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Reversing the Descent of Man

On virtually every indicator that anyone might want to consider, men in Britain and various other Western states seem to be performing very badly at the moment, both for themselves and for the communities in which they live. Not that this is particularly unusual. Throughout history, men have been inclined towards being social outsiders. Their usefulness to communities varies much more than women’s, and depends greatly on the way in which social institutions define and reward their roles. Whereas most cultures seem to recognize this, in the West we have increasingly pretended that it is not the case.

And we are now paying for our mistake.

Many people are asking themselves whether some of the radical social experiments attempted in recent generations are viable in the long term, or should now be ditched. It is not too late to face up to the problem. But we have such an accumulation of policy errors to deal with that we require a thorough re-orientation of public discourse before we can expect any specific measures to have much positive effect. The sort of shift we need encompasses some key elements of the sexual division of labor, grounded in stronger marriage institutions, and linked with a conceptual unscrambling of men’s roles, both private and public.

Recognizing Sexual Difference

The first step is to acknowledge that the social orientations of men and women can never be identical. Refusal to accept this, and pursuit of interchangeability and strict equality rather than gender equity, is likely to increase differences between the sexes.

Women in all societies are more responsive to each other’s needs and more likely to see the point of a social contract. They need society more. The long and arduous process of child-rearing makes women value co-operation with others in a way that does not so readily apply to men. We are better able to get along by ourselves. Society is at heart female, and is built around shared motherhood.

In all traditional cultures there is a more or less explicit awareness of the centrality of motherhood, and of the need to create complementary roles for men to give them a comparable stake in society. We all need to feel needed by others if we are going to act responsibly towards them. Unless adult men are given clear roles and duties their attachment to society is very tenuous.

It is this need to provide men with a stake in society that has led to the emergence of patriarchy and it has two main aspects. Firstly, men are socially responsible for the support of particular women and children, usually their sexual partners and their own offspring. This makes men more like women, by giving them specific people to care about in the way that mothers have to care for their children. Secondly, they are given formal rights and duties, usually linked to “head of family” status, in society’s political and economic institutions. This increases their motivation and opportunity to carry out their family obligations.

As David Gilmore’s cross-cultural study of men shows (1990), in the small handful of cultures without patriarchy, men live a narcissistic Peter Pan existence, putting very little into the community and leaving most of the labor to women. Such societies have not developed beyond a rudimentary level, and cannot compete with their more highly organized and structured neighbors. This is why there are so few of them. They are not a suitable model for modern industrial nations to copy.

Re-jigging Equal Opportunities

Copying them, however, is what we have been doing in recent decades as attacks have mounted on the sexual division of labour. Since the Enlightenment, the philosophical doctrines of individualism have come into repeated conflict with ideas about sexual differences. During the 20th century, as the state has offered increasingly direct support to women, libertarians—especially in Protestant countries—have portrayed the patriarchy, and the role it assigns to men, as a major source of social injustice.

Eleanor Rathbone, for example, persuaded the U.K. parliament in 1945 to bypass husbands and pay family allowances to mothers, after conducting a long campaign against what she dubbed the “Turk complex.”

It is easy to see what satisfaction the institution of the dependent family gives to all sorts and conditions of men – to the tyrannous man what opportunities to tyranny, to the selfish of self-indulgence, to the generous of preening himself in the sunshine of his own generosity, to the chivalrous of feeling himself the protector of the weak. …Thus when a proposal (for direct state support of women) presents itself which is obnoxious to the hidden Turk in man, he stretches up his hand from his dwelling in the unconscious mind and the proposal disappears from the upper regions of consciousness.

Rathbone herself was mainly concerned with improving the status of motherhood, by defining it as a public role that deserved state support. But her breach of the divide between the private and public realms, and her dismissal of male family motivations (but not of female) as rooted in an “instinct of domination,” contributed to a delegitimizing of masculine roles. It was a factor in the emergence of a new statist political economy in which traditional male and female roles were deemed harmful to society, and where men who valued them were regarded as morally deviant or pathetic throwbacks.

This delegitimization has intensified since the 60s, when the emergence of the pill encouraged women to start claiming equal participation in the public realm. This development has, I believe, decisively weakened the framework of family responsibilities which underpinned men’s motivation to take on socially useful labor. Some of this is revealed in Neil Lyndon’s book, Sexual Impolitics: Heresies on sed, gender and feminism (1992):

If we didn’t have to have babies when we had regular sex, it followed that we didn’t have to get married. And if we didn’t have to support families, we didn’t have to have jobs or careers: and if we didn’t have to have careers…what might we not do? Or be? A tabula rasa of adult masculinity had been presented to us, upon which we might (we supposed) make our marks as we pleased.

It is now time to discard this legacy. It has led to a collapse not only in male participation in society, but in the private realm too, where men are increasingly reluctant to commit to the roles of husband and father. Far from leading to a more equitable distribution of labour, it has piled ever greater burdens on women.

Policies of strict gender equality are no longer what most women want—if they ever did. Many women, especially older women with experience of managing families, recognize that emphasizing men’s provider role is essential if they’re to be caring and productive members of the community. This might best be done by to encourage to strengthen the employment rights of younger women, as many of them do not have long to establish themselves in the workplace before wanting to give much of their time to running a family—while creating more employment opportunities for men aged 30 and over.

Men are often slower getting started and most women would prefer them to occupy the main breadwinning role during the arduous years of childrearing. A shift of emphasis along these lines would signal to young men that there are socially valued roles waiting for them, and offer reassurance and meaning to the growing number of them who seem to doubt it.

Prioritizing Male Work

Heavy rates of unemployment are widely seen as related to the collapse of male morale and motivation. But it is a mistake to regard joblessness in itself as the cause of men’s problems. Male unemployment is no novelty, and reached high levels in the ’30s without weakening male resolve and family commitment or readiness to retrain for new types of work. Arguably it even sharpened these.

What is new is the loss of morale and sense of purpose among men, and this is a cultural rather than an economic change, arising out of the libertarian assault on sex roles. Men are bombarded with the message that modern women value the opportunity for self-realization through work. So the chivalrous thing to do these days is for men not strive too hard to hold down a job or seek promotion, but stand aside and let women go for it themselves. This is the root of contemporary male economic and educational failure, and the reason why there are increasing numbers of unemployed men even though the total number of jobs remains stable.

It is not possible to do much about this so long as the problem is seen simply in terms of the amount of work available. Boosting employment is likely to benefit women more than men, as they are the ones presently more highly motivated (by existing or anticipated family duties) to take work seriously. We need measures which recognize the greater relative importance of work to men as their distinctive contribution to society.

One step which would be to change the nature of state support offered to men when they are out of work. Across the West, schemes have been introduced that limit state aid to the unemployed, and replaced them with training schemes and job-seekers allowances of various kinds. But these schemes still rely on the private sector to create new jobs, while reducing its capacity to generate them thanks to the need for high taxes to pay for them.

It would be more constructive to replace benefits for able-bodied job-seekers with wages for socially useful work. In some circumstances this might be “family work,” such as bringing up children. Nominally, this could be open to men or women, but in practice few men are likely to choose it or qualify for it. More significantly, it could be low-paid (or part-time) work in state enterprises.

This would initiate a valuable shift in the structure of public spending. Part of Britain’s economic malaise derives from trying to incorporate too many personal services and sources of support in the welfare state when it would be better if they were provided in the private realm. This has led to the ballooning in size of the welfare state, sucking up money that would otherwise be available for industrial investment and modernization. Redeploying taxpayers’ money into public works could get resources circulating in ways that revived men’s interest in working and supporting families at the same time as assisting industrial renewal.

Creating Real Work

Such a public employment system would only result in a re-harnessing of male energies if it offered real and useful work, and was concentrated in areas that did not require massive and sudden re-education of men. It should utilize currently wasted male labor, as well as helping to generate new jobs in the private sector—which in the last analysis would be paying for it.

Many people will be shaking their heads at this point, thinking traditional male work is a thing of the past. But this need not be true. If we treat more personal services as private realm obligations (to be negotiated within families, or paid for by families) and then look for traditional “work” there is plenty that still needs doing by men and could be paid for.

A new wave of public employment could be directed towards the renewal and maintenance of the infrastructure needed by a modern economy. For example, building an efficient public transport and communications system requires a good deal of traditional labor. Also, putting old-fashioned industries on a sustainable footing, along with measures to clean up the environment, are essential to long-term economic health and growth, and something which the state could undertake. Such a program would use massive amounts of labor of the sort men are well-suited for.

We could pay for this, in part, by reducing the benefits paid to unemployed men and slimming-down welfare bureaucracies. People fit for work but unwilling to participate in public work schemes could be given the last-ditch defense of accommodation in hostels, where most of the day-to-day labor is provided by the residents themselves. In this situation, people’s family networks would soon re-emerge as valuable sources of (reciprocal) support.

Reviving Family Networks

A general rebuilding of conventional families would produce a number of powerful reinforcements for men’s morale. At the moment, the tax systems in most Western countries create perverse incentives for women to have children outside of marriage and provide men and women with little reason to remain married. That should be addressed. Single people, in particular single childless men, should be taxed at a higher rate because they are less likely to be engaged in the reciprocal support activities of the moral economy which limit the collective liabilities of the welfare state.

The proposals outlined here will be dismissed by some people on the grounds that they would push women back into domestic drudgery. But they need not have this effect. Rather, they represent an updating of patriarchy which many women would sympathize with. It is in any case absurd to talk of pushing women back into kitchens, because the vast majority have never left, and still do by far the larger share of domestic work, even those that have male partners. The domestic liberation of women has had more to do with technology than with help from men, and insofar as that does exist, it is positively related to men’s breadwinning status, i.e., the more traditional the household, the more likely men are to help out with domestic chores.

Male breadwinning need not be the enemy of women. Once they have children, 37 percent of British women, and 48 percent of 18–39-year-old women, would actually prefer a male partner to carry the main economic burden while they perform the main family management and caring role, according to the Social Attitudes Survey.

That this is not more widely understood is largely due to the personal inclinations of most social researchers and commentators. Recent research that I have participated in myself suggests very strongly that not only are most women in favor of an updated sexual division of labor but that support for it is particularly strong among mothers.

Women who, when younger, feel that equal participation in the public realm is essential to their self-respect, tend to change their minds as their own children grow up and they find themselves becoming the linchpin in a wider family system. They are concerned at their sons’ lack of motivation, at the shortage of suitable partners for their daughters, and at the distress caused to children and older people by the general weakening of family networks.

Redistributing Employment

There is a strong class dimension to the problem of modern men, as the de-motivating effect of equal opportunities rhetoric does not affect all men equally. It is regressive in class terms. As the male provider role fades as a source of respect, men who can only realistically hope for low status work are the ones most likely to lose the will to seek jobs or retrain as old industries decline. Middle class men with more chance of interesting and prestigious jobs have incentives to succeed which need less boosting by family obligations. So they are not held back in the same way.

I believe this is a powerful factor sharpening the polarization of our society into rich and poor sectors. The division is increasingly between an elite of “two-career” families who live in affluence, and an underclass of “no-work” families, or rather, non-families, as it is mostly within this section of the population that households are breaking up, with men increasingly unemployed, living alone, dying of self-neglect and losing faith that there is a useful place for them. Women in this underclass suffer great stress and poverty too, but they keep going because they know that they have valuable roles as mothers.

Taxation policy could play a significant role here in averting broader social conflict at the same time as re-motivating men. Dual-earner households enjoy a disproportionate share of jobs and incomes, as well as tax benefits. Because they can afford double-salary mortgages, they have inflated the general level of house prices in cities. In spite of sometimes hiding behind leftish politics, they are one of the main drivers of increasing inequality. 

Redeeming the Hidden Turk

Eleanor Rathbone was undoubtedly right in assuming that many men draw great strength and satisfaction from the idea that they are playing an important role in supporting their families. What makes her position, and the dismantling of the sexual division of labor which drew on ideas like it, so wrong-headed is that it renders men dispensable. In the last analysis, all societies depends on the participation of men.

Throughout history, communities have found that the most effective way to lock men into useful membership is to link their status and rewards in the wider group to their acceptance and performance of gender-defined family roles. When this connection is weakened—as it was after the French and Russian revolutions, for instance—then men’s morale and behavior deteriorates and families suffer. This is now being discovered again, and it will not be long before we will all be exhorting each other to accept men as they are, and work with the grain, and to forget ideas about how it is only “the patriarchy” that makes them different from women. Then, once again, they will become more like women.


This is an essay based on 
Rediscovering Family
by Geoff Dench. Geoff was a sociologist who died in 2018. This article is published with the permission of the Geoff’s family.

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