Hard-hit by unemployment and reduced earnings, Irish men are experiencing an identity crisis, and those around them are suffering too. Men and women must adapt to new realities
’Your concentration drops and your motivation goes’: Terry O’Connor, who is unemployed, with his dog, Lewis. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Tony Moore: ‘I do the ironing, cooking and shopping. I don’t see it as unmanly.’ Photograph: James Flynn/APX
‘Deep down, it hurts. I try to stay one step ahead of depression. During the day I’m busy, but night-times are hard,” says Derek, a 39-year-old who lost his job in 2009. Since then he has been rearing three young children and keeping the home going while his wife works full time.
Pat, who is in his 40s, sought counselling to help him cope with joblessness and its effects. “I feel too old for most jobs. I have lots of experience but no certificates.” After a year of being unemployed he became “a bit lazy”, and his self-esteem was at rock bottom.
“I try to keep a good face up for people, but when I’m on my own I get very down. My wife wants me to see the doctor to get medication, but I don’t want to become dependent on pills. People like me are invisible, on the scrapheap, and the world is for young people. I’m trying to get my eldest to emigrate, because there’s no future in Ireland. ”
Brendan Madden of Relationships Ireland uses the word “mancession” to describe how the crisis in the jobs market since 2008 has affected Irish men. The term appeared in the US in 2009 and quickly crossed the Atlantic. It might sound like a glib media buzzword, but it’s an apt description of what has happened in Ireland.
The collapse of the construction industry had a profound effect on Irish men, with male unemployment peaking at 18 per cent in 2012, compared with 4 per cent in 2007. Today employment among men is 64.6 per cent, compared with a high of 78 per cent in 2007, according to the CSO.
Yet while the peak of the employment wave, which was followed by a devastating trough, has overturned the lives of many men, women’s employment rate has remained steady at about 55 per cent since 2001. Because women are heavily employed in sectors such as teaching, healthcare and the Civil Service, their collective employment levels were less affected by economic boom and bust.
This week’s good-news announcement of an unemployment figure of 13.4 per cent, down from 15 per cent for the same period last year, hides the reality that 15.9 per cent of men are still unemployed, compared with 11.4 per cent of women. Of the 300,000 unemployed people, two-thirds are men.
It’s not just in employment terms that Irish men are lagging. While many of these unemployed Irish men left school early to take up construction-industry jobs, women were outclassing them in education. More than half – 53 per cent – of women aged 25-35 have a third-level qualification, compared with 39 per cent of men, the CSO reported in 2011. In at least 42 per cent of couples under 40, the woman is better educated, according to the ESRI.
In Madden’s experience of dealing with couples, many female partners are also earning more, and men have not adjusted to this new reality in their relationships.
These may seem like positive developments for women. But it’s not that simple: the “mancession” is hurting men’s partners, children and relatives.
For many men, prolonged unemployment leads to a sense of having failed their families, on top of the financial insecurity, says Madden. “Once you throw a disproportionate amount of male unemployment into the mix, you have a potential for enormous tension and conflict in couples’ relationships, especially those with children,” he says.
One problem is that unemployment pushes many men into the home, where they fail to take on the “mother’s role”.
“The increased participation of females in the workforce on equal and frequently superior terms to males has not been matched by equal male participation in household chores and childrearing,” says Madden.
It can be hard for men to do this reliably when they are job-hunting or working in a series of part-time jobs, he adds.
Compared with the rest of Europe before the recession, Irish men in dual-earner couples did the least housework, according to research by Margret Fine-Davis, director of the social attitude and policy research group at Trinity College Dublin.
This can cause tensions, for example if a woman comes home from work and finds a husband on the couch, dishes in the sink and the children running amok.
“Females end up with the ‘second shift’ when they come home, and naturally feel stressed and resentful. This is not necessarily down to male laziness or lack of interest, although that is a factor too, but [can be] due to socialisation by the previous, much more traditional, generation.”
“I think men feel a little lost,” a 28-year-old married female investment executive from Dublin tells Fine-Davis. “I think they recognise that women have to spend less time on housework but don’t recognise that they have to contribute more than they used to. Men’s roles used to be synonymous with bringing home an income. Women are saying, that’s not enough any more.”
This socialisation affects both genders: some men might have been conditioned into narrow thinking about their role in the family; others would take on domestic duties but are subtly or actively discouraged from doing so.
Many women believe that they are better at domestic duties, and that nothing the man does in the home is good enough, says Madden. “There’s a certain amount of ‘gatekeeping’ by mothers of tasks they feel they can do better, such as childrearing. We see struggles in resolving these issues reflected in our clients every day.”
If women belittle men by criticising the way they do the washing up, it can do serious damage to their partners’ self-esteem, says Tony Moore, a psychotherapist. “Even today, people see women as the bosses in the home: the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, and so on. Criticising a man for not doing the housework properly affects his self-worth.”
The problems aren’t restricted to the kitchen; many unemployed men tell Moore they don’t have a good sex life. They may think it’s an intimacy problem, but when you ask the wife, she says, “He’s no good in the kitchen.”
“That’s the real issue. ‘He can’t perform’ means he feels he can’t perform in other ways. He already doesn’t feel like a man because he doesn’t have a job,” Tony Moore says.
Nor are sexual issues restricted to unemployed people. There may be problems in the bedroom when a woman has a more powerful job, because intimate sex involves relinquishment. When a power imbalance kicks in, problems can occur. “Powerful women tend to be seen as ball-breakers,” says Bernadette Ryan of Relationships Ireland.
“Women need to get things in proportion. Instead it’s always the guy who is wrong. She tells him, ‘You didn’t clean up properly or clean the bath properly,’ and then she wonders why he is sad,” says Moore.
“Provider panic” has become the catchall term for the anxiety men feel when deprived of livelihoods; and they hate seeing their children do without and their wives working hard outside the home. While many end up as househusbands by default, it’s not necessarily how they see themselves.
“Men are experiencing a crisis of identity,” says Paul Kelly, the founder of Console. Whether they are employed and struggling, or unemployed and struggling even harder, he says, “men can no longer define themselves by the role of provider. Everything is changing for them. There is a great sense of shame that they have let the family down.”
The impact of all this on men’s mental health has prompted Joan Freeman, a psychologist at Pieta House, a charity that helps people deal with suicide and self-harm, to launch the Mind Our Men campaign, which helps women to encourage depressed men seek support because men are unlikely to seek it themselves. “Depression, anxiety, sleepless nights and, in extreme cases, suicidal ideation, often brought on by the exhaustion of sleepless nights, all stem from men suffering a loss of identity,” she says.
“They actually feel redundant, which is a terrible word. They think they’re failures. They don’t see a purpose to their day. They believe they are a burden to their family, even when they have children.”
Traditionally, young men have been at risk of suicide, but according to Freeman the high-risk group is now those aged 35 to 55 who feel they have let everyone down. “Suicide is not about being selfish or unselfish; they are not thinking logically. If they could think logically they would not take their own lives,” she says.
“What we hear from young men is harrowing. So many have got into serious debt, have been made redundant or are living under threat of home repossession,” says Kelly, of Console. “There is the terrible sense of failure and a great sense of shame that they’ve let their families down. Their self-esteem is so low there’s terrible self-blame for things outside their control: job loss; the banks; home repossessions. They fear for the future. Then there’s the strain it puts on the marriage and the whole family, which is often at breaking point. It’s heartbreaking to hear them.”
Men feel so responsible, yet such failures, that they may develop panic attacks, he says. “They are afraid of opening the post, afraid of the doorbell in case it’s the bailiffs at the door. They are living on tenterhooks. It can become irrational and can spiral down into depression.”
Adapting to new realities
Women have been better at adjusting to working longer hours to earn money, and may even welcome it. They also adapt better to losing their job and being in the home full time, says Madden. Unemployed men, for their part, may be unable to surrender to hands-on fatherhood.
Moore agrees: “It’s not to devalue what women do, but men are brought up to believe they should be provider for the family. It’s not about being a control freak. It is basic: ‘I can provide a secure home for my family.’ And when that is taken away, men get angry, drink a bit, drive their car too fast, hit a wall. He is angry at the world and at himself.”
Women are used to holding the secondary career, which justifies them doing all the creche drops and school runs, and staying at home when a child is sick, but when the male income is lost it’s harder for the couple to adjust, says Ryan.
“A man may not know how to cook, or he resents being expected to learn, or he might have a bruised ego, or be depressed.”
“I do the ironing, cooking and shopping. I don’t mind. I don’t see it as unmanly,” says Moore, who works from home. In his psychotherapy practice, he sees how arguments about housekeeping can lead to stress. “When guys say, ‘I can’t cook,’ I take them into my kitchen, reach into the freezer and pull out a bag of chips and a bag of fish. I teach them to read the instructions on the packets, turn on the oven and cook them,” he says. “I tell them, ‘It’s not as hard as everyone says. You will feel better about yourself cooking for her.’ ”
What it means to be male is in a state of flux. “What you do and what you earn defines you. Men need to change their views of what it is to be a man,” says Moore. “Don’t keep apologising for who you are. A lot of guys say, ‘I’m 50 and out of work or have only a menial job. I haven’t done anything good.’ I know what they mean: I know how people talk to you and dismiss you as an idiot, because I have worked in menial jobs. Men have a responsibility to stand up for themselves.”
Men must adapt to these new realities, and women must support them in their new roles. “I founded Mind Our Men because men won’t do anything for themselves,” says Freeman. “Women have to do everything anyway, so when their men are in trouble, women need to be the ones to seek help for them.”
And, as always, couples must talk their way through these changing roles. “If the man is not good at communicating or sharing problems, he needs to learn how to talk about this. The woman may not be able to identify with how he’s feeling.”
Freeman says that in many cases women need to change the way they see and relate to men.
“Women can be judgmental. We say men can’t multitask, for example. Women need to be aware that men think and communicate differently, and we have to stop expecting them to turn into women.”
Console 24-hour helpline: 1800-201890.
Pieta House: 01-601000, pieta.ie.
Relationships Ireland: 1890-380380