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the future of work

It's no secret that men sometimes get a bad rap.

It was only three years ago that Hanna Rosin, a popular writer for The Atlantic, published the groundbreaking book The End of Men, launching countless discussions about whether or not men are becoming obsolete.

Ms. Rosin made the argument that men are failing in the work force and losing their role as primary breadwinner. The fact that the subject isn't raised as often any more makes me wonder whether it's been accepted as a truism.

While many – myself included – applaud the rise of women as breadwinners and business leaders, the plight of the middle-aged male can't be ignored, specifically since recent data show a troubling spike in suicide rates for this demographic. It's what Salon magazine recently dubbed the "Willy Loman crisis."

The article characterizes this cohort of white, middle-class men as having once been masters of the universe – until they weren't. Forced to face challenging economic conditions as a result of the 2008 economic meltdown, many felt there was no alternative but to end their lives.

It's not just a U.S. problem. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, men die by suicide at four times the rate of women and, in Ontario, over the past 10 years, more men died from suicide than car crashes.

Dr. Dan Bilsker, a Vancouver-based psychologist at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, or CARMHA, said this recent data showing a spike in suicides for men in their 50s and older caught everyone by surprise.

"Suicide is proportionately a male problem. Something is going on that is driving higher rates for men in this age range. The real question is, what's going on at a social level and in a workplace organizational level. We don't know," he said.

While Dr. Bilsker said there is certainly a correlation between the economy and suicide rates, he also believes that there are changes in our culture that need to be explored.

"I do hear from men that there is a tendency in our culture to marginalize older, male workers, some of whom feel they are being pushed aside. It's speculation, but it may be one of the social or cultural factors. Older people are often sidelined, and there is often the perception that they have become irrelevant, but perhaps it is hitting men more," he surmised.

Unfortunately, in our current cultural environment, a lot of people find it tough to feel sorry for middle-aged white guys. As the Salon piece implies, such men have a branding issue and there will be no telethons or fundraisers to focus on their plight.

While they may be killing themselves at record numbers, it's hard to reconcile this with the idea that they are somehow unfairly favoured in the workplace, since men –and largely white men – hold 95.6 per cent of all chief executive officer roles at S&P 500 companies.

It's also hard to draw attention to the plight of middle-class white males without falling into the open arms of the men's rights movement, a "manosphere" populated by misogynists who blame women and feminism for all of men's woes. Let's be clear: Feminism isn't to blame for this issue. In fact, it may be part of the solution.

"Women, and feminists in particular, have been saying for decades that they want men to be more open with their feelings and want men to abandon masculine ideas of rugged individualism, so it makes no sense for women to somehow be blamed when men fail to seek help," argued Cliff Leek, a Brooklyn-based doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University and the managing editor of the research journal Men and Masculinities.

Men, he observed, need to adjust to a more equal work environment and that includes addressing their own assumptions that they are more entitled to positions or promotions than their female peers.

"The idea that men are being 'unfairly' overlooked for promotions and hiring is premised on the misguided idea that women who are hired are not qualified or are less qualified than men. This simply isn't the case," said Mr. Leek, adding that research shows women often need to have more experience than men in order to be seen as equally qualified.

Part of the difficulty that some men are having as workplaces become more gender-equal is that they were raised on the idea that the workplace is a man's world. At the same time, Mr. Leek said, research indicates that men often want to live in a more equal world.

"They want to share responsibilities at home. They want their partners to have full and rewarding work lives. But, of course, saying that you want equality and fully understanding the changes that means for men's lives are two very different things," he noted.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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