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Margaret Wente

We are witnessing the passing of working-class masculinity Add to ...

As the General Motors plant in Oshawa shut down for good last week, people wept. "It was a beautiful life," said Sue Stewart, whose husband, Bill, had spent 31 years working at GM. Bill wore a T-shirt that said: "Pride and Dignity - The Last Truck Rolls Off the Line."

No matter what you think of the auto industry, the poignancy of these scenes is undeniable. It's the end of an era, not just for Sue and Bill, but for an entire way of life, when a man with a high-school education could raise a family, have a house with a backyard pool, and buy his-and-hers motorcycles so he can tool around the countryside with his wife on weekends. Bill is not to blame for what has happened to him. He's simply been flattened by history.

We're also witnessing the passing of something even more profound - a culture of working-class masculinity that has become an anachronism in the modern world.

I have a dim memory of this culture. It flourished in the shop at the back of my father's heating and air-conditioning business back in the '50s. The shop was behind the office, and it was where the real work got done. It was dark and noisy. There were girlie calendars. There were uncouth guys who yelled and smoked and swore and used bad grammar. They wore dirty coveralls, told filthy jokes and reflexively disliked the boss. They were not very good at customer relations.

A lot of us would say: Good riddance. Working-class culture was sexist, homophobic, casually racist and exclusively male. Not even auto plants are like that any more. At Ford's state-of-the-art plant in Brazil, half the workers are young women. The muscle work is done by robots. Everyone is flexible and works in teams, and the emphasis is on good communication. No one in my dad's shop would be remotely qualified to work there.

As low- and semi-skilled manual jobs disappear, working-class men are getting hammered - and so is their masculinity. "Manual labour has been a key source of identity, pride, self-esteem and power for working-class men," says a recent British study, which set out to probe a fascinating question: What makes these men so unemployable?

The conventional answer is that their education levels are too low and their skills are too poor. But the more accurate answer is that they're psychologically mismatched to the seismic shifts in our economy. The new economy (over the long term) is creating tons of service jobs in retail, customer support, and personal care. The trouble is that these jobs require temperamental attributes that are stereotypically feminine - things like patience, a pleasant demeanour, deference to the customer and the ability to empathize and connect. Another way to put it is that these jobs require emotional labour, not manual labour. And women, even unskilled women, are much better at emotional labour than men are.

The author of the study, Darren Nixon, did his field work in Manchester, where he interviewed dozens of long-term unemployed men. Once the embodiment of proud working-class culture, Manchester has had its guts ripped out by deindustrialization, and is trying to reinvent itself through the arts and tourism. Some of the men he interviewed had tried their hand at retail or other service jobs, but none had lasted long. "I've got no patience with people, basically," one subject told him. "I can't put a smiley face on." Or: "Telephone sales, no. Too much talking." Another man said, "If someone [a customer]gave me loads of hassle, I'd end up lamping them." Several of them, in fact, had lost their jobs when they lamped the boss.

"Responding to the demands of customer sovereignty unquestionably is antithetical to young working-class men whose culture valorizes sticking up for yourself," writes the author in awkward academese. But his point is clear. The defining value of working-class masculinity is the ability to stick up for yourself when someone tries to give you shit. The defining requirement of service work (in their view) is having to eat it. Service work is a fundamental challenge to their masculine identity.

There used to be a lot of room in the world for men with muscle who didn't relate all that well to books or people. There was lots of dangerous and dirty work to do. They were the men who manned the ships, fished the seas, chopped down the trees and supplied the cannon fodder for countless wars. They mined the coal and made the trucks and bashed the metal in the mills. They worked exclusively alongside other men in jobs that did not require them to put on a social mask, and did not call for aptitude in managing their emotions.

This identification of masculinity with hard physical work (no empathy required) is deeply embedded in the history of the human race. For eons, it has been the most common way to be a man. People are pretty adaptable, and education can work wonders. But no matter how much education and retraining we offer, we are not going to transform factory workers and high-school dropouts into customer-care representatives or nurses' aides any time soon. It's their wives and daughters who will get those jobs. And in a world where even trash hauling has become tightly service-oriented (check out 1-800-GOT-JUNK), many of these men will be permanently stranded.

In the new world of work, the old values of working-class men are an anachronism. And what we are really asking of them is not to retrain or upgrade. We are asking them to abandon their very idea of masculinity itself.

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