Men adrift

Men adrift

Illustration by Shout

Badly educated men in rich countries have not adapted well to trade, technology or feminism

KIMBERLEY, a receptionist in Tallulah, thinks the local men are lazy. “They don’t do nothin’,” she complains. This is not strictly true. Until recently, some of them organised dog fights in a disused school building.

Tallulah, in the Mississippi Delta, is picturesque but not prosperous. Many of the jobs it used to have are gone. Two prisons and a county jail provide work for a few guards but the men behind bars, obviously, do not have jobs. Nor do many of the young men who hang around on street corners, shooting dice and shooting the breeze. In Madison Parish, the local county, only 47% of men of prime working age (25-54) are working.

The men in Tallulah are typically not well educated: the local high school’s results are poor even by Louisiana’s standards. That would have mattered less, in the old days. A man without much book-learning could find steady work at the mill or in the fields. But the lumber mill has closed, and on nearby farms “jobs that used to take 100 men now take ten,” observes Jason McGuffie, a pastor. A strong pair of hands is no longer enough.

“If you don’t have an education, what can you do?” asks Paxton Branch, the mayor. “You can’t even answer a phone if you don’t have proper English.” Blue-collar jobs require more skills than they used to, notes Katie McCarty of the North East Louisiana Workforce Centres, a job-placement agency. If you want to be a truck driver, you need at least an eighth-grade education to handle the paperwork, she observes; that is, the mental skills a 13- or 14-year-old is supposed to have, and which men disproportionately lack.

Orlando Redden is in his mid-40s and sporadically employed. He is big, strong and, by all accounts, a hard worker. But he is inarticulate, hazy about numbers and has no skills that would make an employer sit up and take notice. He has bounced from job to job throughout his adult life: minding the slot machines in a casino, driving a forklift, working as a groundskeeper, and so on.

The forklift job, at a factory that made mufflers for cars, was the best: it paid $10.95 an hour. But then the factory closed. He lost his groundskeeper job, too, when a new boss merged two roles (groundskeeper and maintenance man) into one, and gave it to the man with more skills. He recently found a job with a paving contractor, which is better than nothing but requires him to commute more than 30 miles (50km) a day.

Tallulah may be an extreme example, but it is part of a story playing out across America and much of the rest of the rich world. In almost all societies a lot of men enjoy unwarranted advantages simply because of their sex. Much has been done over the past 50 years to put this injustice right; quite a bit still remains to be done.

The dead hand of male domination is a problem for women, for society as a whole—and for men like those of Tallulah. Their ideas of the world and their place in it are shaped by old assumptions about the special role and status due to men in the workplace and in the family, but they live in circumstances where those assumptions no longer apply. And they lack the resources of training, of imagination and of opportunity to adapt to the new demands. As a result, they miss out on a lot, both in economic terms and in personal ones…

“It’s hard to be a traditional man in a non-traditional world.”





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