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Men at Work



Last week I exchanged a few messages with @LizMorris and @melanieshearn about work life balance from a father’s point of view.  I promised I would expand on my thoughts, however, I struggled to form a whole series of feelings and intuitive beliefs into any truly cohesive argument.  That is until I read Will Hutton’s article in the Observer about boys and work this weekend and it struck me how the two things are intrinsically linked.

The Observer article highlights the increase in male graduate unemployment versus female graduate unemployment, the figures are alarming 17.2% versus 11.2%.  Interestingly when I told my 8-year-old daughter about this, she said, “well that makes sense, they don’t work as hard at school”(!) Clearly there is some truth there.  Men have always over performed in the workplace compared with their relative educational performance (although male educational performance tends to be at extremes whereas females tend to be clustered more in the middle). Anyway, that is a whole other argument.

Will Hutton (who I admire) goes on to proffer a number of arguments to try to explain the poor performance of the male gender. Key to this he argues is the motivation of these young men.  Or lack of motivation.  He argues that “if you don’t try, you can’t fail” and that “face-saving” is hugely important to men.  I’m just not so sure about this.  As someone trying to find work in the mid 90s, I was the recipient of hundreds of rejection letters.  I can’t say that was very motivating, nor was it particularly good for my self belief.  But I kept on.  Why?  Because I was brought up to believe that hard work brought rewards.  And therefore I was going to work damned hard goddamnit.

But I think this is where the two topics start to come together.  Hutton states,

The middle-class boy who diligently works his way up in a company or starts a business is a dupe; far better to try to make tens of millions in the City with zero risk – or not do anything.

I think there is something else at play here.  I think these beliefs are driven by the experiences of their fathers.  People like me and the people around me.  If you are a boy seeing your father come home disheartened from work each day then really are you motivated to go and jump on the same conveyor belt?  I think not.  So what has happened to the males of Generation X?

Well they have ended up getting neither one thing nor the other.  We worked hard and many of us went into corporate careers like we were told to do.  We saw the impacts of the recession in the early 90s so we worked even harder to make sure that we were the winners, the successes.  We moved, we lived away, we stayed late in the office, we gave our life and souls and we got……..shafted.  We saw the pension schemes that we joined closed.  We saw the benefits of employment shrunk, organisational structures flattened and the resultant inability to progress without losing our job security by leaving to join other companies.

Meantime we were asked to do more at home.  We were supposed to be the perfect father, the perfect husband and the perfect employee.  The generation of men that went before us didn’t really understand, in their minds the male was still the breadwinner, the protector, the hunter gatherer.  But we were raised by a generation of women that told us that we could not expect our wives to look after us and that we needed to be able to stand on our own two feet.  We married a generation of women that were raised by a generation of women that told them they didn’t have to look after their husbands that they were equal.

Apart from we weren’t.  Because whilst our partners reduced their hours, started their own businesses, downsized and went in search of meaningful work that they enjoyed – with the financial support of their spouses and the legislative support of successive governments.  We were left at the corporate coal face.  Demotivated, disengaged and downright unhappy.

Is it any wonder then that the attitude of young males and females are so different to work.  As a young female, you look around and see examples of women being able to have fulfilling careers and time and home with their families.  You see women doing work that they enjoy.  As a young male you see men struggling to balance work and home.  To be everything to everyone.  

I look around me and I see more and more men trying to make a change.  Trying to retrain, relocate, revitalise their lives and their families.  But it isn’t easy, you are taking quite a considerable risk in most cases, not just with your life but with the lives of your family.  And whilst ironically we have less reason to stay with our employers – security of employment is less certain, long-term benefits and pensions eroded etc.  At the same time the current financial climate means that it is only the brave that are taking that step.  The rest of us remain corporate hostages.

If you were a young man looking at their male role models in the world of work, would you be rushing off to get involved? Or would you sit on the sidelines as long as you possibly could, surviving on the bank of Mum and Dad? I think I know which one I would choose.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. BJH permalink
    07/05/2010 07:50

    Hmmm … I guess the problem with generalisations is that some people will inevitably sit outside the mould. Within my world I (female) am the “breadwinner”, toiling at the coalface trying to secure a future for our family. I am also the person who is most likely to be toiling at keeping the home in some sort of reasonable shape.

    How I would envy being the type of woman you describe with her fulfilling job and time with family! That is just a pipe-dream for me.

  2. 07/05/2010 09:14

    Ah such a great post. This is the flip-side of a phenomenon a friend and I call, ‘Where Are All the Women?’. If you look around at a conference of senior people within a single company, you’ll often still spy only a few women dotted here and there. But why? Is it because they can’t break through? Or is it because they choose not to be there? Or has one led to the other? I think perhaps it has – if it’s too much of a struggle to get what you need from one environment, why wouldn’t you switch to another?

    Either way, this is an interesting perspective, that women are able to get themselves flexible fulfilling careers while their husbands feel constrained in corporate environments that give them the security to provide for their families.

    That said I don’t think that’s all there is to it. Many of the entrepreneurs I know are female, and aren’t supported by a husband or boyfriend. They’re just flipping brave. They spotted what they wanted while still young, and went after it. They’re thinking ahead and making careers for themselves that won’t collapse if they have children.

    So maybe financial support isn’t the key factor in the difference here. Maybe it’s more about the possibility that one imagines for oneself. And as you so rightly say, that’s all down to role models.

  3. Corporate Daycare permalink
    07/05/2010 12:09

    “As a young female, you look around and see examples of women being able to have fulfilling careers and time and home with their families. You see women doing work that they enjoy. ”

    This is a new concept and one that has taken decades to establish, so before you envy that women have this available – think about the crap, guilt, and sacrifice that went into establishing this. And allow me to let you in on a little secret…beneath the veneer of “having it all”, it’s still crap, guilt, and sacrifice. Women are just good at smiling and saying, “everything’s fine”.

    That little rant aside – you have a very valid point about the changing expectations that have been placed on young men. They have extreme pressure being applied from all aspects of their lives. However, I’m seeing many that are welcoming the challenge and are happier for it.

  4. 07/05/2010 15:14

    Insist that your work pays for a leather chair for your office, a company sports car, and employ the most attractive p.a. you can find, regardless of any other talent.

  5. 07/05/2010 15:42

    You say “Meantime we were asked to do more at home. We were supposed to be the perfect father, the perfect husband and the perfect employee.” and “As a young female, you look around and see examples of women being able to have fulfilling careers and time and home with their families.”

    Corporate Daycare quite rightly points out that women are good at saying it’s all fine, yet underneath the surface there is guilt, turmoil, sacrifice.

    You come across like it’s all roses for us girls. Yet we too are being asked to do more; whereas once we looked after hubby, kids and home, now simple ecomonics mean many women have no option but to work, even the ones who would rather be at home. And I’m fairly sure that the women at the top for the most part have worked harder to get there than the men at the top. And how many women now put unreasonable pressure on themselves to be superwoman? Succeed at work, keep home life going, balance time with kids, time with hubby and time at work, if you succeed you’re a bad mum, if you don’t you’re a bad example?

    I get your point, but I’m afraid I have little sympathy.

    • 07/05/2010 18:49

      Interesting, you suggest that women experience the same tensions as men (which I will accept for the sake of argument) but say you have “little sympathy”. Do you also have little sympathy for women in that predicament then?

      • HR Harriet permalink
        07/05/2010 19:21

        not at all;

        I merely make the point that women have been multi-tasking for years under all sorts of pressures and coping without men affording us girls much sympathy, therefore I have little sympathy for the men now finding themselves in a similar position :o)

  6. Alana permalink
    07/05/2010 21:39

    Can’t say I agree with you on this one. Whilst I agree that female inspirational role models are out there and widely publicise I believe male ones are too perhaps their PR just isn’t as good 😉

    Haven’t yet experienced the whole kids things yet, and not in the position to be likely to any time soon, but am already thinking about and preparing my career to be child-proof when the time comes. This is not for “meaningful work” (although I would love to achieve that) but for financial stability should I need to be a breadwinner (main or otherwise). I’m not sure I know any men of a similar age who consider this but I know plenty of women who do. I think the pressure put on women is just as great as that put on men; the expectations of “having it all” are unrealistic. Something has always got to give and I find that the women I know feel divided and guilty for not being at home more, lacking for not being at work more.

    Perhaps this is finally true equality – we all struggle, we all feel pulled in every direction, few find a truly happy balance. Not sure if this is what the bra-burners envisaged? 😀

  7. 07/06/2010 07:40

    @BJH – Of course there is always generalisation. I am sure that there are all sorts of different arrangements, some that work and some that don’t. I’m drawing together two sets of data here, one more reliable that the other. The fact that male graduate unemployment is increasing and myobservations of more and more men talking about getting out. It could be completely the wrong association, or maybe it has some basis.

    @Samantha Lizars – Thanks for commenting Samantha and welcome. It seems that you might have made some of the same observations although through a different lens. I think the idea that a certain group of women are saying that they are going to do it “their way” is a really interesting one and overlaps quite nicely with what I have perhaps clumsily portrayed here.

    @Corporate Daycare – Don’t get me wrong, I am a complete supporter of womens rights and above all the right to a fair balance in life. I am aware of the subjugation of women over the years and the struglle for anything like equality. But I don’t think that can be used as a constant basis for denying the male gender the chance to express dicontent. I’m not suggesting we go backwards, I’m suggesting we go forwards. If I had to place a bet on which gender was better able to express their feelings though, I would never place it on men.

    @fernandomando – Just add wrap around sunglasses and an ill advised ponytail and you have a full on mid life crisis!

    @HR Harriet – Not entirely sure I can accept the idea that because one group has struggled they should have no sympathy for another group struggling. That is the sort of thinking that proves hugely devisive and starts wars. I was in no way intending on saying it was all roses for females, everyone has their different pressures. But compare the amount of people talking about the pressures on females with those talking about the pressures on males and you will see that one seems to be more taboo than the other. As HR professionals, I would argue our job is to understand the pressures on all of our people and the demographic changes that are likely to occur. We only do that by having a proper debate.

    @Alana – Welcome Alana and thanks for taking the time to comment. I should say that I was drawing my theory from the parents of those children that are maybe 10 to 20 in age, not across the gender. I think, I hope, that men in their mid twenties to early thirties will have a completely ddifferent mindset and opportunities. We’ve seen some of that with the GenY research. As a rule of thumb, look at any commuter train and compare the number of women in their 40s and 50s with the number of men. There must be something going on there.

    • 07/06/2010 09:36

      “But compare the amount of people talking about the pressures on females with those talking about the pressures on males and you will see that one seems to be more taboo than the other. As HR professionals, I would argue our job is to understand the pressures on all of our people and the demographic changes that are likely to occur. We only do that by having a proper debate.”

      thehrd, you are, as always, absolutely correct. I’m afraid I have childishly descended into what was intended finally as a light hearted dig in the tradition of male/female rivalry in general, when you were making a serious point. I apologise.

      With my ‘serious HR professional’ hat on you make several valid points. I think actually that equality has been achieved in more ways that one – women used to have their pressures, and men theirs, in the traditional roles society dictated for us, and we were used to coping with them. Now there are no such boundaried roles, and as a consequence we are all subject to the whole range of pressures & expectations, rather than what was once categorized as male or female. Whether male or female, as a society I think we’re still getting used to it.

      • 07/07/2010 08:34

        @HR Harriet – Being childish is nothing to apologise for! It is one of my favourite hobbies!

  8. Sukh Pabial permalink
    07/06/2010 08:03

    Not one to allow the male side of a conversation be unheard, there is validity in what this article talks about. It’s not traditional validity as we may understand in the workplace, but perception of validity.

    I’m early 30’s, married and father of 3. Financially I don’t have the same pressures that might be expected of me as we are living with my parents. But the burden of a mortgage aside, it’s a tough old bag having to balance being a friend/son/husband/father/worker. I see the daily toils my wife goes through – cleaner, mother, wife, cook, host, and I sympathise with all she has to do. What is difficult for ‘men’ is not being able to balance the three, but the expectation we place on ourselves for having to balance them all well.

    That expectation means that we feel like we’re letting any respective ‘group’ down because we’re not meeting either our or their expectations. For example, my friends might expect meet me to meet them regularly. My wife might expect me to take her out to dinner weekly. My parents might expect me to visit family more often. And I might expect to do all those too. But can I achieve a balance I’m happy with? Sometimes I can, but sometimes it’d be nice to not have to meet those expectations and just have ‘me time’.

    What I’ve mentioned is true for me, but I’m also willing to wager it’s true for other men folk too. I want to be there for my wife as much as I can and ensure she has the support she does. But I also need my time away from her. It’s not a slight on her, or me being a bad father because I don’t want to be around them, I just want to be able to do the things I enjoy in my time.

    I don’t think this article is about ‘rights of men’ over ‘rights of women’ as seems to be suggested in some of the comments. I think it’s about that continuing conversation us men and you women always have around needing to understand each other better. Kudos to @theHRD for braving this article cos it’s always rife with emotion!

  9. 07/06/2010 08:12

    @Sukh Pabial – You have made my argument a lot more clearly than me! “I think it’s about that continuing conversation us men and you women always have around needing to understand each other better” – completely agree. Thank you.

  10. 07/06/2010 12:48

    Off I went to London to visit the lovely knowledgeable people at Working Families, leaving twitter, RSSfeeds etc unattended……

    and then you posted this!

    Thank you for sharing you thoughts and ideas!!

    It seems that the grass is always greener…… Right now the research and experience shows that both men and women struggle to remove the conflict between work and family. Not only do the individuals and their family suffer, the organisations suffer as well.

    Conflict/stress = emotional exhaustion = reduced motivation/lower performance/poorer health/high intention to quit

    Men tend to feel trapped at work unable to take a more active parenting role for fear that the stigma of reduce presence at the corporate coal face will impact their progression or opportunity for interesting and stimulating work or worse, gain them entry to early exit black list.

    Women tend to feel trapped in the carer role. Sidelined because they took the options of a changes work pattern or long maternity leave presented through unequal legislation and benefits package. With golden shackles they do the boring futureless work because it pays and allows them to spend time with family.

    Of course these are generalisation. Of course there are exceptions especially those that work in enlightened companies that value contribution and results, that manage by objectives and not by presence and recognise employees are members of a family and through out their working life will have different responsiblities (eg Sukh Pabial in the sandwich generation – actually FF predict 2/5 workers by 2020 will be caring for elders, working and have dependant children and most will also have a working partners)

    Perceptions do need to be changed: the gender based stereotypes and the concept of “ideal worker” as well as the age old gripe …. “life is easier for you”.

    This is not about gender based rights, this is (dare I say it without climbing up on a soap box) …. this is about human rights.

    Better get off the box before this turns into a rant…

    • 07/07/2010 08:39

      I’m answering these individually now, because they are getting so long that I keep losing my place!

      @LizMorris – Thanks for commenting Liz and sorry for dropping it on you whilst you were out of contact! “With golden shackles they do the boring, futurelesss work” I’m not so sure on this point, whilst I agree with almost everything else you have said. And I completely agree that this is an issue we need to tackle collectively and not from entrenched positions.

  11. Danger: Men Working permalink
    07/06/2010 14:01

    This is about people with careers, isn’t it? Or at least those who expect to have a career, rather than just do a job, and to extract some meaning from their work.

    Whether or not looking for meaning through work is a completely sane thing to do is a question for another time (although I’d argue that it isn’t). But I suspect that the phenomena of men working at the coal face, unhappy and uninspired, and thereby demotivating their children is related to this.

    Some research is now pointing to (for employers) a new development; the increasing disengagement and plunging morale of fathers. And this is despite the panaceas of well-being and work-life balance opportunities. Men are just dropping out – not literally, they are remaining at their desks, but psychologically they’re gone. It seems to have little effect if the organisation retools policies for them, tells them they value them etc. It seems to be something that runs deeper, coloured by a sense of resentment.

    • 07/07/2010 08:41

      @Danger:Men Working – Thanks for taking the time to comment. These are really interesting views and resonate with my hunches about men at work. My question is, resentment at what?

  12. Mohan permalink
    07/06/2010 14:28

    Interesting article but the responses have quickly descended into familiar ‘how tough it is to be a parent’ territory, which I find hard to accept – after all, people choose to be parents and are surely aware of the commitment involved? From my perspective the problem is that people seem to want everything – the career, the relationship, the exciting friendships, kids, holidays, gadgets & stuff generally, a nice house & car, etc – and resent having to make any compromise at all. Unrealistic expectations will nearly always lead to disappointment and yet people are surprised that they sometimes remain unfulfilled (and knackered!) from ‘chasing the dream’!

    What also interests me in this situation is the amount of people that chase all this almost unconciously. They never stop to ask themselves if they do in fact want or need all this but feel dutybound or preprogrammed to go after it, and this applies to both genders.

    However, I wonder if the rise in male unemployment is not simply due to th eusual exploitation – women are generally cheaper and more likely to put up with poor conditions. I don’t think this is a good thing, by the way, but it might provide at least part of the answer.

    • 07/07/2010 08:44

      @Mohan – The thing about kids is…..unless someone has them, we’re all fucked. I’m not sure the exploitaition argument works when talking about graduate unemployment, although I do think that it is a valid argument in itself. Given the figures of the number of graduates per vacancy, I can only think things are going to get worse too.

  13. 07/06/2010 23:48

    what a great post and debate ensuing. Wish I had the time & energy to get stuck right in because it strikes many chords – but I’m very time poor right now :-] ahhh – what the hell…

    I largely agree with you (HRD) and Sukh. Hell lots of people have valid points (if they haven’t got blinded by the “but what about how tough it is this side of the fence” knee jerk response).

    Mahon – you got much of it right too, but showed naivety (which is only borne out of you not having walked any miles in a family person’s shoes) in your “people choose to be parents and are surely aware of the commitment involved?” comment. I don’t think you can ever imagine just how consuming it is or just what the pressures are when you have another life/lives to nurture just as much as you can’t imagine what it is to love another human being just as absolutely as when you hold your own child. So that’s fine you don’t get that bit, but it’s a shame you slipped it in because I have no quibble at all with the rest of your sentiment.

    For me @penelopetrunk (her of the summed it up best in a blog post 2 years ago when she described the kind of media messages forced upon mothers that they could work full time and have beautifully clean, content and well adjusted children as “mommy porn” (you know – the kind of stuff you see with Supermum titling and actresses or journalists pretending to be hands on whilst appearing in Dancing on Ice and holding a day job, where the OK photographer leaves out of shot the housecleaner, aupair, nanny, driver, PA, gardener, cook & personal shopper – and the bit where the kid cried because the aupair wasn’t in the room and it’s bonded more to her than it’s own mother).

    Our expectations and aspirations are now so manipulated by mass media and marketeers, because they’ve made it their business to unlock the DNA of human impressionability, that resistance is bloody difficult (at best – near futile at worst). And their job is to sell unrealistic greed based dreams – dreams where mediocrity and mainstream are swear words. Meanwhile we’re more aware than ever of our insignificance. Add to this that our core operating system is one that still has hardwiring for the old caveman/cavewoman status quo and is it any wonder that both sides are feeling lost? Confused? Disenfranchised?

    We’ve grown increasingly being spoon fed a branded version of our dreams, when a dream should be a personal thing. We’ve been told for too long we can have it all, when we can’t. We’ve been following false prophets and not willing to take the required long hard look at ourselves – as individuals and as society.

    There is massive societal and personal change afoot as men fall off their man-made pedestal and women find out it’s not “all that” either. Quite where the role models for this new order might come from I don’t know – but they would certainly help. I think men in this country have suffered over recent generations from a lack of local and accessible male role models (certainly in junior education), but certainly no more than women have through oppressive traditional stereotyping and ingrained misogyny (still endemic in many parts of society and actively promoted by many religious factions).

    But one thing I do know is that the first place I want my son and daughter to look for a role model is in me. In what I say and what I do. In what I stand for, hold dear and who I really am. For this is where it truly starts and, when it comes down to it, ends. No if’s, buts or maybes. And there are no short cuts, nothing I can put on a credit card and no deferring payments for a year or two. If I can look myself in the mirror and say I’ve done my best every day by my kids then what better way to live, love and eventually leave this world is there? The rest will be whatever it will be.

    (and I hope you get such a responsibility and honour one day too Mohan – if it’s what you wish of life)

    • 07/07/2010 08:48

      @Alex Hens – No wonder you are time poor! What a fantastic comment and your sentiments about parenthood really do resonate with me. But this line, “But one thing I do know is that the first place I want my son and daughter to look for a role model is in me. In what I say and what I do. In what I stand for, hold dear and who I really am. For this is where it truly starts and, when it comes down to it, ends.” sums it all up for me and links back to my original argument. I wrote as a male, because that is my perspective, but I know that this strikes equally as true for both genders. Thanks Alex.

  14. Manpreet permalink
    07/21/2010 19:43

    Very thoughtful article. For a fresh take on building strong careers and families, check out Getting to 50/50 — on how men and women share roles with all sorts of good results — including a healthier sex life. The book also debunks some common myths that cause many moms to back away from their jobs. Authors Sharon Meers (a Goldman MD now in tech) and Joanna Strober (a private equity exec) share their often funny tales of combining work and family. Definitely a book worth checking out.

  15. 07/26/2010 13:30

    @Manpreet – You won me over when you mentioned healthier sex life. Otherwise I was thinking twice about publishing this promotional comment.


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