Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
'We think we have to present a happy face," says psychotherapist Tony Moore of the hundreds of thousands of unemployed men whose lives have been blighted by the recession. For him, the Stevie Smith poem encapsulates society's inability to see past the brave face men fake out of fear of stigma.
Few people have been untouched by the crisis of the past five years, but it has affected different groups of men in slightly different ways and, by association, the people who care about them. While many of the young, educated and skilled have emigrated, many of the unemployed and under- employed men who have remained fear that, when the economy picks up, they will never make up for lost time, their best years wasted.
“Men who were 35 when the recession started are now 40. People only see potential in young people. We need to recognise that there are many men who will never get back on the career ladder. Career is a defunct word,” says Tony Moore, who works with Relationships Ireland.
Unemployment among younger men is massive, at 18.1 per cent for those aged 25-34, and 32 per cent for those aged 15-24, and younger men’s mental health issues have been much discussed in the context of suicide.
However, Joan Freeman of Pieta House says that middle-aged men in their 40s and 50s are struggling financially and emotionally, and are going practically unnoticed. This group is at a rising risk of anxiety, depression and suicide, she says.
The employment rate for men aged 35-54 touched 90 per cent during the boom, then plummeted to 75 per cent, and, although it is rising slightly, it has yet to reach 80 per cent. In addition, many employed men have had their hours and pay cut, with the number going from full- to part-time work doubling during the economic crisis.
Middle-aged women’s employment has been less affected: women have seen their employment hold steady at 65 per cent in the 35-44 age group, while those aged 45-54 actually gained jobs, with employment up 7 per cent.
Stress on relationships
While advertisers depict attractive young men with babies, this feel-good imagery isn't always reflected in men's self-esteem in reality. In the view of Relationships Ireland's Brendan Madden, the stress on relationships as a result of the bust has been particularly acute for those in the early parenting years.
“In our experience, the ‘mancession’ has had a significant impact on relationships, as it has a direct effect on the traditional and still widely held view (especially among males) of the male as the significant breadwinner, especially when children arrive,” he says.
Husbands and fathers with jobs may still feel like failures. For the past two years, David, who is in his 30s, has left his wife and child behind in Dublin to work in the UK Monday to Friday, living in a small rented room. His marriage is under pressure.
“I feel I’ve let my wife down, I’m a failure and don’t know what sort of future I can give my child,” he says. He envies those who have emigrated, but his wife, an only child, has chosen not to leave her father on his own in Ireland, which means David pays the price of isolation to support his family. “I blame myself for not being clever enough to spot the recession coming,” he says.
If only . . .
This "if only" feeling – "if only I had spotted the recession, if only I had emigrated" – is key to male depression, says Moore. He knows first-hand, having become unemployed two years ago from his job in the prison service, and having worked in "menial" jobs throughout his life to make ends meet.
“I know the sense of failure is a huge, ongoing issue for men, because I’m living it,” he says. “Sharing feelings is a woman’s thing. Men do have feelings, but they are expressed in a different language. The language used in the counselling world is female-dominated. The men I work with, to understand how they feel you need to have been in that position yourself.”
Often, men cry when they come to him for counselling, saying “I wish I had never been born”. He puts his arms around them and tells them everything will be okay.
For men, having a greater role in child-rearing doesn’t compensate for a sense of failure.
“It’s not to devalue what women do,” says Moore. “Men are brought up to believe they should be the provider. Guys want to look after their family. They want to provide a secure home. And when that’s taken away, they get angry at the world, angry at themselves.”
Even when employed, men may feel belittled by being on short-term or zero-hours contracts or working several “little jobs”, he says.
Peter, who is in his early 30s, fights against this feeling every day, having lost his job four years ago and being forced to go from one six-month contract to the next.
“People like me are being used as slave labour, because we want to keep working and not go on the dole,” he says.
He’s angry at politicians and anxious about the uncertainty.
“It’s impossible to get a mortgage; I live in short-term lets with my partner and have nowhere to call home. I can’t commit to marriage and children. Is this it? Am I too old to re-train?”
"Buffer" jobs such as Peter's have traditionally been women's work, as mothers moved in and out of the workforce during child-rearing years, says Pauline Conroy, social scientist with Ralaheen Research and Design, and co-author with UCD's Ursula Barry of Ireland in Crisis, a chapter in the newly published book Women and Austerity. Women still work fewer hours (30 per week compared to men's 38), because traditionally their part-time work supplemented family income.
Today, many men have no alternative but to take temporary and zero-hours contracts. “I can see no future,” says Jimmy, who is in his early 20s. He is “angry, desperate and despondent”, working three part-time, low-paid jobs in the hospitality industry.
"I envy posh people who have a good life and look down on people like me who do menial jobs," he says. He helps out his parents, who are also struggling financially, and is kept going by "personal pride and the good friends I meet in various jobs".
"Policy-makers and commentators have no experience of this," says Tony Moore. Men feel cut adrift and don't know where they belong when their role as provider is gone, he says. "Fathers at the school gates fear people asking 'Is he a paedophile? Is he here to chat up women?' People say, 'go to counselling, you have an anger problem', but that's not a panacea. Or they say, 'you need to retrain', but courses don't amount to jobs. They say, 'volunteer', but that requires Garda clearance, and if you're job-hunting you can't commit to anything."
Moore’s advice to men is “stop apologising for who you are. You are worth more than you think.” He hears men say, “I haven’t done anything good. I’m 50 and I am out of work and only have been doing a menial job.”
Moore says he knows what it’s like to have people talk to you as if you are an idiot. “I would say to men: you do have value. You have touched a lot of people that you don’t even know’.”
Members of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association learn that there is more to them than the traditional role of breadwinner. “We see men as far more than one- dimensional and when someone has lost the social aspect of work, partaking in a shed increases their social circle,” says spokesman John O’Sullivan.
Console, a voluntary organisation, helps men to build resilience and become "better copers", says its founder and chief executive, Paul Kelly. "Guys have great difficulty expressing themselves. It takes great courage to do so." He believes men and their families will begin to recover full mental health only when they no longer have to live in fear of home repossession and the bailiff at the door.
"We are hopeful that, if the economy improves and if things move on with the banks, then that will take some of the burden off men, their families, and help them live again."
COPING MECHANISMS: 'THE CHOIR LIFTS MY SOUL'
"Men are feeling an inability to provide, [along with] loneliness and a total uncertainty of the future. But they feel a stigma about seeking help. They feel embarrassed," says Joe Brady, who is in his early 50s. "The recession has contributed to everyone's depression. There's nobody unaffected by this, except maybe the people in high-flying jobs."
Brady had too much time on his hands after he took voluntary redundancy from his job as a sales rep. “I would have had an underlying feeling of absolute desolation, uncertainty and the sheer helplessness and embarrassment you feel, because men are perceived to be the stronger type. For years you did not talk about your mental health, but I have made a decision to speak about my depression. I am fine now, I have a clear head and can get through it. I know when the dark clouds are coming, and I can do something to ease [that].”
Today he works two part-time jobs and sings in a gospel choir in Lucan. “The choir gives me great joy and lifts the soul,” he says. He also volunteers at Pieta House, where he meets and greets clients, works on reception and serves coffee and tea. “One of the great satisfying moments is when a new client arrives, and you look at him coming in the door: his physique is slumped, he won’t make eye contact. A few weeks later the same person bounds through the door and his face has lifted. It’s a wonderful thing.”
MANCESSION: ORIGINS OF THE TERM
The term "mancession" appeared in the US in 2009 and is an apt description of what has happened to Irish men in recent years. Employment among men is now at 64.6 per cent, compared with 78 per cent in 2007. Women have fared better: their employment rate has remained at about 55 per cent since 2001 and they are frequently better educated than their male counterparts. These may seem like positive developments for women. But experts say the consequent identity crisis for men is also affecting partners and domestic life.
ADVICE FOR MEN: HOW TO ADAPT TO NEW REALITIES
Don't trivialise your anxiety Partners and relatives may offer quick and easy answers, such as "your problem is that you identify too much with work", or "it's just a midlife crisis", or even "lots of men are in your situation". Tony Moore of Relationships Ireland says "people don't take it seriously enough. Men can sometimes be their own worst enemies by going along with it. They don't want to be seen as weak and fragile."
Recognise the tipping points "The two tipping points for men are the loss of a significant relationship and any loss to do with employment – or, if you're self-employed, problems with your business," says Joan Freeman of Pieta House.
Danger signs also include sleep disturbance and deprivation, isolation and taking less pleasure in things. You may want to withdraw from everything, keeping your inner turmoil hidden. You may even give away possessions or change a will. If you recognise this in yourself or in someone close to you, seek help urgently.
Ask for help You may be feeling utterly apart from the world and frustrated that nobody gets you. You need to talk with someone who knows and understands your experience. The loneliness, despair and frustration, and feelings of not being heard, of being belittled and devalued have to be expressed. Don't feel embarrassed. Talk to anyone you trust, or, if you are afraid of upsetting those close to you, speak to a counsellor. If you are the relative or friend of a man in this situation, help them to seek help.
Don't let the cost of counselling stand in your way There is low-cost and no-cost counselling available. One hour costs €20 at reducedcostcounselling.com; pick up the phone and talk to someone: Relationships Ireland.com (1890-380380) has a sliding scale, so you can pay what you can afford; Pieta House (pieta.ie, 01-6010000); Console 1800-201890. You might also find support at your local church, or for friendship try menssheds.ie, a voluntary support organisation where small groups of men meet to share skills, experience and chat.
Value yourself "My life has value, goddamnit! I am a human being," Peter Finch declared in his "mad as hell" monologue in the film Network. You are not just some stat in the CSO unemployment figures. "It is very, very important to recognise your own value," says Moore.
Avoid alcohol and drugs When you're full of anxiety and worry, the bank statement has just dropped through the door and you haven't enough money to get you through the month, resist the urge to drown your sorrows. "Drink calms the nerves temporarily, but the following day it's worse, and the feelings of anxiety and being a failure come back," says Moore. When you become convinced that alcohol or drugs are the only way to soothe those nerves, you end up with an addiction problem.
Exercise A brisk walk or some other exercise every day gets those endorphins pumping and can aid sleep.
Humour Don't expose yourself to endless misery on the news, advises Moore. Watch anything that makes you laugh; listen to upbeat music. Train yourself to see the bright side.