And what of women workers? Nick Clegg wants special government action to lessen the effect of the recession on female employment.
But I'll let Nick Clegg speak for himself:
For many [men], full-time work remains the anchor of their identity ... Yet a savage recession, like a war, shakes the traditional identity of men and women. In the Second World War it had a liberating effect of sorts. By 1943 more than 7.25 million women were employed, two million more than before the war ...
As this recession bears down on thousands of communities and families we must again be open to reinventing ourselves. Many men will be forced to let go of their earlier identities and try something new ... And many women may become the only family breadwinner for the first time. For many couples this will be unsettling and deeply disruptive to the settled patterns of life, work and marriage. A new flexibility in which men and women are supported in reinventing themselves will be vital in helping many thousands of families through this recession ...
For women, this means that Government must come down hard on employers who appear to be sacking them more readily than men ... Active support - including free legal advice - must be given to women ...
But some of the biggest changes that still need to take place are in the traditional perceptions of “male” work. Some months ago I suggested that more men should take up jobs in nurseries as childminders. At present, only 1 per cent of childminders are men ...
Rigidity in how parental leave is structured must change too. Mothers can take up to a year, fathers only two weeks ... But this split is out of step with the reality of many modern families, and discourages fathers from making a commitment to the care of their own children ...
The present rules make it almost impossible for young mothers to go back to work early, even if their husbands and partners are ready to stay at home
It is high time we moved into line with other European countries where interchangeable parental leave has long been the norm.
So when it comes to work Nick Clegg wants a gender role reversal. He thinks it is liberating for women to go out to work in traditionally male occupations and for men to either stay home or to work as childminders.
When it comes to parenting, Nick Clegg wants a unisex, interchangeable role in which men are equally likely to be the ones to take time off to mother/parent their children.
Where do such views come from? They stem from liberal autonomy theory. This is the theory that to be fully human we have to be self-determined rather than predetermined. Since our sex is something we don't get to choose it is predetermined and is therefore considered an impediment that individuals must be liberated from. The fact of being born a man or a woman must be made not to matter.
Pamela Kinnear, an Australian researcher, has written a paper called "New Families for Changing Times," in which, like Nick Clegg, she emphasises the idea of self-invention. She writes:
social progressives reject the notion of family breakdown and argue that we must accept the transition to a new diversity of family forms. They regard the idea of family as an evolving social construct.
the social categories of the past (gender, class, race and so on) no longer serve as the framework for individual behaviour or cultural beliefs.
... we are now in the process of re-embedding new ways of life in which individuals must invent and live according to their own biographies ...
In this transition, relationships, including marriage, must be reinvented too. The downside of the 'pure relationship', freed from convention, is some instability as partners continuously re-evaluate their relationship. They ask whether it fits with their own life project to realise self-identity.
Note that traditional marriage is not considered a "pure relationship" by Pamela Kinnear because it is conventional rather than liberated.
What are some possible objections to Nick Clegg's attitude? First, it is based on a theory which itself needs to be critically examined. Is it really true that autonomy is the sole, overriding good in life? Most people in practice sacrifice a degree of autonomy for something they consider to be a greater good, such as love, family or community. Don't we lose too much by putting autonomy above all else?
Nick Clegg's attitude also assumes that human identity is unanchored and can be changed to fit any circumstance. In other words, it assumes that masculinity and femininity are socially constructed and aren't connected to an enduring human nature.
Another problem with Nick Clegg's approach is that it effectively undermines the position of both men and women in the family. If the parental role is an interchangeable unisex one, then the work that men and women do as fathers and mothers is not so important. If Nick Clegg is right, then children don't need their mothers as much as we think; nor for that matter is there a distinct and therefore necessary role for men within the family.
Nick Clegg has already proceeded part of the way down this track. He writes that changes to parental leave are required so that men can stay home and make a "commitment to the care of their own children" - as if the efforts men make at work to support their families don't represent a commitment to their children. Nick Clegg doesn't seem to appreciate the traditional role that men have played in the family.
Finally, it's unwise to suggest to men that their efforts at work are harmful to themselves, their families and to society and that they should instead seek to be "liberated" by not working as they do now. Nick Clegg assumes that men will hear this message and will redirect their work ethic toward a traditionally female role. It's just as likely, though, that men will simply lose their work ethic.
If we really have no specifically masculine duties as men, but should just do as we will unimpeded, then why not hang out at the pub with mates or father children with a series of women but not take responsibility for providing for them?
Nick Clegg should take care when he urges men to abandon their traditional contributions to society. He may not get the result he is looking for.