Technology is taking jobs away from men—and reviving a pre-industrial version of masculinity

Taking the lead.
Taking the lead.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke
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Many men lost their jobs when technology made them obsolete. The new jobs available were soul-crushing, undignified, and required an arduous commute—and that’s assuming companies would hire them. Most employers wouldn’t, because the men were considered too old and unskilled for the new work. And then a false prophet with messy hair emerged, promising to give power back to workers and decried the indignity of what work had become.

Sounds familiar? I’m not describing the current economy, but 19th century England during the industrial revolution. Back then, technology also radically altered how humans worked. It upset men’s place in society. And it makes what’s happening today seem tame.

Few things are considered more manly than providing for and protecting your family. So it’s no wonder that so many men in developed countries are in a crisis, with technology cited as the reason for rising populism and discontent.

The way in which society defines masculinity is often tied to work and technology is changing the nature of work as we know it. Smart machines and robots can do tasks that once only humans could do. And in the sectors where this is happening fastest—like manufacturing—many of the job casualties are the kinds of jobs traditionally held by men.

Labor force participation among men age 25 to 55  fell 3.5 percentage points between 1994 and 2014 in the US, and is expected to fall further in the next 10 years. A sole male breadwinner is no longer possible for many households. And for men with jobs, the work is changing. The figure below shows where men are working these days, derived from the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. 1

Not only are the types of jobs changing, but those lucky enough to have them aren’t getting the pay raises like they used to. Median male wages haven’t increased since the 1970s, and are falling in many of the occupations—construction, transportation, and manufacturing, for example—that employ more men.

But these trends are not so new. They may even indicate a return to more traditional work. For thousands of years, men worked the farm or in artisan labor. People worked hard, but most worked from home and set their own hours. According to Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, it is hard to overstate how traumatic it was as workers shifted from home production to factories.

Mokyr, whose forthcoming book, A Culture of Growth, describes the industrial revolution’s intellectual origins, explains that factory work was traumatic for men because it required showing up at a particular time, staying a full day, and taking orders from another man. Men frequently had such a hard time giving up their autonomy and dealing with a boss that factories originally employed women and children because they were more docile.

A generation of men lost work and many never found another job. Traditional artisans couldn’t deal with factory work and there were fewer jobs because machines were more productive. It was a messy transition that played out over more than 100 years and sparked Marxism. Factory owners took proactive steps to make it work. They set up schools for children and made education available to the masses. But their intention was not to increase literacy. The schools existed largely to condition the next generation to work a full day and take orders.

Sons of displaced artisans eventually adapted to the new version of employment, and women were shoved out the labor force. The men took jobs inconceivable in their fathers’ era, on railroads or telegraphs. By the 20th century, working a union job at a factory was not only acceptable, it became a standard for how men took care of their families. Today, lifelong employment under a paternalistic employer is more rare. And because we still associate those things with a good job, Americans predict a bleak future for their children.

It may take another generation for men to find their place, but a recent OECD report predicts humanity in general will continue to thrive. And while uncertainty makes most people nervous, Mokyr sounds giddy in describing the jobs of the future:

We know they are coming and… they will bring a great deal opportunity and a great deal of misery. Progress is not cost free. Stagnation is worse… We can’t even imagine what new jobs will be. Your great-grandmother in 1914 probably couldn’t imagine what a cyber security expert was.

Harvard’s Larry Katz foresees a return to artisanal employment for the middle class, where good jobs combine technology and interpersonal skills to deliver specialized, high-quality services. Mokyr anticipates future work will be more entrepreneurial, too. It may be common to hold multiple jobs and telecommute a few days a week. He predicts time will be less scheduled and workers will have more autonomy, though they’ll also face more risk and less job security.

New technology may not be the end of men; it may just hasten a return to a pre-industrial version of masculinity, of sorts.

Humans are now accustomed to stability and higher living standards. To ease the transition, we need new institutions and a better safety net for the generation caught in the transition. And most importantly, we need an education system that does what employers once did. In the 19th century, employers trained workers for the new economy and set up schools. They replaced the apprenticeships that existed before factories. Today’s employers tend not to offer much training; they avoid investing in workers who might leave them.

Trying to bring back the old economy only prolongs the painful transition we are experiencing today. Instead of romanticizing the past, the conversation should be about the best way to educate the workforce and keep skills fresh so that modern men thrive as we redefine work.