Saturday, February 21, 2009

A recession is good for men?

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, has declared that there is a positive side to the recession. Men will lose their jobs and this will force them to be liberated from a traditionally masculine role. They will have to "reinvent" themselves and create a new identity, one involving childminding rather than a focus on breadwinning.

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.


  1. One problem with your analysis is that "In other words, it assumes that masculinity and femininity are entirely socially constructed and aren't connected to an enduring human nature."

    Gender (and sexuality) might correlate somewhat with the psychological axes (there are two) labelled masculine and feminine, where you can be high in both, or low in both.

    There is certainly an influence on exposure to female hormones on the developing male brain that can "femininize" it somewhat, make it more attracted to a nurturing role. On the other hand higher testosterone exposure changes the ring/index finger length ratio, increases agressive risk taking, and correlates with tactics used in the finance industry.

    Exposed to high levels of female hormones (a heavy handed treatment for threatened spontaneous abortion in the late 50s/early 60s) didn't affect my sexuality, but it /did/ affect my finger lengths and parenting drives. While I score extremely high on psychological masculinity at 0.97 (I wrote software used clinically to assess this), I was also "high feminine" at 0.93 - higher than my then wife. Fits with the "flatten my career trajectory and do the single custodial dad thing" choices I made.

    However society, and your article it seems, would inflict a binary choice where a continuum exists, with the place on that continuum where you are happiest has been significantly influenced by nature.

    Imposing a binary choice, and then limiting it on the basis of gender, can force people into roles that nature has determined will make them uncomfortable, if not unhappy. I'm for allowing the options for people to find the place where they are most self-actualized.

    In a way, sexuality is a good analogy for the aggression/nurture axis. Most people prefer women, but some prefer men, and some want both.

    Nature has made gender, sexuality and role-in-society independent axes. Your article suggests respect for nature, so I urge you to understand and respect its complexities, not grossly simplify it.

  2. But Dave I'm not the one pushing an orthodoxy here.

    I'm confident that if left alone most people would choose something like the traditional arrangement.

    In Europe in particular the powers that be have no intention of leaving people alone. The push there is to have a single unisex lifestyle in which there are no differences in the extent to which men and women work and parent.

  3. Nick Clegg is a typical liberal nut-head. You should not be surprised if he were to proclaim that abortion and divorce are good for the Civilization, as they too liberate women from the "traditional gender" role.

    In fact I would urge him to be an example. He should end his political career and take up the job of Stay at home Dad. And more, we would be liberated from the pain of seeing some illogical leftist and feminist ideological crap.

  4. This is not quite on topic.

    However if you wish to see exemplified what is wrong with modern marriage you only have to look at this story from England:

    Just look at the concluding sentiments at the end of the article for added horror.

  5. Nick Clegg has about as much chance of being PM as I do, but that's what's really interesting about his statements. Knowing that he can say anything (it's hardly going to dent his electoral chances) - this is what he chooses to say.

    If, like Gordon Brown or Blue Labour's David Cameron, he had a shot at the top job, he might choose to pander to people but since he doesn't have to he says what believes.

    I've made comments before to the effect that I think many of those who are part of the liberal establishment are just going along with the prevailing cultural norms without any deep belief in liberalism of their own.

    Nick Clegg is clearly a believer.


  6. As the fruit of our loins bear witness to our shortcomings as parents, we should all beware, the interferrence by politics to our lives concerning the everyday things of familyhood,Young children without good mentors and role models tend to grow anti social and selfish skills not conducive to a well established social system where the majority turn out to be all the things required to make up, a well oiled clock.Men without masculinity without the sensual flow of man ness cannot deliver to their sons the vibe needed to enable them to grow just like dad,that is to say,normally as a male homosapien.

  7. further,whilst many from this day and age see father hood as a chance to be mummy,being mummy will greatly confuse all the children and instead of having the shocking results we see today with all the nancy boys and dildo girls, we will have allowed to be raised, sexless,multisexual persons who have no consequence for their actions and no need of mummy,daddy or the grandparents.pleeese.

  8. This is a tangent to this thread, but it's good practice for all of us here. Perhaps Mr. Richardson could start a thread on this, but let us pick it apart.

  9. Dave Bath said “I’m for allowing the options for people to find the place where they are most self-actualized.” In other words, don’t you try and stop me from becoming more selfish, lazy and doing anything that I think will make me happy. I am the captain of my soul, I am my own God!

    Clive Lewis said it best, “And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery –the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” (Mere Christianity, pg 54)

    Here’s a joke….Three men with a PHD walk into a bar; all three can speak 10 different languages all three have a photographic mind and all three are religious, but one is a Christian the other a Jew and the third a Muslim; and the bar tender is a Mormon.