Here’s a quote that speaks volumes about what kind of work has become associated with men:
“I.T. is just killing viruses and clearing paper jams all day,” said Scott Kearney, 43, who tried information technology and other fields before becoming a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.
The New York Times reports on the growing phenomenon of men entering into traditionally women’s jobs, like dental assistant, nurse, or schoolteacher. It’s an eye-opening, if narrow, slice of the broader cultural and economic picture. But the insight behind Scott Kearney’s anecdote deserves far more attention than it receives.
In Shop Class as Soulcraft, his sensational book of a few years back, Matthew B. Crawford investigated the curious case of “knowledge work.”
On paper, it was the pinnacle of the post-industrial economy; in practice, it had all the richness and meaning of farming for gold on Warcraft. Crawford didn’t belabor the point that information services performed by the highly educated was a very male-gendered field.
But when you compared his experience of cranking out summaries of journal articles, retold in the book, with his experience repairing motorcycles, the significance of hands-on craft to specifically male sanity came into fairly sharp focus.
Of course, some men don’t like motorcycles and some women do, but Crawford’s closing ode to the motorcyclists’ heroism of danger, speed, control, and manual excellence would have been drained of its color if abstracted politely away from its masculinity.
The New York Times report squares pretty well with anecdotal evidence about trends in men’s changing attitudes about masculinity.
What's intriguing is that today’s various forms of tech-driven knowledge work — even where some limited form of manual competence is involved — do appear to be so increasingly unsatisfying for men specifically that less white-collar jobs involving greater manual competence are growing in their appeal even when they're thoroughly gendered as “women’s work.”
That suggests we’re entering into a period where we will culturally correct for the excesses of associating masculinity too closely with rationalism, abstraction, and productivity.
That kind of correction would give us exactly the kind of economic indicators we’re seeing — women continuing to do well making headway in traditionally male-dominated fields, men doing increasingly well on a "glass escalator" in "pink-collar jobs", and men moving into those jobs both for their own increased satisfaction and, as the Times suggests, because men are increasing an emphasis on the importance of family life.
It's all to say that, in an economy where many men are feeling all too useless and interchangeable, experiencing a recovery of their basic humanity might be especially helpful to recovering their experience of masculinity.
On the surface, amassing credentials and climbing the business ladder isn’t working as well as it used to for accumulated and contingent economic reasons.
On a deeper level, that cultural practice has run into trouble for internal reasons that aren’t very contingent at all.
Nowadays we do not much celebrate seeking one’s humanity in traditionally male-dominated fields like the military or the priesthood, though throughout history men have turned to war and religion time and again to access profound or ultimate truths about what it means to be a human being.
The kind of leadership and followership that is really rewarded is in business. It only makes sense that this kind of cultural incentive structure would land a lot of men inside it who really can’t ever be inspired there, much less comfortable.
Within the confines of business, “women’s work” offers guys a path to emotion, particularity, and something we might call conductivity. It’s not unnatural that those kinds of things often get gendered as female, but it does blind us to the way that they figure hugely in the male psyche. A swift economic turnaround might work against the trend the Times describes.
But by then, the genie may well be out of the bottle. Economics does not lead culture by the nose.
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