SPECIAL REPORT: The trouble with men

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
DAVID WHITE/Sunday Star-Times
BEING A BLOKE: The Sunday Star-Times investigate the state of the modern Kiwi man.

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Is life for New Zealand men getting tougher? Adam Dudding weighs the evidence.

We crash cars and get ourselves murdered. We refuse to have health checks, and lose touch with our children and partners. We get depressed; we drink too much. We're being outwitted by women at school and university, and we go to prison. We're not entirely confident about how to express our emotions. We're New Zealand men, and we're a sorry lot.

Maybe that doesn't sound like you. Maybe you're a Kiwi bloke and you're all right Jack. All the same, something curious is happening: while being male always had its risks, the profound economic and social shifts of recent decades have created a new array of drawbacks.

Count the heads, says economist Paul Callister, and it's all too obvious that New Zealand men are increasingly going missing from the education system, missing from families, missing from certain areas of the workforce and literally missing due to unnecessarily early death.

Callister, a senior research fellow at Victoria University, is leading a three-year, $1.7 million study into what has happened to those "missing men".

He says the plight of New Zealand men has historically been desperately under-researched. He blames a mindset which goes like this: men still hold most of the top corporate jobs and have higher average salaries, therefore women are still disadvantaged, and therefore we needn't worry about men.

"It's not either-or," says Callister. "You can have men over-represented at the bottom, and still have them over-represented at the top." No doubt feminism's battle is not yet over, but "it's not like you have to win one before you start with the other".

Some of our most lethal problems can be blamed on our evolutionary heritage, says University of Canterbury psychology professor Garth Fletcher. Since our distant hunter-gatherer past, men have always taken greater risks with their physical safety than women, in the hope of gaining social status and impressing a potential mate.

That risk-taking means many figures that look disastrous for men now "have always looked disastrous".

Once, a man wanting to gain status might have hunted wild animals or picked a fight with a rival. These days Kiwi men drive cars too fast (70% of road deaths in 2000 were male), do dangerous jobs (95% of work-related deaths are male), and break stuff (90% of property-damage arrests are of males). And we still pick fights (83% of 43,000 arrests for violent offences in 2006 were male); even members of parliament don't seem to be able to resist throwing the occasional punch. It gets worse. In the mid-1980s a time of radical economic change the annual male suicide rate in New Zealand leapt from 15 per 100,000 of population to 29, and stayed there through the 1990s; over the same period, the female rate held steady at six per 100,000.

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The male rate had dropped back almost to 1980s' levels by 2003, but doesn't this suggest a male malaise specific to the times, rather than an inevitable consequence of our Pleistocene past?

Actually, says Fletcher, you'd expect male suicide rates to rise faster than women's at such times, because of the greater importance men place on status; depression and suicide are characteristic male responses to loss of that status.

Another blunt measure of how a group is faring is lifespan. The fact men die younger than women is often treated as an unremarkable consequence of the differences between the sexes hormones and all that. Life expectancy for men is 78; for women 82 (for Maori, the figures are 67 and 72).

Yes, biology matters, and it would help if men would go to the doctor more often. But look at the data more closely, urges Callister. "Men living on their own die younger; men with lower education die younger; men on the margins of the labour force die younger.

"Are these things genetic, or should we be looking at society?"

Consider attitudes to the mainly female disease of breast cancer versus the male disease of prostate cancer, which occur at similar rates. Notwithstanding genuine concerns over the effectiveness of prostate screening, there's little doubt women's health issues receive more media coverage, better funding and more official attention than men's.

A rather fractured "men's movement" here and abroad has tried to highlight men's health woes, and what it sees as preferential treatment of women by courts in the areas of child custody and domestic violence. But there has never been the coherent sense of mission that underpinned feminism, and the seriousness of the project has often been undermined by the sheer loopiness of its lunatic fringe.

Crucially, "men's" issues are often overlooked by government, perhaps because of an assumption by those who fought in the feminist trenches that the only gender issues that matter are those concerning female disadvantage.

Says Callister: "With men, if there's a problem you blame the individual man his bad behaviour. If it's a female issue you look at what society can do to overcome it. That same structural approach needs to be taken to some of the men's things."

As an economist with a particular interest in labour markets, Callister has been taking just such a structural approach for years.

The economic reforms of the 1980s spelt the end for many blue-collar and rural industries, ejecting hordes of poorly skilled men from the workforce, many of them Maori and Pacific Islanders. At the same time, women were entering employment in growing numbers. Callister, then a new father, was curious to see what was happening to domestic gender roles.

Would the 1990s see 1950s' role models turned on their heads, as these freshly unemployed dads took over the childcare?

Not quite. Some men were taking on caregiving roles, but seldom fulltime, and what stood out for Callister was a rather different trend, one which was being spotted throughout the West: as men dropped out of paid work they also tended to drop out of family life. "When men lose their jobs, marriages can split up."

State support for women raising children on their own, plus a growing intolerance of violence by men towards their partners, bolstered that trend. (Meanwhile, a different set of high-achieving men tended to end up with high-achieving partners, enjoying their double income and putting their children in paid childcare.)

In an influential 1996 essay, the Economist magazine took an apocalyptic, if stereotypical, view: "Consider a neighbourhood in which most working-age women are not in paid jobs. This may conjure up a picture of tidy homes, children at play, and gossip. Now think of a neighbourhood in which most men are jobless. The picture is more sinister. Areas of male idleness are considered, and often are, places of deterioration, disorder, and danger."

The Economist asserted that the solution lay in somehow reinvigorating the mum-plus-dad family, because two-parent families were "demonstrably better at raising trouble-free children than one-parent ones" a popular theory undermined by recent research from Otago University, which suggests other socio-economic factors overwhelm the importance of the adult headcount in a family.

Even after New Zealand's economy picked up in the late 90s and unemployment fell, those marginalised men were still missing in action.

The kind of low-skill manual jobs with which a man could easily support his family in the 1950s were now badly paid or non-existent, replaced with service sector jobs, "and they don't want some tattooed guy serving coffee; they want a pretty young woman", says Callister.

And this remains the case even now, despite a booming economy and record low unemployment figures.

Certainly, these men could retrain or go back to school, but generally they don't. And a powerful new trend for women to outperform men throughout the entire education system suggests the next generation could be even worse off.

The trouble is this, says Fletcher: There are young working-class men who, for whatever reason, won't go to university and won't get qualifications, and there are young working-class women who are much more likely to do so and get a higher paying job.

"And now you have a problem on your hands, because you've got a lot of dissolute young men starting to feel increasingly out of kilter with society, and without quite enough status at their fingertips to attract young women.

"This wouldn't have been the case in the 50s when there was full employment and an inbuilt status difference between men and women."

Not every man has gone missing, of course. While blue-collar men, less educated men, and Maori and Pacific Island men have taken a hammering in the labour and marriage markets, others are doing fine. For many men especially those with a good education, a profession and a partner who earns well many positive changes have come with women's growing economic, social and sexual independence.

"For me, it's a much better situation than it was before feminism," says Jock Phillips, the middle-class, educated author of A Man's Country (1987), a history of the Pakeha male image. He has seen Kiwi blokes willingly sharing childcare with their partners, and accepting female prime ministers and governor-generals with little overt prejudice. "I think to that extent we're way ahead of a place like Australia."

New Zealand men have so many more options than before, says Phillips. "The range of stereotypes is broader. People like Peter Jackson and Lloyd Jones are now becoming Kiwi male icons. We've got a much more educated and much more urban society than 30 to 40 years ago. There are parts of New Zealand where older traditions and values remain strongly entrenched, but we've become more diverse."

Don't go thinking that in an age when men are encouraged to be sensitive and share their emotions, being a real bloke is necessarily a disadvantage. Many classically male traits such as being competitive, being driven, being goal-oriented are still enormously advantageous. The trick, says Fletcher, is to be able to bring out the right kind of behavioural responses that fit the situation. "Some males can be both they can be an All Black forward and a sensitive new age guy. They're not necessarily incompatible."

Adam Dudding is a senior Sunday Star-Times writer based in Auckland.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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