As I wrote in my latest post over at http://www.depletion-abundance.com/, I've been thinking about the likelihood of collapse lately. And one of the things that struck me is that nearly all the source material I've ever looked at on what a crisis looks like suggests that it is really, really tough to be a man in a changing society, particularly a middle aged man - in fact, that it is so tough that sometimes they die of it, or very nearly.
For example in the recent essay "Survival in Times of Uncertainty: Growing Up in Russia in the 1990s" http://www.sott.net/articles/show/147683-Survival-in-Times-of-Uncertainty-Growing-Up-in-Russia-in-the-1990s, the author observes,
"Personal survival and the survival of the family depended on a right mix of flexibility, on one hand, and staying true to oneself on theother. The more invested people were in their job-related identitiesand past achievements, the worse it was for them. In general, women fared better than men. The elderly were in trouble. When it came to the world view adjustment, the middle-age men were hit hardest; too many were paralyzed with all the changes and were content to sit around in their cold and empty engineering or accounting offices, drinking tea or stronger drinks and swearing at the government. Oftentimes it was their wives who buckled down and traveled the railroad with the striped coffers in hand."
Dmitry Orlov makes much the same point in his essay "Post Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century," observing that women did better than men, and middle aged, career oriented men worst of all. The high rates of alcoholism and mortality are mentioned in both cases, with Russian men still averaging a lifespan 12 years shorter than Russian women.
This is a theme that shows up around other areas. A while back, Rob Hopkins had a very widely discussed post, "Is Peak Oil Pessimism A Generation of Men Coming To Realize How Useless They Are?"http://transitionculture.org/2006/12/04/is-peak-oil-pessimism-a-generation-of-men-coming-to-realise-how-useless-they-are/ in it, Hopkins argued that some of the doomerism in the peak oil movement (and its male dominated character) is based on the sheer shock men face when they realize that their whole lives have been focused on things that may not be there in the longer term. This post was widely discussed in the community, and seemed to touch a nerve.
In Jeane Westin's book _Making Do: How Women Survived the '30s_, she notes that a recurring theme in her interviews was the husband who just couldn't handle the job loss and loss of his role as provider. Women, she argues, seem to do better. One woman, "Pauline" notes: "My husband was ready to roll over and die, but the kids still had to eat, and so I didn't have the choice."
The final quote I'll offer on this theme comes from Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen's _The Subsistence Perspective_. In it, Mies talks about going to speak at a conference where she was the token woman. In response to an MIT scientist's claim that we are all doomed to ecological collapse, Mies notes that the same predictions were made at the end of the Roman empire, and that her father used to grow potatoes on the old Roman road that fell apart at that "end of the world." She goes on to speak of a strain of apocalyptic thought she observes, particularly in scientists (and mostly but not exclusively male ones) who, at the end of their careers, begin to fear for the state of society. They are, she says,
"...those prominent male scientists who, at the end of their lives, are horrified when they look at themselves and their works, and when they realise that the God to whom they have devoted tehir whole life - scientific progress - is a Moloch who eats his children. Some of these men then convert from a Saul to a Paul. But they rarely give up the whole megalomania of the project of modern science. If they can't solve humanity's problems by almight science and technology then at aleast the catastrophe has to be total and all-encompassing. Note even a single blade of grass is allowed to grow on the ruins of their deeds." (Mies, 25-26)
Obviously, there are limits to the utility of any generalization on gender, and I'm covering territory already discussed. Nor am I claiming in any sense that either this will be easy on women or that all men are like those described by Mies. What I'm interested in (perhaps because I'm married to a man rapidly approaching middle age and care very much about other ones) is why a changing society should be so very difficult for men to adapt to. Is this as true now as it was in the Soviet Union, the 30s, and as Rob Hopkins implies it is now?
Or perhaps it might be better to ask the question another way - what makes it easier for women? My own personal theory is this - women are better able to adapt in large part because we have fewer choices about this. This is a deeply essentialist argument, but I'm not sure that makes it less true. That is, even among the most career minded women I know, there's the simple biological reality of our reproductive system to remind us how powerless we are. As my friend George Franklin once observes, "there's nothing fair about pregnancy and childbirth" and that's true - but even among women who don't have children, there is, I think a constant awareness of the possibility of getting pregnant. Perhaps the celibate and post-menopausal childless are free of such anxieties, and thus can establish strong professional identities without ambiguity, but I couldn't find enough of a sample size among my acquaintance to establish such a fact.
The truth is that it is a big old wrench to spend your youth training and establishing yourself in a career, allow it shape your identity and your place in your society, only to have that completely overturned. The thing is, most of the women I know who have children have already been through that giant wrench - and most of those who don't and are young enough to still be fertile know they could be.
Rob Hopkins ties the difficulty of the transition to the lack of skills that contemporary men have - but contemporary women are in the same boat. Does that mean we're going to be as lost as the Soviet men? Is Rob right, is this change going to be hardest on young to middle aged guys? I love a whole bunch of them, and I don't want to see them die young, like Russian men have.
Most of my female (and a few of my male) peers are a lot like me - overeducated, middle class, married, partnered with kids or were when they got knocked up (with a few single mothers by choice thrown in) and aren't now, and elaborately trained for some professional career. And most of those with kids (and a good number without) aren't doing what they thought they'd be doing in their 20s. In fact, it is something of a joke among us - we call it the mid-30s "What do I want to be when the children grow up" crisis.
I've changed the names to protect the innocent, but there's Miriam, who managed to keep her career as an engineer through her second child, only to quit when a colleague kept sexually harassing her while she was pumping breastmilk. Now she teaches math at a public school and has "teacher's hours," while her partner Shannon, who didn't give birth gets the engineering promotion. Or there's Mela, who was in Medical School until she accidentally got pregnant by her boyfriend. She's going to go back when her daughter is in kindergarten...unless she has another baby, since she's worried that otherwise, she will be entering what she calls the "amnio years" of reduced fertility by the time she can take time out to have another child - and she thinks that might matter more to her than the career. Samantha doesn't have kids yet - but she wants them, and she just gave up her high powered academic career that required her to live in another state from her husband and see him only two weekends a month. Amy used to be an IT professional, and now she works part time from home, after a lengthy struggle with various bad childcare providers - her younger son goes to school this year, and she's thinking about going back, but not sure how her years out of the workplace will function, and doesn't know what to do about summers. Binjan quit her job as a research chemist after her first child was born - she couldn't do the work with toxic substances she'd been doing, and the only option open to her was effectively a demotion. She's taken a much lower-level job, well below her qualifications, that allows her to work near home. Laura and Paul agreed that she'd stay home while she was breastfeeding, and then he'd take his turn afterwards, but now that her child is weaned, she's not getting offers that match his - she notes that her fellow physicists treat time off to bear and raise a kid kind of like she'd skipped out to go to a bowling convention. Kate did her Ph.d, her post-doc, put up with sexual harrassment, an advisor her treated her pregnancy as a personal betrayal and finally gave up when her boss told her that she'd be expected to work 10 hour days for six straight months while she was nursing an infant. Now she edits academic papers from home. Carly has a farm now and teaches online courses at night while her husband Jack, who she met as the two new hires in their academic dapartment, still goes off to commute. They tried keeping Carly at work, but when their daughter Jenna announced to Grandma, "Mommy is my Mommy at bedtime and Lisa (the daycare provider) is my Mommy all the other times" Carly gave it up. She calls it wimpiness - but points out that as long as there aren't many male daycare providers, Daddy's never going to have to deal with a "day Daddy."
Now there are men in this paradigm to - the one wonderful social change of my generation is that the guys aren't sticking the women with all the responsibilities. But no matter how principled you are about sharing equally, society doesn't make that easy. That is, every man in the families above would be willing to consider it being him who took the time off, or made the change - but when the babies are little, he can't nurse them. He's not the one who spends a couple of months puking and another couple waddling. If someone is going to take time off, it just makes sense for it to be the one with the boobs a lot of the time.
In our own case, I was always more ambitious than Eric was. In fact, our early deal was that Eric, who was more flexible, would follow the banner of my academic career, since I cared much more about success than he did. But then his jobs paid more, and gave better benefits, and reproduction and nursing took up a lot of time, and without really planning it, I became yet another woman, wondering what I was going to be when I grew up (turns out a writer ;-)). It may yet turn out that we shift things around - but we're a long, long way from my making enough to support the household, and we'd need universal healthcare or for writers to start getting insurance. Not going to happen soon.
I do know men who have take the burden - Jim works 4 days a week, six hours a day supporting Karen's high powered, tenure track job, and raising their 3 adopted daughters - but Karen readily admits that she didn't have to take maternity leave. Raj quit altogether, and takes care of his two boys and his sister-in-law's daughter while his wife, Jasu pushes her limits as an urban reporter. Mick and Linnie did the switch - she stayed home for three years and two babies, and the moment she weaned the second, Mick quit his job as an editor and started doing a bit of work in the evenings, while caring for the boys. But these cases are exceptional, a growing number of families where the men are both willing and able to shift their identities and the jobs and culture and able to support women in this.
That is, my own observation is that women who have kids pretty much have no choice but to get over the notion that their careers are their identity in a way that many men don't have to. We've already gone through a radical transformation - the transformation between the identity we were prepared to have and the identity that we actually got. More men have done this in my generation than in the past, but I still think that this happens less frequently to men than women.
I also think that the men I know who have taken a bigger part in parenting and the transition than their fathers and grandfathers did are probably better prepared for a shift - I live among committed, passionate fathers, who do an awful lot of their childcare and domestic work, often on top of physically, intellectually or otherwise strenuous jobs. That is, I don't know a lot of men who haven't had to shift their identities in some deep way from "Consultant" to "Consultant/Daddy." My hope is that that means the 30 something men I hang out with will handle the shift in their identities better than their fathers would have. But there's still something different, I think, in what most of them seem to experience in fatherhood - that is, fatherhood adds a dimension, but in many cases, doesn't subtract anything.
Women I know, in contrast, have already slammed hard into the wall of limitations - or they've watched their mothers, sisters, girlfriends in the world around them do it. We've confronted the reality that all the technology in the world can only change our biology so much - the minute we have sex, we come crashing up against the danger of pregnancy, and *everything* changing. I've never met a woman, no matter how reliable her birth control, who hasn't had a pregnancy scare or three, a moment when she realizes how *not* in control of her life she could be. For those who actually do get pregnant, do have children, even those who keep the same jobs and work through the experience, there are subtle changes in career culture in many cases. If there aren't, it is usually because a husband bears those burdens - or because they can afford lots and lots of paid help. For those who were the primary nurturers (and that goes with a strong commitment to nursing in many cases - I know women who went back to work at 6 weeks and pumped until a child was 18 months, but I know more women who couldn't pull that off, and if they had the means, often preferred to nurse, even if it cost the income and career, rather than formula feed - poor women generally just have no choice but to move to formula if their bodies won't handle pumping, or their workplace doesn't support it), often they describe the first few months or year of motherhood as a loss, or a drowning, a massive shock. It isn't that they don't love parenthood - they do. But the change in who you are is such a vast shock that it is hard to negotiate it smoothly.
I wonder if the shift in identity that women face in adulthood is something like what men face in a changing economy and society. That is, we came bang up against the reality of limits early on, and for all that we live in a society that encourages us to pretend there are no biological differences between women and men, even young girls know that isn't true - that there really is only so much a commitment to egalitarianism can do to balance the reality of biological limits. I know my decision to have a child at 27, rather than waiting until I had my Ph.d and tenure (as I was advised by a number of people) was shaped by having watched my mother's friends who waited into their middle 30s or even 40s, and their experience of infertility. Even as a teenager, I knew that the notion that I had all the choices was false/
The truth is that while technology can do some things, it can't carry a baby for you, and motherhood has at its roots for most women (there are high tech exceptions on both ends) a purely biological sex at one end, a whole lot of squatting and pushing at the other. I wonder, then, if the idea that there are biological limits, or that our identity must shift in response to changing situations, aren't ones that many women have already had no choice but to confront?
What does this mean for men? My own feeling is that men of my own generation are going to have, in general, advantages over the middle aged men of the Soviet 1990s, or the men of the 1930s - our culture's shifts to more common ground may turn out to be a survival strategy for men. That is, even if they've never done it, most men of my acquaintance have at least some level of preparedness to shift roles, and have had to connect with biological limits in their wives' bodies, perhaps not as directly as the wives, but nonetheless. They may love their work, they may be good at it, but most men I know have a level of flexibility that I think will serve them well. Across class, race, religion and cultural lines, they've been forced to change their own roles in the public world simply by having children or wanting them - because they know that the women in their lives aren't going to be able to do it alone. I can't imagine any father I know rolling over when his kids needed to be fed - if he was no longer making the money to do so, he'd be out there growing the food.
Still, I also think that it may be important for men now to start putting a foot in the informal economy, to start finding identity in their families or their off book work, or in anything than the career they trained for. As Hopkins observes, they don't necessarily have the skill set for a low energy future, and that part is scary, and less scary if you begin to acquire one. It may be the integration of skill set and flexibility that makes them capable of handling the change.
When we got married, I was 26, Eric was 28. I told him that after we'd been married for 75 years, we could renegotiate the deal, and if he wanted to consider seeing other people, we'd talk about it then. But I made him swear to give me 75 years. I think of my role in pestering him into learning new skills and planning for a future on our land as an investment in that deal - if he hits the wall of limits, I want to be there to be reassuring, to be behind him saying, "Look, you may not be an astrophysicist any more, but you are still a star gazer with a bit of dirt, a loving family and a damned fine ass. So you will not be moping around waiting for the world to start up again, or dropping dead of a coronary and leaving me alone with all these children. Have a hoe - you still have 65 years of undifferentiated hell until you are rid of me." I recommend this approach to all the man loving women and men in my audience ;-).