Reimagining masculine work in a post-industrial future

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Men may have to take on non-traditional gender roles as manual labor continues to decline. Photo- Shutterstock

WorkingNation welcomes journalist Livia Gershon as our featured columnist for August. This is the third in a series of articles from Gershon, whose previous work can be read in HuffPost, Aeon and Vice. 

Gershon examines the rising role of “emotional labor” in response to the displacement of workers due to automation. This week, Gershon investigates the complications for and reluctance of men to enter jobs which are considered more “feminine,” though these jobs are expected to grow as the economy shifts away from manufacturing.

Livia Gershon .

If you’ve followed the conversation around automation in recent years, you know that it hasn’t been easy on white, working-class men. From Midwest factory towns to Appalachian coal country, these men are seeing the jobs of their fathers and grandfathers disappear. In their place are openings for nurses and home health workers.

Back in October, Susan Chira wrote in the New York Times that, according to some policy researchers, men like this “must resign themselves to working in ‘pink collar jobs,’” in fields like health care and education that are more resistant to automation. After the election, in a much-discussed essay attempting to explain why white working-class men had helped elect President Trump, Joan C. Williams took Chira to task.

“Talk about insensitivity,” she wrote. “Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for WWC [white working-class] men just fuels class anger.”

But what is it about jobs like teaching and nursing that makes it offensive merely to suggest they might be good careers for men? Americans (white Americans in particular, but we’ll get to that later) tend to see men as temperamentally unsuited to jobs that demand a lot of emotional skills. Gently inserting an IV line into a frightened patient or helping a child sound out Dr. Seuss’s rhymes seems like something that men are both bad at and repelled by.

And yet, there’s a long history of men who take deep pride in doing work that demands social and emotional skills. Even today this alternative vision of masculinity still survives to some extent. In the modern post-industrial economy, it’s worth embracing.

RELATED STORY: Emotional workers thrive with nurturing of soft skills

Before factories and offices sprang up around the Western world in the nineteenth century, most men farmed or plied a trade close to home. That meant working together with their wives and children in families that also functioned as small production facilities. An inherent part of their work was supervising and guiding their sons and apprentices. Historian Ruth Bloch has noted that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fathers “necessarily took a large part in child rearing and occupational training.” As Protestantism displaced the central role of priests, she wrote, the head of a household also “directed family prayer and assumed the main responsibility for providing their dependents with a minimal Christian education and helping their sons in the theologically crucial task of securing appropriate vocations.”

Even when they worked away from home, preindustrial men often cultivated social relationships as a key part of their public and economic lives. In colonial New England, manhood was largely defined by “social usefulness,” according to historian E. Anthony Rotundo (who, in full disclosure, is a family friend).

“People placed a high value on personal qualities that kept social relations smooth,” Rotundo wrote in his book American Manhood. “A man was admired if he was gentle and amiable. This quality demanded self-restraint and placed a tremendous emotional burden on the details of social behavior, but the effort was considered worthy.”

In fact, in many times and places, some of the most admired male vocations have required intense emotional engagement: the minister counseling the troubled soul, or the doctor visiting the homes of the infirm.

But, with the birth of industrial and corporate workplaces in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, new values took hold. Men should be stoic in the face of monotonous tasks and willing to strive for individual success rather than communal prosperity. This made for a lot of boredom, anxiety, and social isolation, but there were compensating rewards. There were new consumer goods that—thanks to hard-fought union battles for fair wages—even working-class people could afford. And many men were able to take on the respected role of breadwinner.

Today, when we look at white, working-class men, we see how that arrangement has fallen apart. Many “male” jobs have disappeared, and those that remain are less likely to pay good, union wages. Between that shift and the entry of women into more industries, the breadwinner ideal has fallen away. While men still make more than women on average, the gap is narrowing, particularly among lower earners.

So, why don’t these men take emotionally demanding jobs? Undoubtedly, some fear they don’t have the right skill set to do them well. But the idea that men are inherently unsuited to healing or teaching ignores hundreds of years of history. Even today, plenty of men find their best selves in coaching, parenting, and supporting friends and family.

RELATED STORY: Why aren’t schools teaching emotional skills?

The real barriers to men in emotional work may be less about the men and more about the jobs. For one thing, many schools and health agencies, as well as parents and patients, don’t welcome men into these positions. Sometimes this prejudice takes on harrowing dimensions, as sociologist Lata Murti described in a 2012 blog post about a personal experience. When her daughter’s day care hired a male worker, some of his female coworkers were immediately suspicious.

He was subject to sexual paranoia which led to accusations later proven false in court. Murti and others involved in the case found that a state investigator twisted their words to make innocuous behavior seem threatening. Nonetheless, parents insisted on having him removed.

But the most important reason that men avoid these fields may be that health care and education jobs—particularly those like home care aide and child care worker that require little formal education—pay far less than unionized industrial jobs. Between the low wages and the widespread disrespect for jobs traditionally seen as feminine, the work tends to come with low social status.

If women are more willing to accept these jobs than men are, it may be because their expectations are lower thanks to the fact that they’ve historically been excluded from many higher-paying, higher-status jobs. Tellingly, one study last year found that black men—another group that has long faced discrimination in hiring—are 3.3 times as likely as white men to take low-level health care jobs.

Encouraging white working-class men to take on emotionally demanding, socially engaged work, could have ripple effects on the labor market. If these men have no other choice but to accept this work, it could breakdown the stereotyped barriers and raise the allure of this work. It may lead to higher wages for all.

Join the Conversation: What do you think will help men accept non-traditional roles in the economy? Have your say on our Facebook page.

Coming Next Week: Gershon examines the experimental theory of Universal Basic Income as a possible solution to human survival in a post-labor future.

Connect with Livia, via Twitter. Read her latest articles on her website.

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