As technology evolves, we'll all need to rethink what we do. But the question is particularly pressing for menby Mark Brown / October 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
In the UK, work is a way in which we have come to define our identity. In those opening awkward british shufflings of conversation we rarely ask people what it is they care about or enjoy. We always fall back upon the staple of “so, what do you do?”
We also still carry strongly gendered ideas about what constitutes work and what the value of that work is. There’s work and there is “raising a family.” Even in the home, as Theresa May so famous explained, there are “boys jobs and girls jobs.”
What’s more, a recent study by What Works Centre for Wellbeing found how we think of our work identity changes how we feel when we lose our job. This differs between men and women. The study took data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study covering 2009-2014 and found, adjusting for the financial and other effects of job loss, overall that men reported a greater drop in life satisfaction than women when they became unemployed.
So far, so stereotypical. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing research, though, found something more interesting.
They measured attitudes to gender, work and family by looking at responses to questions such as “A pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works,” “Both the husband and wife should contribute to the household income” and “A husband’s job is to earn money; a wife’s job is to look after the home and family.”
They found men’s attitude towards gender roles had little effect on their level of life satisfaction on finding themselves out of work.
In contrast, women with more egalitarian views on gender, especially those who were mothers or women in heterosexual couples, experienced a greater drop in life satisfaction than men when they became unemployed. Women with less egalitarian, more traditional, views on gender roles experienced a slight increase in life satisfaction when they became unemployed.
The study found that men with a stronger work identity reported a smaller drop in life satisfaction on becoming unemployed, while work identity didn’t have a positive influence on the life satisfaction of either women with egalitarian or ‘traditional’ views when they lost their jobs.
This findings suggest some men maintain the identity they derive from work even when not working. It seems unemployed men in this domestic setting are just visiting without fear of getting stuck, putting their feet up until the real work can begin again. For women who believed in equality, losing a job represented an identity threat.
The home has traditionally been the space where women have been expected to be responsible for the unpaid reproductive and emotional labour of maintaining the household and servicing the needs of those who live within it.
The Office for National Statistics reported this week that in 2015 men on average took more leisure time than women and that women were more likely by a large margin to be carrying out unpaid work, such as childcare, adult care, volunteering, cooking, cleaning, DIY, or washing clothes when not taking leisure time.
Technological encroachment; the shift from manufacturing to services and the growing need for people in caring professions has created a world of work where people skills and intellectual work have increased in demand, if not in value. The future of work looks increasingly female.
In the US the pattern is lower-paid, lower skilled jobs in traditionally masculine areas of work such as manufacturing declining; while even lower-paid jobs in care, domestic support, and within health are increasing. The UK is facing a similar demand for such work, even if the public funds required to carry it out are being throttled.
The problem is not that there will be no jobs when the robots take over; it’s that more of those jobs will challenge men’s traditional vision of themselves and will rely upon skills and that societal expectations have forced women to develop—skills which men have been comfortable absenting themselves from acquiring.
Men, even those with egalitarian views, don’t always want to do what is seen as women’s work and women with egalitarian views fear ‘returning to the home’ might overwrite an entire career. The revolution around gendered assumptions about identity and work has barely begun.
As work mutates and grows stranger, the division between the domestic and workplace will continue to blur. The question: “what do you?” has for many of us become increasingly complex.
For men, the danger is hanging onto a work identity that no longer has work for it to be expressed within. For women the danger is shouldering all of the work, paid or unpaid and becoming invisible again. For all of us, the danger is being trapped as ‘boys and girls’ defined by work identities created by a world that was already vanishing before we were born. Work is changing and old stereotypes aren’t going to save us.