Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Case of Missing Men

The sorry state of men in Kiwiland;

Count the heads, says economist Paul Callister, and it's all too obvious that New Zealand men are increasingly going missing from the education system, missing from families, missing from certain areas of the workforce and literally missing due to unnecessarily early death.

Callister, a senior research fellow at Victoria University, is leading a three-year, $1.7 million study into what has happened to those "missing men".

He says the plight of New Zealand men has historically been desperately under-researched. He blames a mindset which goes like this: men still hold most of the top corporate jobs and have higher average salaries, therefore women are still disadvantaged, and therefore we needn't worry about men.

"It's not either-or," says Callister. "You can have men over-represented at the bottom, and still have them over-represented at the top." No doubt feminism's battle is not yet over, but "it's not like you have to win one before you start with the other".

Some of our most lethal problems can be blamed on our evolutionary heritage, says University of Canterbury psychology professor Garth Fletcher. Since our distant hunter-gatherer past, men have always taken greater risks with their physical safety than women, in the hope of gaining social status and impressing a potential mate.

That risk-taking means many figures that look disastrous for men now "have always looked disastrous".

Once, a man wanting to gain status might have hunted wild animals or picked a fight with a rival. These days Kiwi men drive cars too fast (70% of road deaths in 2000 were male), do dangerous jobs (95% of work-related deaths are male), and break stuff (90% of property-damage arrests are of males). And we still pick fights (83% of 43,000 arrests for violent offences in 2006 were male); even members of parliament don't seem to be able to resist throwing the occasional punch. It gets worse. In the mid-1980s a time of radical economic change the annual male suicide rate in New Zealand leapt from 15 per 100,000 of population to 29, and stayed there through the 1990s; over the same period, the female rate held steady at six per 100,000.

The male rate had dropped back almost to 1980s' levels by 2003, but doesn't this suggest a male malaise specific to the times, rather than an inevitable consequence of our Pleistocene past?

Actually, says Fletcher, you'd expect male suicide rates to rise faster than women's at such times, because of the greater importance men place on status; depression and suicide are characteristic male responses to loss of that status.

Another blunt measure of how a group is faring is lifespan. The fact men die younger than women is often treated as an unremarkable consequence of the differences between the sexes hormones and all that. Life expectancy for men is 78; for women 82 (for Maori, the figures are 67 and 72).

Yes, biology matters, and it would help if men would go to the doctor more often. But look at the data more closely, urges Callister. "Men living on their own die younger; men with lower education die younger; men on the margins of the labour force die younger.

"Are these things genetic, or should we be looking at society?"

Consider attitudes to the mainly female disease of breast cancer versus the male disease of prostate cancer, which occur at similar rates. Notwithstanding genuine concerns over the effectiveness of prostate screening, there's little doubt women's health issues receive more media coverage, better funding and more official attention than men's.

A rather fractured "men's movement" here and abroad has tried to highlight men's health woes, and what it sees as preferential treatment of women by courts in the areas of child custody and domestic violence. But there has never been the coherent sense of mission that underpinned feminism, and the seriousness of the project has often been undermined by the sheer loopiness of its lunatic fringe.

Crucially, "men's" issues are often overlooked by government, perhaps because of an assumption by those who fought in the feminist trenches that the only gender issues that matter are those concerning female disadvantage.

Says Callister: "With men, if there's a problem you blame the individual man his bad behaviour. If it's a female issue you look at what society can do to overcome it. That same structural approach needs to be taken to some of the men's things."

As an economist with a particular interest in labour markets, Callister has been taking just such a structural approach for years.

The economic reforms of the 1980s spelt the end for many blue-collar and rural industries, ejecting hordes of poorly skilled men from the workforce, many of them Maori and Pacific Islanders. At the same time, women were entering employment in growing numbers. Callister, then a new father, was curious to see what was happening to domestic gender roles.

Would the 1990s see 1950s' role models turned on their heads, as these freshly unemployed dads took over the childcare?

Not quite. Some men were taking on caregiving roles, but seldom fulltime, and what stood out for Callister was a rather different trend, one which was being spotted throughout the West: as men dropped out of paid work they also tended to drop out of family life. "When men lose their jobs, marriages can split up."

State support for women raising children on their own, plus a growing intolerance of violence by men towards their partners, bolstered that trend. (Meanwhile, a different set of high-achieving men tended to end up with high-achieving partners, enjoying their double income and putting their children in paid childcare.)

In an influential 1996 essay, the Economist magazine took an apocalyptic, if stereotypical, view: "Consider a neighbourhood in which most working-age women are not in paid jobs. This may conjure up a picture of tidy homes, children at play, and gossip. Now think of a neighbourhood in which most men are jobless. The picture is more sinister. Areas of male idleness are considered, and often are, places of deterioration, disorder, and danger."

The Economist asserted that the solution lay in somehow reinvigorating the mum-plus-dad family, because two-parent families were "demonstrably better at raising trouble-free children than one-parent ones" a popular theory undermined by recent research from Otago University, which suggests other socio-economic factors overwhelm the importance of the adult headcount in a family.

Even after New Zealand's economy picked up in the late 90s and unemployment fell, those marginalised men were still missing in action.

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