Ronald Levant and Shana Pryor have synthesized decades of research on men and masculinities in their new book, The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths About Masculinity and Violence. Levant is one of the fathers of the psychology of men and masculinities discipline who for more than four decades has addressed the full range of the male lived experience, from examining men’s sexual and domestic violence and addressing manhood in the #MeToo era to considering men’s health (including depression and trauma). Pryor is a doctoral student noted for her research on men and masculinities. The Tough Standard explores the strain facing both men of color and white working-class men. Acknowledging both the joys and challenges of fatherhood and boys on the journey to manhood, the book aims to provide a context to examine the patriarchal yoke stifling males (as it continues to oppress women and girls). Drawing on foundational research that marked the early days of the study of men and masculinities (Levant coedited A New Psychology of Men 25 years ago)—and integrating insights from both academic and activist efforts of more recent times—The Tough Standard, excerpted below, may come to be seen as an essential guide for men navigating their way through the treacherous waters of traditional masculinity en route to a new expression of manhood.
The present masculinity crisis concerns not only sexual and physical violence but also the economic stagnation of white working-class men resulting from the confluence of large-scale economic, political, and social changes. These changes include the Great Recession a dozen years ago (dubbed at one time the “Mancession” because of its disproportionate effect on men), technological and productivity advances, globalization of the economy and the rise of China and India, weakening of labor unions and the resulting loss of high-paying union jobs, and growing income disparity.
Earlier stages of these changes were described by Hanna Rosin in her provocatively titled 2012 book, The End of Man and the Rise of Women, and even earlier by Susan Faludi in her 1999 book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Blue-collar jobs now take more skill than they used to. In addition, the problem is not just due to changes in the labor market; it is also due to the poorer performance of boys in school compared to girls.
Economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson argued in a 2018 paper, “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage Market Value of Young Men,” that adverse trade shocks, like a surge of imports from China, “differentially reduce employment and earnings of young adult males” and “heighten male idleness and premature mortality.” These changes have resulted in unemployment or underemployment of white working-class men. In an article in The Economist in 2015, “The Weaker Sex,” the magazine reported, “In America pay for men with only a high-school certificate fell by 21 percent in real terms between 1979 and 2013; for women with similar qualifications it rose by three percent. Around a fifth of working-age American men with only a high-school diploma have no job.” This has resulted in huge sense of grievance, which plays a prominent role in our country’s current political turbulence. Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri who was defeated in her 2018 reelection campaign, was interviewed on the New York Times podcast “The Daily.” She had an interesting insight into why so many white working-class and rural people have abandoned the Democratic Party. According to McCaskill, they see the Democrats helping women, gay men and lesbians, African Americans, and immigrants from Mexico and Central America and ask, “What about me?”
This sense of grievance may also be related to the increases in opioid addiction, overdoses, and suicide. Although a 2018 study in Florida argued that the supply of these drugs is a more significant cause than despair itself, just on the face of it, one would think that despair is probably a factor, although evidence supporting this has yet to emerge. On this point, a recent study linked chronic opioid use with a preference for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s campaign most assuredly fanned the flames of working-class resentment. James Goodwin, Yong Fang Kuo, David Brown, David Juurlink, and Mukaila Raji concluded as much in their 2018 article, “More than a Rural Revolt: Landscapes of Despair and the 2016 Presidential Election.”
The Role of Masculinity
Our research has shown that working-class men have endorsed traditional masculinity ideology more strongly than men in higher social classes. Adherence to traditional masculinity exacerbates their difficult situations in two major ways. The first is the role it plays in their unwillingness to consider jobs in fast-growing service fields that are thought of as “feminine”— so-called pink-collar jobs, such as in health care, child care, elder care, education, bookkeeping, sales, and food preparation—endeavors some of which are performed as the unpaid work of housewives. In The End of Men, Hanna Rosin noted that of the 30 occupations expected to grow fastest in America in the coming years, women dominate 20: “The list of working-class jobs predicted to grow is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes.”
These old stereotypes are deeply ingrained in the minds of the men they marginalize; they do not see jobs centered on serving or caring as something for them. This might put men of low socioeconomic status at a disadvantage by limiting their employment options. Twenty years ago, researcher Ben Lupton noted that men who do decide to enter into the femaledominated workplace experience threats to their masculinity in three ways: an inability to “regenerate” their masculinity in a homosocial place of employment; the fear of feminization; and fear of being called gay.
Benjamin W. Domingue and colleagues used data from a National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which enrolled a cohort of nationally representative school students aged 11–19 years from across the US and followed them up for 14 years. Among their conclusions:
- More masculine male respondents were downwardly mobile.
- They were enrolled in school for fewer years and were more likely to have lower-status jobs than their less masculine samesex school peers.
- They were also more likely to have jobs in occupational categories with larger proportions of males than their same-sex school peers.
- Gendered behavior was not predictive of future educational and occupational attainment for female respondents.
In a 2009 article in Gender Work and Organization, researcher Darren Nixon interviewed 35 unemployed low-skilled men in the United Kingdom on their attitudes toward entry-level service work. Manual labor and interacting with other men in an all-male environment where they could swear, shout, and engage in masculine horseplay were sources of pride for many working-class men. Further, Nixon found that entry-level service work that required skills and attitudes antithetical to working-class men’s adherence to masculinity—specifically, the need for men to act more docilely and courteously to customers and their female co-workers (which they were unwilling to do)—led them to reject many forms of lowskilled service work as a future source of employment. Here are a couple of these men’s statements. “I’ve got no patience with people basically. I can’t put a smiley face on, that’s not my sort of thing.” (Colin, aged 24, unskilled manual worker)
“Sales assistant, no, rule that out completely. . . . I suppose I’d be frightened by it, never done anything like that before . . . services, it’s not my cup of tea really. . . . I think I wouldn’t be good at it. Wouldn’t have confidence in it.” (Jim, aged 45, former sewing machine mechanic)
We need to help working-class men understand and accept that traditional well-paying factory jobs are not coming back and that they can be nurses or sales clerks, and still be men. The second way that masculinity exacerbates these men’s difficulties is the role it plays in their unwillingness to play a greater role in family chores, including child care and housework, which might enable their employed wives to earn more, again because child care and housework are thought of as feminine activities. According to a March 2015 article in The Economist headlined “The Weaker Sex,” “American men without jobs spend only half as much time on housework and caring for others as do women in the same situation, and much more time watching television.” Interestingly, racial minority men are more likely than white men to occupy female-dominated jobs at all levels of education—except highly educated Asian/Pacific Islander men—and these patterns are more pronounced at lower levels of education, according to a 2016 article by Jill Yavorsky, Philip Cohen, and Yue Qian in Sociological Quarterly.
A ray of hope for white working-class men comes from a study done in the United Kingdom. In a 2012 article for the British Sociological Association, “Boys Will Be Boys….Won’t They,” Steven Roberts interviewed 24 young men employed in the retail sector, finding (surprisingly) that young white working-class men were able to resist traditional masculinity ideology. Participants demonstrated a more positive attitude toward the “emotional labor” required in the service sector than has been previously documented, while also rejecting notions of traditional gendered domestic responsibilities as potential partners and parents. Roberts concluded: “Congruent with other emerging research in this area, the reference point for an ‘acceptable’ masculine identity appears to have shifted, with some young working-class men’s lives, at least, illustrating an attenuated or softened version of masculinity.”
In sum, working-class men’s allegiance to traditional masculine ideals is holding them back at least as much, if not more, than the large-scale economic changes that disrupted their lives in the first place.
Ronald F. Levant, Ed., is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and former editor of the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinities. A former president of the American Psychological Association, he has authored, co-authored, edited, or co-edited 19 books, and more than 250 journal articles and book chapters. He is coeditor of the 2016 book The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. Drronaldlevant.com.
Shana Pryor, MA, is a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Akron. She has spent the majority of her career focusing on issues surrounding men, masculinity, and sexual trauma