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The Relationship Between Job Loss and Masculinity

Employment and making money is often expected of men. That's why losing a job can be especially challenging, and can even feel immasculating.

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Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.

Job loss is never easy for anyone. It’s an extremely stressful life event that can make you think that the world is crashing down and everything is falling apart. There is also a strong stigma attached to unemployment, so whenever you happen to be out of work, you may experience a big blow to your confidence and feel that you’ve become useless. However, men and women don’t necessarily experience job loss in the same way. It seems that, for many men, job loss is acutely painful because it threatens their masculinity, their identity, and an essential component of their self-esteem. 

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Job Loss is a Part of Life

When we think ‘job loss’, we may immediately think that whoever lost their job did so because of personal failure. And sometimes, that’s the case. If you fail to keep showing up for work, don’t do what you’re meant to do, and cause a business to fall behind, then (understandably) your boss may fire you.

In certain instances, though, changes in motivation and productivity can be the result of stress and mental health issues, perhaps influenced by work, or made worse by it. This is hardly a person’s fault. 

There are many instances when job loss has nothing to do with a personal failing or weakness. During the Great Recession, men lost far more jobs than women did. Sometimes a business struggles financially and has no choice but to lay off some of its employees. Or a company could go completely bankrupt. And with the rise of automation, it seems that ‘manly’ jobs – those involving manual labour, like construction – will be taken over by robots in the near future.

How Men Experience Job Loss

Regardless of the reason for job loss, when men find themselves unemployed, it can signal such a catastrophic moment in their lives that it triggers an episode of depression. Unemployment is also linked to an increased suicide risk – although this associated holds true for men and women equally.

Men feel this strong pressure to be providers, which has been linked to the male suicide epidemic. Employment and money-related worries are common factors in men who die by suicide.

Whilst the breadwinning model is dying out, with the employment rate for men and women being more or less equal, men still feel an expectation to maintain a breadwinner status when they earn more than their partner. Job loss, therefore, can hit these men particularly hard. The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a group which aims to tackle male suicide, published a report showing that 42% of men feel the need to be breadwinners (29% higher than women) and 29% of men worry that if they lost their job their partner would see them as less of a man. 

Masculine Norms

The idea that job loss is emasculating is due to the expectations that men have about what it means to be a man. Psychologists say that there are 11 masculine norms that men try to conform to. In relation to job loss, four of these masculine norms include winning, self-reliance, primacy of work, and pursuit of status. As these factors seem to play a central role in modern notions of manhood, then it’s easy to see why losing a job can significantly impact men who identify strongly with these norms. 

Unemployment can make men feel that they are losers and low status. After experiencing job loss, many men might be deeply embarrassed and ashamed by the fact that they are no longer working and might need to seek financial support from others, such as their partner, who may become the sole breadwinner. 

Here we can see how masculine norms only serve to harm men’s mental health, rather than strengthen a man’s resolve following job loss. The pain that unemployed men experience may motivate them to find a job quickly. However, given the toxic attitudes we have about unemployment and masculinity, it seems that many men will feel so crushed by job loss that their self-confidence and motivation will plummet, making job hunting more arduous than it needs to be.

Ideas about masculinity aren’t going to change overnight. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that men who experience job loss have to get so consumed by self-criticism and shame. Changing the cultural narrative begins with individual men reshaping the narrative in the way that best serves their well-being. It’s difficult to be mindful of (and challenge) those nagging, negative comments in our head that follow a stressful life event like losing a job. But in order to bounce back, it’s an absolutely essential skill to develop.


 

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