Few things are considered more manly than providing for and protecting your family. So it’s no wonder that so many men in developed countries are in a crisis, with technology cited as the reason for rising populism and discontent.
For many of us growing up as kids, the image of our fathers coming home from work each day is still ingrained in our minds. It created a sense of security and stability in our lives.
Today though, that’s been all tossed out the window, as the idea of going to work for a company for most of your life is pretty much a dream now, let alone finding a decent job from year to year. Because of the uncertainty of the times we’re in, with a deep sense of scarcity relating to jobs, many men are feeling extremely inadequate in meeting this traditional role which in turn often shatters their sense of identity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way because it hasn’t always been this way. Many of us believe that the idea of jobs existed since time began but it’s not true, as it’s a fairly recent social innovation arising from the Industrial Age. And just as these changes are hard upon us today, so too were they difficult at that time as well, often requiring education to get the masses to conform to this new way.
Mokyr, whose forthcoming book, A Culture of Growth , describes the industrial revolution’s intellectual origins, explains that factory work was traumatic for men because it required showing up at a particular time, staying a full day, and taking orders from another man. Men frequently had such a hard time giving up their autonomy and dealing with a boss that factories originally employed women and children because they were more docile.
A generation of men lost work and many never found another job. Traditional artisans couldn’t deal with factory work and there were fewer jobs because machines were more productive. It was a messy transition that played out over more than 100 years and sparked Marxism. Factory owners took proactive steps to make it work. They set up schools for children and made education available to the masses. But their intention was not to increase literacy. The schools existed largely to condition the next generation to work a full day and take orders.
So just as we need to unlearn work, so too do we need to unlearn they way we have been learnt as well, thus transforming the way we learn and work in the process. By doing so, we can step forward into the future now, finding newer ways of working and newer forms of organization that will help us get there.
Harvard’s Larry Katz foresees a return to artisanal employment for the middle class, where good jobs combine technology and interpersonal skills to deliver specialized, high-quality services. Mokyr anticipates future work will be more entrepreneurial, too. It may be common to hold multiple jobs and telecommute a few days a week. He predicts time will be less scheduled and workers will have more autonomy, though they’ll also face more risk and less job security.
New technology may not be the end of men; it may just hasten a return to a pre-industrial version of masculinity, of sorts.
Humans are now accustomed to stability and higher living standards. To ease the transition, we need new institutions and a better safety net for the generation caught in the transition. And most importantly, we need an education system that does what employers once did. In the 19th century, employers trained workers for the new economy and set up schools. They replaced the apprenticeships that existed before factories. Today’s employers tend not to offer much training; they avoid investing in workers who might leave them.
If you’re interested in reading more on the history of the idea of a “job” as a social innovation and how the future will be jobless, yet still with tons of work, I highly recommend reading JobShift by William Bridges. He’s a visionary who predicted a lot of the changes we’re seeing today back in the 1990’s.