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.
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