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franciscan - September 1999

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Men: the Challenge of Change

by James Lawrence

‘I’m happy to be a bloke, I think, but sometimes I’m not happy being a bloke in the late twentieth century. Sometimes I’d rather be my dad.’ Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

‘This is your life! ‘ So proclaimed the bold title of a recent survey in the men’s lifestyle magazine XL. The responses revealed that by and large their readership are ‘happy with their lot.’ Yet other articles suggest an alternative perspective on the plight of men in the nineties: ‘Men, what are they good for?’; ‘Even Mr Right gets it wrong’; ‘The trouble with men’; ‘Canny lads out to carve a new role’ . What is the true picture of men in society today? Are we about to sink or swim?

Past certainties can no longer be taken for granted. Roles at work have changed and continue to do so. In 1994 forty five per cent of Britain’s paid work force was female, compared with thirty seven per cent in 1991 (Social Focus on Women, Central Statistical Office 1995). By 2006 the number of women in the UK’s workforce will increase by almost eleven per cent, while the number of men will increase by just over two per cent (Employment Gazette, August 1995). More and more jobs will be part-time and the majority of these will go to women. So, as companies ‘down-size’, employees face an increasingly uncertain future. And because traditional expectations die hard, the emerging world of short-term employment contracts poses more of a challenge to men than women.

Work roles within the home are also changing, though probably at a slower rate. What is certain, though, is that the traditional roles of woman as homemaker and man as breadwinner are in a state of flux. Within the family, on the one hand a father is generally expected to be more involved with the children than in years gone by. On the other hand, many men are increasingly sidelined from family life as more and more children are born into single parent families; the increase in divorce often isolates men from their children. In some cases, men may simply feel redundant: as one friend of mine said, ‘Call me “junk male”.’

Some changes have been wholly positive, liberating people from inappropriate restraints and prejudices. Other changes have left people feeling insecure and confused. The fixed roles of the past had certain strengths. Men had a clearer idea of what was expected of them, there was less confusion: they may have had problems, but there was a clearer understanding of the way to deal with them – even if it meant ‘grin and bear it’. Whenever expectations change, uncertainty and conflict usually follow close behind.
It is indicative of a time of transition that today’s men are receiving mixed messages about what it means to be a man. The voice of traditional expectations says ‘You’re a man, so be strong, physically and emotionally. Be aggressive. Don’t admit to weakness or vulnerability. Remember, real men don’t cry.’ Meanwhile a newer, and increasingly insistent, voice sets a very different agenda: ‘You’re a modern man: you should be in touch with your emotions, tough and tender, romantic, vulnerable, close to your partner – a hunk with a heart.’ So what does it mean to be a man today? Many men don’t know and some don’t care. But all men are affected by changing expectations, whether or not they can identify them. Only someone living in total isolation could fail to be affected by contemporary changes in the world of work, family, leisure and entertainment.

So what is millennium man going to be like: confused, uncertain, and lonely?; or liberated, sensitive and strong? Who knows.
We can be sure society’s understanding of masculinity is changing. Some changes are for the better, some are not. What really is crucial for the church, though, is our response to these changes. Where are we going to turn to get a healthy and helpful model for men today?

There is a great opportunity for the Church to enter the debate. These issues and how we respond to them have direct repercussions on how the Church relates to men today. My hunch is that we will need to be rooted in Jesus, and not in the stereotypes of what it means to be a man. We will need to relate well to contemporary society, and not remain in our spiritual ghettos. We will need to develop appropriate outreach strategies and expressions of Church life for modern men, not just rely on what has served us well in the past. Above all we will need to invite people to encounter Jesus, the one man who is the perfect mentor. Are we ready to face ‘Men: the challenge of change’ ?As Roy McCloughry says, ‘If the Church is to reach men, as it can and it must, then it must confront the issue of masculinity.’ §

James Lawrence is Director of Evangelism Projects for the Church Pastoral Aid Society.


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