All entries for Saturday 20 August 2005

August 20, 2005

Fifty and a figure of fun?

Follow-up to Domestic provision and disempowerment from L'Etrangère

Part 3 and conclusion to 'masculinities and unemployment' chapter

Simon: I’ve noticed that there’s less respect for the older, for the older person. We used to have retirement dos when a guy got his retirement cheque from a company at sixty five. They don’t make it any more. They either die, or get made redundant at fifty. To be fifty is to be a figure of fun, to be considered old, out of touch.
Thomas: I’m not sure I agree with that… I don’t think it’s so much that in olden days, or early days, when we were younger, there was any extra respect really. But we’ve now got a situation, if you are to believe the media, if, big if, that life ends at thirty five or forty, and the rest is just garbage.

It can be argued that youth is considered another dimension of hegemonic masculinity in the workplace, with older male workers being forced away from ‘centre stage’ to make room for upcoming ‘Young Turks’ (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003: 5). This is implied by Simon’s construction of the older worker as an obsolete ‘figure of fun’, associating the ageing process with loss of power, social status and respect. In doing so he expresses nostalgia for a bygone age, suggesting that in the past there was an intimate connection between men and their work throughout the life course. This discourse constructs the employer-employee relationship as one characterised by loyalty, respect and mutual dependence, retirement providing a source of celebration of a man’s working life rather than cause for concern. Although Thomas challenges this idealised representation, at the same time he acknowledges the persuasiveness of media and public discourses in formulating negative conceptions about older workers, a theme echoed by other participants:

Ben: Employers don’t want older workers. It’s as straightforward and simple as that…
Simon: There’s an inbuilt prejudice in the interview system that you start to lose skills when you’re about forty or your brain slows.

Although the men actively resist such discourses that position them as obsolete or unnecessary, they seem acutely aware of their pervasiveness and influence in formulating conceptions about the older worker and prejudicing ‘the interview system’:

Thomas: There’s this great super-duper advanced technology that we have now that’s directed towards a cult of the young… There’s a belief that younger people are more flexible and adaptable and can cope with change.
Joe: It’s a completely different environment to what it was forty years ago. I mean, there’s no more manufacturing now. Now I find myself in a world I don’t understand. I feel like a dinosaur. To be honest, if I had any skills I wouldn’t be sitting here.
Ben: Technology has taken over quite a lot more. In any type of industry, you’ve got the computers… I can get by and I’m quick enough to learn, but you never get a chance… you never get the opportunity.

The men position themselves as marginalized in an age of increasing technology that favours a 'cult of the young' rather than 'dinosaurs' like themselves. Thomas refers to a powerful contemporary discourse that represents ‘younger people’ as more adaptable and able to cope with change and the complexities of a system of ‘great super-duper advanced technology’. Joe’s assessment of his gendered value is couched in the rhetoric of disuse and obsoleteness, situating him as anachronistic in the context of technological advances that leave him bewildered. Ben argues that he’s ‘quick enough to learn’ new skills, but locates himself and other male manual workers as fighting a losing battle in which they are denied the opportunity to accrue cultural capital through retraining and re-skilling, resulting in an inability to re-negotiate alternative identities and escape ‘the situation’.

The men also take up an alternative discourse relating to older workers, which paints a picture of wisdom, experience and maturity. In adopting this discourse they position themselves as superior to ‘young upstarts’ who may understand computers and new technology, but are often found wanting in terms of interpersonal skills and knowledge accrued over time:

Sam: A lot of the time we don’t realise how au fait we are with so many things until we encounter a younger person who’s got that gap in their knowledge. And it comes as a surprise.
Simon: Younger people waste time, we don’t photocopy our buttocks.
Ben: The young ones that used to come to us’d lack the practical knowledge.
Simon: When you were sixteen, you think you know everything. I mean it was ridiculous.

This alternative discourse implies that they have invested heavily in their identities as working men, accruing cultural capital in the form of experience and practical knowledge and enabling them to recognise themselves as respectable, responsible workers. However, these investments can only work if others invest in them, and constant rebuffals in the recruitment process serve to devalue the cultural capital accrued through experience:

Alex: I’ve got more valuable skills than knowing how to use a computer.
Ben: The main skill we’ve got is experience and practical knowledge… You don’t get a nineteen-year-old mentor.
Simon: Amongst the people here we have more skills and qualifications than we know what do with. The question is how to utilise these.
Alex: Age is a skill in a way. The question is how do we make people in the personnel department, who are often half our age, recognise that experience?
Ben: It’s very difficult, unless you do a PhD or something, or you’re a lecturer, that to me is something irrespective of age. Age is no barrier there.

Maturity is thus a form of cultural capital, but it is only activated and valued within particular social fields such as academia. The value of maturity is tied to the context in which it is found, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege outside that field. Ultimately, participants tend to see themselves as ensnared by a system characterised by ageist attitudes and structural inequalities, in which age is considered a negative quality rather than a form of capital that is valued by employers:

Ben: As soon as you put your age down on the application you can guarantee that you are not going to get anywhere, unless you’re already part of the place, or they specifically want someone with a bit of experience.
Joe: They always ask for it. You’re honour-bound to put it down. Even if you take it out and they interview you, you still won’t get anywhere once they see how old you are.

Conclusion

As we have discussed, traditional discourses that link masculinity with public life and domestic provision are challenged by unemployment, changes in employment patterns and age, and it could therefore be argued that it is potentially in men’s interests to deconstruct them. As we have seen, the men actively resist discourses that position them as obsolete or marginalised, employing tactics such as humour to undermine dominant discourses and deny the representations of their positioning, employing alternative discourses and adopting an active role in constructing alternative subjectivities. However, questioning previous assumptions does not necessarily determine the nature of the transformation. As Willott and Griffin point out, ‘merely because normative assumptions about masculinity are under some degree of challenge, it does not necessarily follow that any consequent change will be politically progressive’ (1997: 121). Furthermore, subjectivity is linked tightly with the social conditions in which it is forged, which thus makes it difficult to conceptualise, let alone implement, a politics of transformation.

We will now begin to explore how the men respond to the challenges posed by long-term unemployment and attempt to reconstruct their masculine identities. In doing so we will examine the importance of a Bourdieuian notion of capital as a resource for renegotiating masculinities and consider the structural constraints that impede change.


Le canard qui rit

What in Diva Duck's sweet name am I doing on campus on a Saturday? Such a catastrophe has not befallen me for quite some time, with the result that I'm not sure how to deal with it.

I invited a friend to come and stay, but she's mysteriously disappeared off the face of the earth (probably because I made it sound so utterly unappealing), and in any case I should write my… I'm not even going to write that word again until the thing is actually finished and handed in.

What if I inadvertently rot (of course this would be inadvertent, stupid girl, it's not generally something that people aspire to do)? Would the ducks notice? Would they even care? This duck is laughing at my plight. Bastard.

Ooh just got invitation to go to Rugby. Now that's better. Except… where is Rugby?


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