs are not coming back, and that they can be nurses or hairdressers without losing their masculinity.

Policymakers also need to lend a hand, because foolish laws are making the problem worse. America reduces the supply of marriageable men by locking up millions of young males for non-violent offences and then making it hard for them to find work when they get out (in Georgia, for example, felons are barred from feeding pigs, fighting fires or working in funeral homes). A number of rich countries discourage poor people from marrying or cohabiting by cutting their benefits if they do.

Even more important than scrapping foolish policies is retooling the educational system, which was designed in an age when most men worked with their muscles. Politicians need to recognise that boys’ underachievement is a serious problem, and set about fixing it. Some sensible policies that are good for everybody are particularly good for boys. Early-childhood education provides boys with more structure and a better chance of developing verbal and social skills. Countries with successful vocational systems such as Germany have done a better job than Anglo-Saxon countries of motivating non-academic boys and guiding them into jobs, but policymakers need to reinvent vocational education for an age when trainees are more likely to get jobs in hospitals than factories.

More generally, schools need to become more boy-friendly. They should recognise that boys like to rush around more than girls do: it’s better to give them lots of organised sports and energy-eating games than to dose them with Ritalin or tell them off for fidgeting. They need to provide more male role models: employing more male teachers in primary schools will both supply boys with a male to whom they can relate and demonstrate that men can be teachers as well as firefighters.

The growing equality of the sexes is one of the biggest achievements of the post-war era: people have greater opportunities than ever before to achieve their ambitions regardless of their gender. But some men have failed to cope with this new world. It is time to give them a hand.