Decline of the Blue-Collar Man

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The economic crisis is hitting hardest at working class jobs, and rates of male unemployment have skyrocketed. A commonly asked question is how do we retrain them for emerging job opportunities in other sectors. The Globe and Mail`s Margaret Wente suggests the problem runs a whole lot deeper than we think.

The new economy (over the long term) is creating tons of service jobs in retail, customer support, and personal care. The trouble is that these jobs require temperamental attributes that are stereotypically feminine - things like patience, a pleasant demeanour, deference to the customer and the ability to empathize and connect. Another way to put it is that these jobs require emotional labour, not manual labour. And women, even unskilled women, are much better at emotional labour than men are ...

This identification of masculinity with hard physical work (no empathy required) is deeply embedded in the history of the human race ... But no matter how much education and retraining we offer, we are not going to transform factory workers and high-school dropouts into customer-care representatives or nurses' aides any time soon. It's their wives and daughters who will get those jobs ...

In the new world of work, the old values of working-class men are an anachronism. And what we are really asking of them is not to retrain or upgrade. We are asking them to abandon their very idea of masculinity itself.

She's right. I grew up in that culture. My father worked his entire life in a factory. I spent my high-school summers doing factory work. Sexism and racism ran rampant. Fights were almost every day occurrences: Working class disagreements almost always end in them. When a Garden State scholarship enabled me to attend Rutgers, I was floored by the relative safety, meritocratic orientation, and personal freedom afforded by middle-class culture. Sure modern middle-class culture has plenty of faults. And certainly not all working-class men share these retrograde attitudes. Many workers in more modern, high-performance factories (a good deal of whom are women) would fit nicely into service or professional work. Still, that old blue-collar male culture remains too much a fixture in too many places.

The demise of high-paying blue-collar jobs and the economic devestation it means for families and and communities is tragic. But the demise of  that old-school working-class male mind-set is not something to be sad about.

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Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. See his most recent writing at The Atlantic Cities. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He is founder of the Creative Class Group.

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