We need effective policies to restore hope, status and value to young men
Miriam Cates MP | The Times | November 2021
Last week my colleague Nick Fletcher was widely criticised for a speech in which he lamented the lack of positive male role models in popular culture. Columnists mocked his apparent suggestion that the criminality of some young men can be blamed on a female Dr Who, but it is evident to anyone reading the speech in full that his remarks were taken out of context.
The argument Nick made was that a lack of positive male role models in entertainment is a loss for boys who don’t have any other positive male role models in their lives.
He has a point. While I’m all in favour of challenging gender stereotypes, it’s not hard to see how some young men may be receiving a rather different message when, one after another, traditionally male characters are replaced by women.
When young men have positive, affirming male role models in their community - dads, uncles, friends - celebrity role models may have little influence. But when these personal heroes are few and far between, what they see in the media really counts.
When the traditional virtues of masculinity and male identity are portrayed as redundant or negative or not uniquely male, what is there left for young men to aspire to?
Over recent years, we’ve seen an erosion of traditional male roles, both in the family and the workplace. Starting in the 1970s, a decline in the status and availability of what would typically have been viewed as working class male jobs has left manufacturing roles few and far between, and manual work is now regarded as inferior.
The role of men in the family as husbands and fathers has also been devalued, particularly in low income groups. Only 47 per cent of under fives in the lowest income bracket live with both parents compared to 85 per cent in high earning groups.
Boys who grow up with a single parent have a substantially higher likelihood of fathering children early, are less likely to marry and are particularly likely to become non-resident fathers themselves.
Fatherhood used to confer social status and significance on men of all economic backgrounds; now many young boys growing up in poor households have no father at all.
It seems that this lack of positive male role models in public and in private is having a stark impact on the prospects for young men from deprived backgrounds. White boys who are eligible for Free School Meals now have the lowest attainment levels in education and there are strong correlations between poor educational outcomes and low earnings, poor health, poverty and crime.
So where did it all go wrong?
The social trends over recent decades have been positive in many ways — no generation has benefited more than my own from the opening up of opportunities for women in education and careers. But the relentless drive to get everyone into the workplace and vast numbers to university has led to a dramatic devaluation of the many other contributions that men and women make to society.
We now place high status almost exclusively on roles that are well paid, influential and high in intellectual capital. We confer low status on roles that are unskilled, manual, and poorly paid or unpaid (like parenting). The decline of manufacturing, reduction in family formation and movement of women into the workplace has certainly benefited many in the graduate class. But there have been some big losers too, not least young working class boys.
Of course we cannot blame these problems on the decision to make Dr Who - or any other popular character — female. But a decline in positive male role models on TV is indicative of a wider crisis facing young men from deprived backgrounds. It is a crisis that should be taken seriously rather than mocked.
Certainly we need to think carefully about the influence of male role models in popular culture. But more importantly, we urgently need effective policies to restore hope, status and value to young men.
It should not go unsaid that Nick Fletcher is a working-class man himself, someone who, when made redundant as an electrician, started his own business, dedicated much of his adult life to mentoring young people and against all odds became a Member of Parliament. I can’t think of anyone more qualified to comment on the challenges facing boys today.