When the focus of an economy changes from making stuff to helping people-that is, manufacturing to services-low-skilled men drop out of the labor market in droves. A new study of unemployed men in Manchester, England , suggests that “idealized embodied masculinity” is partly to blame. Manual labor, claims sociologist Darren Nixon, imbues working-class men with a sense of pride that helps compensate for the very fact of being working class. They may not be financially dominant, but they feel relatively masculine compared with their white, middle-class counterparts.
The kind of low-skill jobs that service economies create-receptionists, sales clerks, retail cashiers-offer no such compensation. And the men Nixon interviews find the “emotional labor” required to perform such jobs well incredibly taxing. “I’ve got no patience with people basically,” one interviewee says, “I can’t put a smiley face on, that’s not my sort of thing.” You might expect this kind of reaction from men who have spent years working labor-intensive jobs, where they’ve adapted to a male-only working environment and rarely encounter customers. But Nixon finds that even younger men, who haven’t spent years absorbing a gendered workplace culture, find the deference required to work a sales job hard to muster. “If someone [a customer] gave me loads of hassle I’d end up lamping them,” one reports.
Nixon concludes that “sticking up for yourself is a defining characteristic of the working class habitus,” and it’s a characteristic that’s incommensurate with entry-level positions of the kind that working-class men are likely to be otherwise qualified for. Their gender identities are, in a sense, maladaptive; traditional gender norms and the needs of the modern economy are at odds. On Friday, Stephanie Coontz pointed out a study showing that middle-school boys “brutally police” one another’s conformity to masculine ideals . Nixon’s study suggests that these kind of cultural constraints have long-term economic consequences.
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