Working-Class Men’s Refusal to Do ‘Women’s Work’ Shows How the Patriarchy Wounds Everybody

Photo: Jonathan Kirn/Getty Images

In the latest display of how identity runs the United States, a fantastically reported New York Times piece by Claire Cain Miller details how the jobs that are collapsing are traditionally masculine while the gigs that are growing are traditionally feminine. As in: The occupations projected to fall the most are locomotive firers (down 70 percent) and car-electronics installers (down 50 percent), and they are overwhelmingly dude-saturated, at 96 and 98 percent respectively. Meanwhile, the gigs that are growing tend toward the ever-so-slightly feminine, like service and health care, as Friday’s jobs report reconfirmed.

This is only going to get more extreme. For a number of reasons. By 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be older than 65, with rural America graying faster than the cities and suburbs. Since 1980, seven million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the U.S., with five million of those losses since 2000. (That’s a over a third of all manufacturing gigs.) The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that manufacturing is going to slow its fall, but will continue declining into 2024. Most tellingly, the construction industry is slated to have the biggest gains, while construction employment continues to fall. The shifts in demography and economy have long been combining for a perfect storm of what’s traditionally been “women’s work”: gigs where your job is to take care of people, often in the context of health care. If you’re working with your hands in the coming decade, it’s more likely to help someone out of bed than to place a rivet. Like Hanna Rosin observed in a 2010 Atlantic cover story, “The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy.”

Which rhymes, literally and figuratively, with patriarchy, a thing that’s strangling the economic livelihood of the men who refuse to do jobs that require a gentler touch. “Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment,” Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin told the Times. “We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market.” This reminds me of a point made by Jungian analyst James Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow: that men’s lives are as much governed by restrictive roles as those of women. And it’s not just the U.S.: In Britain, argues Newcastle University sociologist Anoop Nayak, the displacement of manly hands-on jobs by postindustrialism means that for boys to become men, they have to perform “spectacular masculinities” for their fellow lads. Judith Butler, where are you to save us?

Men Refuse Women’s Work; Show How Patriarchy Hurts Everybody