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- Arts + Ents
Friday 5 July 1996
What happens when Dorothy finally gets fed up with Gary?
Men will have to shape up, says Yvette Cooper
What could better capture the state of British manhood than the hordes of white-shirted men, trudging back through the terraces to the train; not angry, not fighting, not dominating anyone, not winning? They were simply gloomy, their romantic optimism crushed once more.
The news for men in general is not good. Last week the Equal Opportunities Commission said that more than half of their sex discrimination cases involve men being refused jobs traditionally done by women.
Women already make up almost half the workforce. The prospects of the younger generation are even more promising. Girls today are better qualified than their older sisters and their mothers. And they are better qualified than boys.
The prognosis for men looks bleak. Men seem ever less useful in the jobs of the future. So-called "women's skills" will be in great demand, whether it be better exam results, superior communication skills, greater sensitivity to others, better ability to juggle several tasks at once - or simply a greater willingness to work part-time, on temporary contracts, and for lower pay. "Women are better colleagues," argues Sebastian Kraemer, consultant child and family psychologist at the Tavistock Centre. "They tend to be more flexible in complex environments."
A quick glance at car adverts confirms female ascendancy and changing male roles. Gone are the gear-stick-as-penis-extension images of the Seventies and Eighties. In their place are solid family men fantasising about their wives and worrying about soon-to-be-born babies.
The women, in contrast, are daunting; girls zoom across America outwitting and outblasting hopeless men as they go. A man is pincered, punished and tossed aside by his girlfriend for borrowing the car without permission. Even Nicole has a job these days.
Let's not go overboard. Women are still paid much less than men, even for the same job with similar qualifications and experience. They still have to put up with discrimination and sexism, and they are stuck in predominantly low-paid, insecure jobs with few employment rights. The old glass ceiling still squashes the ambitions of many talented women. Meanwhile, women continue to do most of the housework.
Nevertheless, we sisters concede that men have their own troubles. They are struggling to work out how to handle assertive women. They are easily traumatised by changes at work. As social psychologist Simon Biggs explains, "men have traditionally invested far more of their identity in work than women." In fact some changes in the job market are pushing them out of work altogether.
So how are they coping? Not too well. Many are moaning. "The grief in men has been increasing steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the grief has reached a depth that cannot now be ignored," wrote American Robert Bly in Iron John. Although Bly is the master of the ludicrous over- statement, his words resonate with some people. The book has sold more than a million copies world-wide.
Our home-grown, middle-aged, male authors are hurting too. Both David Lodge and Martin Amis have devoted recent novels to chronicling men's depressions, mid-life crises and struggles for identity in the Nineties. Here too we find the source of the nation's angst about job insecurity, and the end of the job for life. And, if Men's Health magazine is any guide, these are probably the same men who are worried about their bodies, but are too scared to go to the doctor.
"Middle-aged man is grieving," says psychologist Janet Sayers, author of The Man Who Never Was. "He is grieving for what he had, what he thought he had, or hoped to have."
Good grief, get a grip. The only thing these men really have to adjust to is change itself. No, they can't have a job for life any more. But so what? Few women ever had one. And no, they can't invest their entire identity in the firm they work for: the company might not be there in two years. And if they are too frit to visit their GPs they had better reconcile themselves to early avoidable death.
The younger generation of men are reacting in a different way. Much has been made of the "New Lad Backlash." Personified by Skinner and Baddiel and their Fantasy Football League, the magazine Loaded and the BBC sitcom, Men Behaving Badly, this is supposedly the cheeky, confident, blokish reaction to feminism.
As backlashes go, it isn't too bad. The football mania that convulsed the nation last week was not threatening for women. All those red-faced, bare-chested men hollering together out of tune, may have looked rather ugly but they were not intimidating. Skinner and Baddiel's song was about disappointed hopes, not aggression.
"Southgate should be an example to us all," says Sebastian Kraemer. He missed the penalty, but neither we nor his team-mates denounce him as a failed specimen of manhood. As Kraemer puts it, "We pity him without contempt." But fundamentally we do pity him.
The characters in Men Behaving Badly are sad and pathetic too. Gary is a bit of a plonker; he boozes, farts, leers, and stumbles. He is baggy and a bit loose at the seams. But Dorothy loves him. She knows exactly how useless he is - no false consciousness here girls - but, nevertheless, she forgives him and puts up with him. After all, he's only a bloke. What do you expect?
But in the long run this isn't good enough. How long will Dorothy put up with Gary if he can't hold down a job that pays well enough to help support the kids, if he doesn't help with the babies so that she can keep working too, and if he tells their growing sons that school's boring and they should play football instead?
The real-life consequences of Gary as Dad can be seen around the country. While young sons are encouraged to go out and play healthy games of footie, young daughters are indoors talking to friends, developing social skills, reading and doing homework. No wonder so many boys are under-achieving at school.
This is in fact the real man-crisis for the decade. Since technological change and global competition have wiped out many traditionally male, manual jobs, many unskilled men have become unemployable. The psychological traumas of adjusting to different roles in the family, and changing patterns at work are mild in comparison to coping with enforced unemployment.
Inevitably many of the young unskilled feel angry, cheated, and alienated - with all kinds of appalling social consequences. Suicides among young men have increased significantly. More young men are turning to crime.
Curiously, young women do not react in such a self-destructive manner. Women without skills get a bad deal too, but they still work, despite appalling pay. And employers take them on; perhaps to work in laundrettes, supermarkets or as hairdressers. Young men are either reluctant to accept low-paid "women's work," or are rejected by employers as disaffected and irresponsible.
Even more important for the future, women have got wise to the problem. At school they work harder to get qualifications. Not so the boys. "Boys don't work as hard as girls," says Claire Tansley, a teacher in a North London comprehensive. She has watched countless teenage boys under-achieve, then leave school for the dole.
And it isn't entirely an absence of aspiration that holds them back. "Boys who have trouble reading and writing say they want to be lawyers or doctors or professional footballers. But they don't see any relationship between those jobs and the work they have to do now." Over-confidence, poor self-discipline and hopeless optimism let them down.
So how can men adapt better to the modern world? There is no easy answer. Some way has to be found to make boys study harder, and help unskilled young men acquire experience and qualifications.
As for helping men adjust to changes at work and in the family - it is hard for a woman to provide any answers. Men have to do it themselves, just as women have. Men must define their masculine identity anew without relying on the traditional breadwinner's role.
They have to realise that changing women's roles can be liberating rather than threatening. According to Terry Macalister, "men are just starting to realise that women coming into the workplace provides them with opportunities to do something else." When Terry's first child, Callum, was born this year, he switched to part-time work for a while to spend time with the baby.
With wives and partners earning too, there is less pressure on men to earn enough continuously to support the family. And making alliances with working mothers can be the best way for men to show employers that long, stressful hours are not essential to doing a good job.
Not that the future for men will be easy. Terry occasionally has mixed feelings about his decision: "I see all the traffic rushing to work; half of me feels elated that I'm doing something pleasurable with Callum, and half of me feels terrified that I'm not rushing to work too."
Women's behaviour isn't always helpful. Terry Macalister says some women can be quick to criticise and offer advice, in a way they would never do to another woman. One even stopped her car, rolled down the window and said: "Your baby shouldn't be slumped over like that, it's very bad for his back."
Women need to be sensitive and supportive - if stopping short of Dorothy's martyr-like tolerance. But the onus is still on men to get their acts together. Men's failure to cope with change around them is not just a tragedy for them. It is a huge burden for the women who love them and live with them, the children who depend on them, and the rest of us who have to put up with them.
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