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Ditching the Nine-to-Five: ‘Modern Men Are Looking for More Purpose’

It takes courage and resilience to dump that safe-but-suffocating job.

When I was at primary school, we had an assembly entitled “What my daddy does”. There was a newsagent dad (this was met with applause – we all liked the Beano), a pub landlord dad (more applause, some cheers from the teachers) and the dad who drove an ice-cream van (whooping, major jealousy). Then I stood up. “My daddy makes drugs,” I said.

Obviously, in 2018, such a revelation would trigger immediate calls to social services and a hovering police chopper searching for our Breaking Bad-style meth lab. But this was 1980s Macclesfield. Most of the dads on our estate worked at the ICI pharmaceuticals plant, the biggest employer in town. Back then everyone was peddling drugs.

Fast-forward a generation to an assembly on the same topic at my son’s school. How things have changed. First, no one was smoking. Second, the jobs were much more diverse. In fact, many – personal trainer, web designer, IT consultant – hadn’t even been invented in the 80s. One dad was even a nurse. My old man would have choked on his B&H.

But the biggest difference? Some men actually seemed to enjoy what they did. “I teach coding to kids,” said one. “It’s so rewarding.”

“I was in marketing, but I’ve just started working for a charity,” said another. They were all working harder than ever, but they seemed fulfilled. Perhaps that’s partly due to another big shift: the mums are working too – according to the Office for National Statistics, 70% of women are now employed in some capacity. Modern families are made up of co-earners and portfolio parents – and many women, as in my little nuclear family, are the main breadwinners.

It takes courage and resilience to dump that safe-but-suffocating job

So what’s caused the decline in the “alpha male” roles? It’s the economy, of course: factories have moved abroad; algorithms have replaced office drones; and technology has made flexible working not just possible, but expected. That chemical plant in my hometown? Closed down. Those traditional “male” jobs now account for just 8% of the workforce, a massive 63% decrease in 20 years.

“It’s the biggest economic change in the past generation,” says Barbara Petrongolo, professor of economics at Queen Mary, University of London. “Traditional male sectors like manufacturing have been shrinking in all high-income countries,” she says. “And that, of course, has consequences for gender roles.”

The days of a job for life, in the mill or the mine, are gone. Now men work part-time, they start online businesses, they adapt to fast-moving markets. Take my friend Dave. Made redundant when his double-glazing firm moved to Asia, Dave started selling home offices, or “posh sheds”, as he puts it. “I looked around and so many people wanted to work from home,” he says. “The timing was perfect.”

He’s right: self-employment has doubled in the past 20 years, with an estimated 15% now working from home full-time. Technology has allowed men to ditch the commute – and, crucially, work from anywhere. I could be writing this from a beach in Bali (sadly, I’m not).

And, even though job insecurity and a rollercoaster cashflow are the inevitable downsides of being your own boss, it does have one huge advantage: the work-life balance. A quarter of a million men are now looking after children full-time, and, says Petrongolo, “the social expectation is that the majority of nine-to-fivers spend their weekends with family rather than golfing or down the pub”.

Men are also shifting the work-life balance when the “work” part doesn’t tick every box. Men such as lawyer William Lynds who downsized from a high-pressure job to spend three days a week working in law and the rest teaching meditation and developing his fashion line Xavier Athletica.

“It used to be: you’re a butcher, a baker or a candlestick-maker,” he says. “Now people are looking at work not just as a bread-on-the-table thing, but also as a way to define who they are.”

So how do we define ourselves as men in 2018? Petrongolo thinks masculinity is on a parallel path with the current movement of women challenging outdated “rules” such as the gender pay gap.

“Education leads to more aspiration among women,” she says, “and along with exposure to female leaders, the perception of the female role changes. And when the female role changes, the perception of the male role changes too.”

For our father’s generation, this could have led to a crisis, but men in 2018 are seeing it as an opportunity; a chance to duck old-fashioned expectations and find a new, better way to live, while still holding on to the best parts of being a man.

“It’s a very male thing to take responsibility,” says Lynds, “to make a change and be accountable is a very positive use of masculinity. I think modern men are looking for more purpose, for something more authentic and honest.”

Plus, it takes courage and resilience – often perceived as traditional male traits – to dump that safe-but-suffocating job in insurance to become a diving instructor or even a shed salesman.

And we can learn from women too. Since Emmeline Pankhurst began campaigning for equal rights, women have asked: “Why not us? Why can’t we be doctors or lawyers or pilots?” Finally, men have begun to question gender stereotypes: “Why shouldn’t I be a dietitian or a nursery nurse or a full-time dad – or all three?” And that, surely, is the best example to set for the next generation.

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