Over a third of British men with no qualifications are economically inactive — neither working nor looking for work. Even those with basic qualifications of (NVQ level 1 and below) have less than half this rate of inactivity. According to official statistics the major reason for economic inactivity among men over 25 is long term sickness or disability. Unemployment is also far more common for men with no qualifications. And these men continue to drop out of employment even when employment opportunities for low skilled workers expand. Why?
According to sociologist Darren Nixon, less skilled, less educated men fell away from the labour market as service jobs replaced manual work in manufacturing. Nixon argues that these men reject service work that requires them to engage in emotional labour by adopting a docile and deferential role towards customers. He writes:
The men’s resistance to ‘eating shit’ was challenged by the power of the customer in the service encounter … in their everyday lives the young men would ‘front up’ or become aggressive when confronted or challenged. They would not passively ‘take shit’ from anybody. Yet within the service encounter ‘the customer is always right’ and therefore the young men often had to be docile and deferential within that encounter. But they simply couldn’t do it.
Nixon’s research is based on a series of in-depth interviews and focus groups with unskilled unemployed men in Manchester. The men in his study felt more comfortable in the increasingly uncommon environment of the all male shop floor where:
Stress relief … is often achieved through relatively aggressive forms of masculine horseplay, piss-taking, winding-up and joking … Shouting, swearing and play fighting are all relatively acceptable forms of behaviour in back-shop manual environments like the factory or the warehouse, or outdoors on construction sites, yet they are generally unacceptable behaviour in heavily managed customer-oriented service environments.
As a result, the younger men in Nixon’s study "were acutely aware that their usual ways of being were wrong or inappropriate in the service economy". Many had been subjected to training schemes aimed at improving their ‘soft skills’ and ‘attitude’.
Not all service work was seen as unacceptable. Jobs like hospital portering, driving and security work were popular choices. According to Nixon the men associated masculinity with "power, control and authority within the service encounter". For example, bus or taxi drivers control the vehicle and have "the power to eject the customer at any point."
But much of the service work on offer denies men this kind of power and control. As Nixon puts it, unskilled men are reacting defensively to "the increasingly aesthetic consumerized service economy that brands" them "and their embodied skills and dispositions as redundant and deficient."