Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nick Clegg is right

It's a new media trend: Since 80 percent of people laid off in the recession have been guys, pundits and journalists are asking themselves if this will cause men to do more at home. More women as breadwinners and more men at home is "a thought to file under 'let's try to find a silver lining,' " writes Lisa Belkin at the New York Times. Slate's Emily Bazelon takes a dimmer view, imagining "a family with a husband rattling around the house, unemployed and unsettled about it, while his wife keeps working but brings home a paycheck that's less than half the income the two of them used to make together."

Over in the United Kingdom--which is experiencing the same kind of downturn as we are here--Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg triggered a firestorm of criticism for suggesting that men losing jobs should "re-invent" themselves as stay-at-home dads, and "that unemployment could have a 'liberating effect' on outdated views about what was men's work." He's been accused of emasculating British industrial workers.

Perhaps Clegg, a politician, might be criticized for having a politically tin ear, but he's absolutely correct: economic downturns can open up new possibilities for men, and this recession is likely to have a huge effect on gender relations.

During the Great Depression, unemployment would utterly destroy men, because their entire identities were based on their jobs and their ability to support families. At the same time, however, widespread unemployment had the ironic effect of allowing more caring and cooperative conceptions of fatherhood to gain a hearing. According to a study by historian Ralph LaRossa and colleagues, more books and magazine articles in the Great Depression promoted the idea of the "New Father" than at any other time before or since. "Measuring virality and manliness in ways that were independent of whether one had a job [served] to counterbalance the emasculating effects of the Depression," writes LaRossa.

And as more men were tossed out of work, more women found jobs. The number of married women working outside the home almost tripled from 1900 to the middle of the Depression; women zoomed from being less than 3 percent of clerical workers at the end of the 19th century to being more than half in the Depression. Incomes rose accordingly.

Women's employment and incomes continued to grow throughout the 40s and, yes, even the 50s--and expanded straight through the 70s and 80s, when men's economic prospects started to dim. It's no accident that the hero of the 1982 film Mr. Mom--which marked the film debut of the stay-at-home dad--was a laid-off autoworker named Jack. Had Mr. Mom been made in the 1930s, it would have been a tear-jerking melodrama: Jack would have sunk into alcoholism and domestic violence while his wife endured the humiliation of employment.

But a lot had changed in America in the decades between the Great Depression and Mr. Mom. Ultimately, Jack masters househusbandry while his wife becomes a successful ad executive. When their identities as breadwinners are destroyed by economic instability, argues Mr. Mom, men must do exactly what Nick Clegg suggests, and reinvent themselves as caregivers. Moreover, the film suggests that men ought to support their wives' career aspirations, a startling departure from the past.

In the face of today's financial disasters, women are economically stronger than ever and men's identities are much more diverse. Since 1965, according to several empirical studies, men's time with children has tripled. Since 1995, it has doubled. So has the number of stay-at-home dads. Researchers are finding that even low-income and chronically unemployed men are finding meaning and satisfaction in taking care of kids--whereas in the past, they would consciously reject those roles. As motherhood has shifted to include careers, the definition of fatherhood has shifted from pure breadwinning to one that encompasses both breadwinning and caregiving.

A bad economy is bad for mothers, fathers, and children--and, indeed, everyone. None of us can wave a magic wand and bring our jobs and a healthy economy back; for many of us, life is about to become very hard. But the history of the American family teaches us that we can grow stronger in the places where we have been broken. The key, research reveals, is for mothers and fathers to cultivate loving relationships with each other, and to prize time with children. That can be hard to do when you don't know how you're going to pay the mortgage, and yet we are even worse off when we lose each other as well as the house. No one gets paid for sniping at his or her spouse.

When journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the remarkable memoir The Beautiful Struggle) was laid off from Time magazine in 2007, he became a stay-at-home dad. "You know, getting laid off is always a difficult thing, but it gave me back time with my son," Ta-Nehisi told me in an interview for my forthcoming book, The Daddy Shift. "That's absolutely huge. I guess not making much money would trouble me, if I felt I wasn't a very good father. If you are a man who thinks that what you bring to a relationship is economic power and that's it, then I guess that would trouble you."

America can learn from Ta-Nehisi. Couples that can support each other and focus on care survive recessions; couples that don't--who allow stress and despair to take over their family lives--break apart. I would argue that the role reversals American families are experiencing can be a source of strength, and an evolutionary adaptation to a global economy that is intrinsically unstable and technology-based. When the right values are in place, families can survive economic downturns intact, and sometimes even thrive.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read an article recently that said that when men are unemployed, they spend more time watching TV and on leisure, with very little increase in time spent with children or on housework. Call me cynical, but I am utterly unsurprised! --Amy

John said...

You read an article, huh?

Did you read one word that Jeremy wrote?

Hunter Cutting said...

I'm pretty sure that my boys see Dad as someone who goes to work. I talk to them about my work and share my pride in it with them.

Makes me wonder what they would think of me without a job (knock on wood!). "Caregiving" could be an opportunity to show leadership for the boys and model what being a man is like.

Being a man is not about what hand you're dealt, but about how you play the hand.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I agree; that's a good way of putting it. For over two years now (half his life) my son has also seen Dad as someone who goes to work--or, to be more precise, drops him off at preschool and then goes to work. Part of what prompted this piece (...he casually reveals...) is that I may well be laid off this summer, and I've been contemplating how to best negotiate that on a personal level, and of course I've been relating it to the research I did for the book, and my past experience as primary caregiver. I really and truly believe that it's better for guys, mothers, and children if the father can envision himself taking on different roles, and it's really good when everybody else in the family can envision that as well. Because then, of course, the dad doesn't become worthless to his family if he loses the job; he has something else he can bring to the table. That's the way it should be.

To Amy: That's what's really important here, and that's what we're talking about. It's about what it means to be a good partner and parent, and what kind of role models we want to be, and that can help or hurt us to survive economic calamity. I realize that not all guys step up or make healthy transitions, but that's all the more reason to highlight the positive roles that guys can play. It's just petty and unhelpful to paint all unemployed men as if they're shiftless.

rachel said...

My brother was laid off this week. Instead of looking for a new job right away, he's decided to take unemployment and stay home with his daughter (currently 8 months). He's looking at this as a blessing in disguise...

Julie said...

My husband retired from the Marine Corps after 22 years of service. He was unable to find a job in his chosen field for quite some time but lucky for us - he had a good part time / PRN job.

He'll be starting the job that he really wants in a few weeks and, honestly, I'm not looking forward to it. It's been awesome having him be a semi stay-at-home dad. He has had time to repaint, re-organize, and do a million other things around the house...He makes the greatest meals....All while I am @ work.

From what I read and hear, my husband is the exception rather than the rule..so I understand where Amy is coming from. Many unemployed or underemployed men are shiftless leisure lumps and some become hostile with their families because they have not been able to reframe thier minds and reallign their sense of personhood to fit the current economic climate.

My husband & I have an egalitarian marriage and we adhere to very few gender based roles / division of labor in our relationship or with child rearing. We are Black, so that may not be a surprise...There is data which indicates "Black" marriages are more likely to abandon typical gender based division of labor. Where the data doesn't apply to us is this: We don't care what other people think and we do not let it stress us out. We do what works for us & we also act / role play in front of other people when it benfits us to do so. Insidious but fun.