Can Men Survive the Demise of the Bread-Winner Role?

Like many men, my father grew up knowing that he had to be successful as the family breadwinner. Then, as now, it wasn’t always easy to fulfill that crucial role that is at the core of a man’s self-esteem. While his brothers all went into business, my father’s passion was to be an actor. When he was twenty-three years old he left his home in Jacksonville, Florida and hitchhiked to New York to become in search of his dream.

He was successful at first, but the Great Depression soon hit and he found it difficult to find a job. He and my mother got married and they both found part-time work. But when I was born, the gender-roles kicked into place and my mother stayed home to take care of me and my father redoubled his efforts to become an actor, but jobs were few and far between.

We moved to California and he switched careers to writing for the emerging movie and television industries, but he had the bad luck of being black-listed because of his left-wing leanings. His journals at that time showed his gradual slide into depression.

October 10th: “Oh, Christ, if I could only give my son a decent education—a college decree with a love for books, a love for people, good, solid knowledge. No guidance was given to me. I slogged and slobbered and blundered through two-thirds of my life. I can’t make a decent living and it’s killing me.”

December 8th: “Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.”

January 24th: “Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.”

June 8th: “A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Wednesday morning in June, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

Six days after his June 8th entry, my father took an over-dose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. Back then, there was little real treatment. He was mis-diagnosed as being psychotic, though today he would have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, but his real problem was basing his male identity on his role as family breadwinner.

When I lost my job a number of years ago, I became depressed and suicidal. I didn’t even like the job and was planning to leave, but was blindsided when the loss of the job made me feel I was worthless as a man. This is a real dilemma for millions of men today. We consider the breadwinner role essential for our sense of manhood, yet the male breadwinner role is in decline and may be on its way out.

A study conducted by the World Bank, which sampled 19 countries throughout the world, concluded:

“The main role for men is one of primary income-earner and breadwinner in the family. In all 19 countries in the study, income generation for the family was the first and most likely mentioned definition of a man’s role in the family and of a good husband.”

Comments from men showed how people felt about this critical male role.

  • “A good husband is a good provider of things such as food, and clothes” (Afghanistan).
  • “A good husband is one who provides for everything in the house. He pays all the bills” (Burkina Faso).
  • “He should go to work in the early morning and get money for his children” (North Sudan)
  • “A husband who is not a good provider has no power at all in his family” (Vietnam).

Throughout most of human history men hunted, literally bringing home the bacon. Now the male role is to have a good-paying job and bring home money to buy the things the family needs. But the world is changing and an increasing number of men are not able to find jobs to support their families. This impacts straight and gay men alike. More women are working and men are falling behind.

The World Bank report notes that “Men feel that their power in society has stagnated over the past 10 years. Partly because of changes in norms and laws but also because of lack of economic progress in their countries or communities, men report little to no power gains during the 10-year period.”

This may be one of the key reasons Donald Trump was elected President. Men were feeling a loss of power because many were out of work or afraid of losing their jobs. They were susceptible to Trump’s argument that workers from Mexico were coming across our borders and taking our jobs or that we were shipping the jobs overseas. Many men, feeling their loss of power, believed that Donald Trump would protect them and bring their jobs back home.

However, that hope is an illusion. Most jobs are not being taken by outsiders, but are being lost because of technology. In a recent article, Bots at Work: Men Will Lose the Most Jobs, award-winning journalist Laurie Penny looks at the real reason more men are out of work and why men’s work may be a thing of the past.

“Robots are coming for our jobs,” she tells us, “but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men.”

Technology is eliminating more and more jobs that were the traditional men’s jobs and men must learn to adapt. “This is why automation is so much more than an economic problem,” says Penny. “Millions of men around the world are staring into the lacquered teeth of obsolescence, terrified of losing not only their security but also their source of meaning and dignity in a world that tells them that if they’re not rich, they’d better be doing something quintessentially manly for money.”

So, what’s a man to do? If more and more of us are facing a world where we can’t expect to be doing the kind of work we once did, we will have to find other ways of providing meaning in our lives. Some of us will move into jobs that have been traditionally done by women, including child-care, nursing, and social work. More men will take over the home-making functions, while women continue to take more of the jobs in the workplace.  Still others will find new roles beyond the “breadwinner role.”

Humans are clearly out of balance with the natural world as we continue to see hurricanes that are more and more destructive and wildfires that destroy homes and lives. Psychologist and author Sam Keen suggests that more of us will find roles that involve helping humans get reconnected to the Earth.

“The radical vision of the future rests on the belief that the logic that determines either our survival or our destruction is simple:

  1. The new human vocation is to heal the Earth.
  2. We can only heal what we love.
  3. We can only love what we know.
  4. We can only know what we touch.

There will be millions of new jobs to fill if we are going to leave our children and grandchildren with a world that is truly sustainable. I look forward to your ideas and comments.


Photo by Kate Remmer on Unsplash

 This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.

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