WHAT ARE MEN FOR?
The social landscape is changing for men and one generation in particular is not adjusting well
A report commissioned by the Samaritans has overturned assumptions about the most ‘at risk’ categories for suicide. Instead of young people being the most likely to take their lives, it is early middle aged men. Blanchflower and Oswald (2008) have already established a U-curve in well-being across the life span, with young and old people possessing greater happiness than the generation between them, who feel burdened down with responsibilities at work and at home. It would seem this is a more acute problem among men, if we allow for the sobering statistic of three thousand middle aged men a year who are dying by their own hand. What, exactly, is going on?
The report draws a number of conclusions. These include: an invisible ‘gold’ standard against which men are judging themselves and falling short; little sense of whether to be like the ‘strong, silent’ fathers they looked up to or to aspire to be progressive and emotionally literate like their sons; the decline of the industries by which men were traditionally defined and the rise of a service sector where they do not feel they belong; the tendency to rely on one woman for emotional support in an era when many of these relationships are not durable.
One of the risks in addressing such questions is to be lured into a needless conflict between men and women. The cause of equality in the workplace for women is, in several ways, incomplete and many women complain of egregious forms of sexism in the office. There is also a new and disturbing acceptance of a culture that objectifies women, from the lurid, found in lap dancing clubs, to the irritating, seen in the unsparing attention paid by the media to the waistlines of well-known women. Though it may be tempting for some women to claim men are only beginning to face the emerging pressures that changing identities have long bestowed on women, it is in everyone’s interests that men’s needs are handled thoughtfully too, not least to preserve further increases in their mortality rates. Flourishing men and flourishing women are a cause for mutual delight.
Masculinity is in the process of being re-defined and attention to substance rather than image is called for. Faddy icons like the metrosexual are transient media concepts. If men are failing to express their deepest needs, as the report suggests, then professionals of all kinds should be trained in ways of helping them to overcome this strange taboo. The transition from a large industrial sector to a service sector economy is placing greater emphasis on emotional intelligence and skills in relationships. At the risk of stereotyping, women have long held more confidence in this arena than men, though this has the feel of being socially rather than biologically determined; in other words, men can – and do – succeed at this too.
The strongest churches usually demonstrate fine balances of age, gender and ethnicity; sadly, the public image of the Church is weaker, dominated by older people and especially women. Great efforts are being made to create a sense of Church which accounts for the large number of men who simply think it isn’t for them, though the most ubiquitous of the fresh expressions of Church, Messy Church and Café Church, may not win most of them. The modern preoccupation with issues of identity frequently forms around the individual whereas a more faithful Christian paradigm is of the person in relationship. This would suggest that both secular and spiritual initiatives ought to coalesce around the idea of men being formed in their relationships: as sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, friends and colleagues. It is where these are not flourishing that attention is called for. The quality of our relationships makes life worth living and the economy should make allowance for this in ways that are notably lacking.
There is another, more unsettling dimension to the Samaritans report: men are ten times more likely to take their own lives from socially deprived backgrounds than from more affluent ones, proving once more both the vicious and virtuous circles of poverty and wealth. Most newspaper headlines around the Samaritan report focussed on the gender issue, rather than the question of deprivation, perhaps because this is easier on the eye and less likely to induce guilt. Within Britain, too little attention has been paid for too long to the widening gaps in physical well-being. The Church is mandated by its scriptures to speak up for the poor and the marginalised. They don’t get much of a good press today, but this report is screaming out for the cause of working class men. We should be listening.
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