Eat it and smile — Why unskilled men reject service work

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."

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9 Responses to Eat it and smile — Why unskilled men reject service work

  1. Tel says:

    Since the “All” curve in the top graph is essentially dead flat, presumably there has been a neat displacement as women enter the workforce, men are pushed out. Seems logical that woman have been fulfilling a role of passive servitude for thousands of years, so they have an advantage in the sorts of jobs that require the skills to survive such a role, and the skills of passive manipulation that allow an unequal encounter to still progress to a favourable conclusion.

    Please note that I’m not even mildly hinting at whether such skills are learned or genetic — that’s headbanger territory. Hopefully we can just accept that (for whatever reason) they do exist.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    the feminisation of work has been around as an idea in this literature for a long time. The obvious policy response is to educate men to be women at school, i.e. to de-masculate as soon as possible. This is more or less what’s indeed being done, particularly at primary schools which are almost no-go zones for male teachers. The next step is to intervene chemically, which is also becoming increasingly popular though it usually requires some stigmatisation of the issue (i.e. a boy needs to be labelled with some disorder before chemical intervention in the male hormone levels is deemed acceptable). I dont even want to think about the logical step after than one.

  3. Megan Moskos says:

    I am currently undertaking research that seeks to understand men’s access to lower level female typed jobs that have experienced large employment growth over the past few decades. Similar to Darren, I have found that low skilled men are themselves very reluctant to pursue these types of employment and instead favour and seek traditional blue collar male typed jobs. However, I have also found that there is a level of demand side discrimination operating at the lower end of the labour market that effectively precludes male employment in these traditionally female typed jobs. The perceived (sexual and physical) risk posed by men and the gender essentialist belief that women are inherently more capable of this work often means that men are over looked as favourable employment candidates. So I think we not only need to understand why men do not want to undertake female typed work but also why employers and clients are reluctant to hire men to undertake these task.

  4. conrad says:

    “The next step is to intervene chemically, which is also becoming increasingly popular though it usually requires some stigmatisation of the issue”

    Not really, we could just dump lots of oestrogens in the water supply and environment, and only scientists and fish would care (a quick search suggests it’s still a well debated topic).

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Paul – Can you recommend some references on the feminisation of work?

    I can see a clear case for the feminisation of low-paid work that’s available to less educated workers. But overall, it’s still male dominated occupations that are the highest paid. The culture in many high paid workplaces is masculine but not the kind of working class masculine culture Nixon is talking about.

    It seems to me that women can still be disadvantaged by workplace cultures that revolve around men behaving in ways that their socialisation equips them for. When women behave the same way, it doesn’t benefit always work to their advantage.

  6. billie says:

    Belinda Probert was a key researcher in the gender and work design.

    Years ago I worked in a British owned factory where women were employed on the production lines doing the dextrous repetitive work. Men were employed in positions where they had more autonomy and could wander around. IMO men had the less mind numbing jobs.

    Service workers are in part hired on their appearance and men often take pride in not presenting well, whereas teenage girls spend hours in the bathroom and in stores trying on clothes.

  7. Yobbo says:

    Women are disadvantaged by a system that rewards risk-taking, as women are far more risk-averse than men are.

    Only 2% (14 of 655) of the world’s self-made billionaires are women.

  8. Tel says:

    The obvious policy response is to educate men to be women at school, i.e. to de-masculate as soon as possible.

    It’s a displacement situation so there is no nett gain to be had, thus any policy response would be useless, or probably worse. Besides, the lines are converging to the center anyhow, which is both the expected and the desirable outcome.

  9. Paul Frijters says:


    I have been looking for explicit references. There are some books in sociology and conflict studies that talk of new ‘social paradigms’ which seems to include increased feminism and pacification in the workplace ( There is a whole glut of books and articles on the increased importance of ‘communication skills’ and ’emotinoal intelligence’ (for which Goleman seems to have written the most cited book) where it is either implicit or explicit that such skills favour women.

    However, I have found nothing explicit on this in the econ literature. We all seem to have heard of it and talk about it at conferences but I cant find it in our labour econ journals, at least not when looking for phrases like the ‘feminisation of the workplace’, ‘gender-neutrality at work’, ‘female skills’, etc. Perhaps it is there using a different terminology.

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