It could be the most powerful 'minority' ever. Fearful, anxious, vociferous, often confused and sometimes violent. Meet the victims of the Nineties: men

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If gender politics in the Eighties was dominated by Margaret Thatcher, a woman who often acted more like a man, gender politics in the Nineties seems to be dominated by men trying to be more like women - complaining about their oppression, their status as victims and how the world is conspiring against them.

Their jobs are no longer as secure as they were, if they exist at all. Demand for their work or home skills is declining. They are increasingly prone to violence. Women seem ever more confident and able to do without them. They march against the iniquities of the Child Support Agency. They worry about their looks and how to preserve what is left of them. Men are becoming more like women in many respects. Indeed they are laying claim to an identity that many thought was a female preserve: men are becoming victims of virtually every force in modern society, economic, technological and cultural.

It is all a far cry from the Seventies and Eighties, when the women's movement built itself around a politics of victimhood. Women were denied rights and equality, subordinated and excluded from the all-powerful world of men. Now the roles are reversing, or at the very least, men are losing the privileged status they once had.

You do not need to be a cynic to be sceptical of the claim that men are becoming victims. After all, it's a well-trodden route for men spoilt by the privileges of their upbringing to cry foul as soon as the going gets tough. But to dismiss these developments would be a mistake, for something is under way which could have far-reaching consequences for men's role in our society.

The switch in male and female traditional roles is starting at school. Girls outnumber and outperform boys at school and at university. And girls do better in the jobs market, whether as school-leavers or when they leave university.

The most powerful force remaking men's roles is the jobs market, and in particular the shift from manufacturing to services, which has benefited women. As women have made gains in the labour market, men have clearly lost ground. Since 1950, five million jobs have gone from goods-producing industries; and jobs dependent on physical strength - in the Army or construction - have vanished in their millions. In the past 15 years, two million men have disappeared from the workforce. And while many women may be in dead- end, insecure jobs, such as care and interpersonal services, they are at least in the growth areas of the economy. Jobs in community, social and personal services, for example, rose by 3.5 million between 1950 and 1990, for example.

The decline in traditional male jobs means that many men, as well as women, now fear job discrimination. Many men are now having to consider jobs that they may hitherto have seen as "women's work", and many feel they are confronting barriers. In a recent landmark judgment, the Equal Opportunities Commission ruled against a company for illegally reserving packing jobs for women, and last year, for the first time, and 20 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced, the EOC admitted that it receives more complaints from men than from women about job adverts and employers' preferences.

Until recently many middle-class men may have taken comfort from the fact that these changes have mainly hit the unskilled and relatively uneducated. That was true of the Eighties, but in the Nineties the crisis of men is no longer confined to the working class. Men in white-collar, middle- class jobs are finding how vulnerable they are, even if they work for blue-chip companies. Middle management jobs are disappearing, and many of those that remain find life increasingly stressful, with long hours and constant uncertainty. Work, once the main source of self-esteem and identity for men, is fast becoming a major source of anxiety and malcontent. One recent survey showed that 26 per cent of men think that changes at work are making their lives a misery - far more than for women.

The very role of men as breadwinners is at stake. Men are far less well- equipped than women to cope with this change. Although work is far more important than it once was to women's identities, the experience of child- bearing means that they are far more adept at moving in and out of the labour market. Many men are caught. They fear sharing their responsibilities as "breadwinner", concerned that their identity is being removed, but they also despair at ever properly fulfilling that role.

The crisis of male work is just one aspect of a much wider strife for a traditional masculinity unable to come to terms with its shortcomings.Teenage boys are more likely than their female peers to be targets of drugs pushers, partially explaining why men are more likely to take drugs than women. Men are also twice as likely to be victims of crime than women, with young men in particular bearing the load: 53 per cent of victims of street crime are men in their twenties, and males between the ages of l0 and 24 are twice as likely as women to fall prey to violence. Young men are also twice as likely to be murdered than women of the same age - yet surveys consistently show that it is women who fear being victims of crime more than men.

In the United States this has started to produce a revisionism, with some men's groups even rewriting the history of warfare, rejecting tales of heroism and instead describing war as a form of "gender genocide" in which women - such as those who gave white feathers to men who didn't sign up in the First World War - are implicated.

For many men, their identities, as expressed by the state of their physique, is at stake. Men have become more feminine in their values, more concerned about health and appearance. In the US, recent surveys show that 34 per cent of men are "dissatisfied" with their bodies - almost as much as women, at 38 per cent. Male anorexia is being recognised as an issue (though not yet on the same scale as for women) and more and more American men rely on some form of diet to keep themselves trim. The number of men checking into US plastic surgery clinics has risen by 50 per cent since the late Eighties, with some leading centres claiming that men make up as much as 30 per cent of their clients. Men are becoming the victims of their own "Beauty Myth": expect a literature of sorts to follow soon, hard on the heels of the boom in men's health magazines.

In the years ahead, these trends show no signs of diminishing. The number of women earning more than their partners has trebled from one in 15 in the early Eighties to one in five in l995. A recent analysis of the British Household Panel Study shows that the gender gap in promotion opportunities is wide among women aged between 35 and 55 - about 22 per cent - but narrows to just 6 per cent for 25- to 34-year-old women and is almost zero for women under 25. The pay gap has closed dramatically, standing at a little over 4 per cent for women under 25, compared with 50 per cent for 35- to 55-year-olds.

In response to their rising power, women too no longer seem to want to be cast in the role of victim. But are men ready, willing and able to play the role of a weaker sex, or even the weaker sex?

Although the trends are clear, the responses are not. The most powerful seems to be a sort of male revivalism. After two decades in which young men especially have tried to redefine masculinity in feminism's image, more and more men argue that the idea of the New Man has emasculated them. New Man is being demolished by the culture of the New Lad, the born-again man in search of his fags, football and fornication. It's a celebration of a modern version of a raw masculinity. The most charitable interpretation is that men can only find themselves by exploring rather than denying their masculinity, although it is not clear how this will help them to acquire the traditionally feminine skills that are vital to success in the modern economy and family. (Ironically the demolition of New Man has in part been helped by women who themselves see New Man as too right-on to be sexy.)

Where men have become politically active as men - particularly in the Families Need Fathers campaign - they have acquired the language and outlook of a minority persecuted group, not unlike the women's liberation movement in the Seventies. Again it is the US that provides a guide to what might be in store. There, all sorts of groups - women, blacks, gays, the disabled - claim special rights on the basis of a history of victimisation. They make a claim upon the principles of social justice because they have been so unfairly treated in the past. It is meant to be an argument for greater justice but it ends up breeding a culture of complaint, fracturing society into competing claimant groups.

In Britain these trends are far less pronounced, but that should not mislead us into thinking that they are not at work. Small business people complain about the burden put upon them by the Government; taxpayers are encouraged to complain about scroungers; parents feel their children are victims of an under-funded education system; the frail and elderly complain they are victims of a society that no longer cares for them. Everyone wants to hide behind the cloak of victimhood. After all, it is safe and secure; blame for failure can be pinned on others. Accepting personal responsibility is infinitely more threatening and challenging than claiming redress for unfair treatment. Trading victim status is more and more the way we want to conduct arguments about rights and responsibilities. Such a politics is ultimately corrosive of solidarity, because it will pit men against women, one minority against another. And because men could become the most powerful minority group ever created, women have a lot to lose from men becoming entrenched in the politics of self-pitying victims. The danger of that is that politics - not just the politics of Westminster, but the everyday gender politics of relationships and work - becomes nothing more than a jostling for a more privileged position in the hierarchy of misery. Not an appetising prospect.

Comments