A Psychosocial Approach to Shame, Embarrassment & Melancholia Amongst Unemployed Young Men and Their Fathers
This paper uses a psychosocial approach to explore young unemployed men’s resistance to work they describe as ‘embarrassing’ and ‘feminine, in the context of the closure of a steelworks in a town in the South Wales valleys. In doing this, it also responds to Kenway’s et al study (2006) of rural unemployed men which claims that melancholia is a key cultural norm mediating fathers and sons responses to unemployment whilst preventing both to engage with the demands of current available work.
In our interview based study, with young men as well as their mothers and (where possible) their fathers, we found a community riven with complex feelings about masculinity and femininity, projected onto the young men in such a way as to almost scapegoat them. The presence of melancholic responses is also present in our study but is not so strong as to be depicted as a “cultural norm” for all these men –as Kenway et al suggest.
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Instead, the experience of the young men is marked by embarrassment and shame and they feel bullied and shamed by their families, peers and others in the community for not being able to find gender-appropriate work. The implications of these findings for understandings of youth male unemployment and education are considered. Introduction This paper seeks to explore discussions about melancholy as the main way of coping with unemployment amongst rural men in raised by Kenway, Kraac and Hickey-Moody (2006) in the light of research carried out by the authors in south Wales.
Kenway et al’s discussion of melancholy is very interesting, focussing as it does on an attempt to understand the persistence of dispositions associated with manual work among men in locations where that work has disappeared. Our own research took place in a town in the south Wales valleys, which had lost its major employer, a steel works, in 2002. This closure had a devastating effect upon the small town and while many young and older men managed to make the transition to other forms of work some did not.
In particular, some young unemployed men refused to take available work because it was considered embarrassing and feminine. Consequently, we received funding to follow this up and conducted a small psychosocial interview-based study of six young unemployed men (17-24) and their parents with the aim of further understanding the phenomenon we had encountered. Kenway et al’s idea of melancholy was very suggestive, but what we found was that their idea while suggestive was over-general.
In this paper therefore we set out some of the issues that arose in our analysis of the interview data in an attempt to make more complex and specific the issues of what happens psychosocially in such circumstances. For the young men and families we worked with, there was a great deal of pain and difficulty around this issue, with the problem well recognised by other members of the community. For example, stacking shelves in the local supermarket was considered too embarrassing to contemplate. These are young men who left school with no qualifications and therefore for whom no ‘skilled’ work is available.
The range of unskilled work is very limited, but we were struck by the fact that the young men in our first study would rather go without work than take the embarrassing work. This was of great concern in an area with 39% youth male unemployment (Nomis, 2008) and in which heavy industry was almost non existent. Our interview data indicated a level of distress that needed to be understood. The experience of the young men is marked by shame, and they feel bullied and shamed by their families, peers and others in the community for not being able to find gender-appropriate work.
By contrast, in Kenway et al’s study – on men and masculinities beyond metropolitan areas coping with the effects of de-industrialisation- rural men are depicted as engaged in forms of emotional intensity grounded and even haunted by loss of cross generational heavy manufacturing manly work, entwined with melancholia and nostalgia, affecting intergenerational relationships between working class males. Such engagement with loss, combined with current increasing casual, poorly paid and insecure work are seen as producing both forms of “protest masculinities” and “melancholic masculinities. The latter is characterised by internalisation, on behalf of the young men of the angst of their fathers with an intergenerational sense of loyalty to them, resulting in their inability to engage with the demands of the new labour market. This also involves a melancholic discourse of loss and defeat that flows into pessimistic views and sentiments about the present and future of work, their maleness and their working class communities. These melancholic responses are also said to have become a cultural male norm in itself within communities that have lost their manufacturing base.
The main thesis in Kenway’s work is that these men are stuck in the past with unresolved feelings of loss and sidelined in the present with no other options or referents they can look to in order to further grasp, articulate and refashion for themselves how they feel about these massive job losses and related work and social changes. While Kenway et al’s thesis is interesting, the position they take is very general, as though all men feel this way and her idea is rather speculative, based on some small interview examples and references or popular cultural representations.
They do recognise that some fathers actually don’t want their sons to follow in their own footsteps because they realise how difficult it would be for their sons to insist on working on some manufacturing industries which are dying. Our research touches on the very same issues and what we aim to do in this paper is to show how the general ideas of Kenway et al need to be developed and made more detailed and complex.
Whilst we agree with these researchers on the need to further empirically and theoretically understand the emotional legacy and the economic and cultural dimensions of such global labour market and associated gender order changes, at the same time, we think there is the need for a more nuanced understanding of the issues than that presented by Kenway and we further suggest that this can be reached through a more complex psychosocial understanding of the issues involved. Method: The method we used was psychosocial research.
The aim of psychosocial research is to explore the affective lives of participants by means of a narrative interview method (Stopford, 2004, Walkerdine 2002 ), which uses the interview dialogue to gently explore affective themes and a narrative associated with the decision not to take on embarrassing or feminine work. This is a dialogue which develops through the use of three one hour interviews in which the rapport between interviewer and participants is built up over time, allowing the possibility for the development of a sense of safety.
This is supplemented by two interviews with the mothers and fathers of the young men, using the same format. We carried out three psychosocial interviews (1 hour each) with a sample of six young unemployed men (ages 17-24) from one town in the South Wales valleys. This town lost its major employer, a steelworks, in 2002. We explored both their experiences of employment/unemployment and their relationships with their parents.
We also carried out two psychosocial interviews with the parents (mothers and where possible fathers) of these young men, in order to explore similar issues and the impact of the parenting roles on the attitudes to work and study of their sons. All interviews were conducted by the first author. Shame in Young Men’s Relationships with their Fathers and their Attitudes to Service Work: One of the key aspects of both the young men’s and parents’ discourse was shame. The ways in which shame permeates many aspects of men’s lives (e. g. the relationships between fathers and sons) is quite a rich and complex emotional aspect of masculinity (Seidler, 2007) For the purposes of this discussion, we simply want to highlight and explore some relational aspects of the importance of shame and self-esteem in the parenting relationship, with particular attention to the way in which shame is created, expressed and managed both for the parent and for the child. In relation to this, we also explore some normative aspects of parental shame and its relation to both unemployment and available yet rejected feminised work.
We also briefly touch upon the reciprocal relationship between parent’s and children’s shame, and ways in which the management of the shame of the father seem (in emotional terms) to serve a safeguarding function in relation to the self-esteem of both parent and child. As such, shame is ideally suited to explore the context of male responses to male unemployment, which in various ways represent forms of symbolic competition fueled by the perception of social threat and the need to ‘prove oneself’ in the eyes of one’s peers.
Where guilt tends to involve an appraisal of one’s actions, shame entails an appraisal of one’s entire self, making it an important motivational tool. Another important feature of shame, is that it can trigger other emotional defenses such as embarrassment, denial, silence and other behaviours, including anger and isolation. In a relational sense, a response to the awareness of shame may thus entail further shame based reactions, (e. g. , ashamed to be ashamed’) or fear (ashamed to ‘look like a coward’ in front of one’s peers).
In this section, we explore some aspects of the production of shame within the father-son dynamic as revealed in our interviews with them. Some young men experienced direct family rejection and shame when they engaged in “feminine” work. Often these young men ended up with those jobs in order to secure the approval and the affection of their parents and to avoid further stigmatisation and ridicule on behalf of other males in their community (e. g. both young local male peers as well as male friends of their fathers). A first example comes from Tony, 24 who is already a father of three children and who has neither school nor work credentials.
He tells Luis about his difficult experiences with his step father when he took on a pizza delivery and a cleaning job: … I was once a delivery driver for Dominos Pizza. I don’t know whether you seen the uniform you got to wear cream trousers, a red t-shirt, a baseball cap a bum bag and things like that and he (his stepfather) found that, well embarrassing. Urm you have to wear the full outfit you had a Dominos Pizza belt, and everything,.. If I was out doing a delivery, and he spotted me, he would purposely make out he didn’t see me like, not be seen talking to me basically because of what I was wearing and what I was doing like..
I then offered my brothers a lift home in the car and they all refused to get in the car with me and said, you look like an idiot basically, you know, what the hell are you wearing? You look a fool looking like that, and that was the attitude they had, they wouldn’t get a lift home with me like, because of what I had to wear… They used to laugh all the time and they never once went to the shop as long as I worked there. I don’t know whether it was embarrassment or what they never showed their face at the shop, never once.
Everybody, not just my father and my brothers but my mother too, they all used to laugh when I would go up in what I had to wear, that uniform, and my friends also used to laugh at me… My mother did say to me once, you know they are all taking the mickey out of your stepfather because of what you are doing, so basically get a proper job, my mother was basically saying… If I went to his house, like he’d go, you know, he’d go to the pub or something, you know he would go out to the pub every time I went there for a couple of weeks, as if he was physically embarrassed about, you know, too embarrassed to talk to his own son like or to be seen with me, and then I had to quit that job, and once I did that then he was back to normal, you know he’d stay and he would talk to me again and he’d say like come to the pub with us… In these reflections, Tony shows clear awareness of the embarrassment felt by his stepfather, his family, and his father’s friends when he had to wear a uniform to work. The fact that Tony also had to leave that pizza delivery job in order to avoid being ridiculed and rejected by his family and friends gives a sense of the incredible difficulties faced by both father and son and the emotional and social difficulties this causes between them. Thus Tony is caught between his relationship with his stepfather and the peer pressure and bullying from male and female workmates. Tony reflects on these experiences:
Yeah, once I was working as a cleaner on the factory floor and you know I had to walk past with a bin or perhaps a mop and bucket and you know they (female colleagues) would start talking to each other and laughing at me and things like that like, you know. Yeah, it was quite embarrassing for a boy; you know to be laughed at by a bunch of girls. Luis: So can you remember, what did you say to those girls? How did you handle that? Tony: Well you know, I asked them what was so funny like and they were saying Mrs Mop and things like that and calling me names and you know, so well like I say basically round here it is classed as a woman’s job being a cleaner and things like that, they class it strictly as a woman’s job.
There is a lot of boys I know the same as myself now that wouldn’t apply for that kind of job again, and I know a lot of friends who wouldn’t even think about applying for that kind of job, but at the end of the day it was all that was going on, and I had to bring in money for my family and I took it, but you know, three weeks I stuck it out for and I couldn’t take no more. I was going home and feeling depressed you know because people were laughing at me and aggravating me all day for eight hours. In these reflections Tony also shows how feelings about traditional masculine work are not simply confined to men. The women also contribute to reproducing a divided shaming gender order to which the young men are forced to conform in order to avoid being the target of humiliating jokes and ridicule.
Later on, Tony recalls other similar incidents that some of his male friends had to face whilst working in the checkout in their local supermarket: … I’ve got friends and if they see a boy working on the checkout in the local supermarket they kind of like call him all the sort of things, call him names and bully him. Like call him a woman and things like that and say you are doing a woman’s job, you know. It is not a mans work it is a woman’s job like, that is the way they see that kind of job, a woman’s job like. They bully them and aggravate them. I know people who have and they tend to call them like gay and things like that you know and to some people it hurts being called that like.
You know they call them a gay and mammy’s boy working on the till and you know, there are a lot of things that they do say and a lot of it is using bad language like and not so polite words… In this further reflection, Tony gave us another insight into how local men try to sustain the boundaries of the male heterosexual self by defensively constructing other local males working in service jobs as “gay” “woman” or “mammy’s boy”. Indeed, within male heterosexual peer dynamics, epithets such as “gay” “woman” or “mammy’s boy” are amongst the most commonly dreaded insults for many heterosexual men. This can be seen when Tony mentioned that it hurts to be called gay and that he is well aware that many men dread and avoid becoming the target of such hurtful shaming name-calling.
This is because the content of the bullying allegedly reflects an apparent unmanliness that further disqualifies them vis a vis other men. In other words, in order for those discourses to be effective in their ridiculing function, those who receive them need also to share a set of gendered discourses and significations in order to believe and conform to their insulting/degrading connotations and effects. In this sense, the fear of “feminisation” in the workplace also centres on the seemingly “heterosexist” idea that by working in physical proximity to female colleagues there will be a point where they will become demasculinised and stop being men and therefore become something else, e. g. , a woman or a gay man.
As mentioned earlier, this fear of feminisation because of working in female concentrated occupations might also seem unlikely and disproportionate, given the current evidence shown in research showing how most men entering into feminine occupations very often re-signify in masculine terms the work they do in order to further preserve their privileges as men and to maintain a hierarchic position vis a vis female work colleagues. ( Cross & Bagilhole, 2002; Hall, Hockney & Robinson, 2007; Lupton, 2006, Nordberg 20002,) Within the interview context, Luis was struggling to understand why Tony simply conformed to his stepfather’s embarrassment and rejection and whether he felt he could stand up for himself in front of his family and peers and prioritise his own decisions his family and his children. When he asked Tony why he still needed the approval of his father when deciding what job to take, he replied:
I think it’s because like I’ve always been his, like his closest son, really to be honest, I’m closer to him than the rest of my brothers and that’s why like he wants me to do it and not my other brothers because me and my dad have always been really close and I think that’s why he’s sort of like picking on me to then follow him in his footsteps sort of thing and learn a trade like he has, and become a business man in that kind of way but, like I said yesterday, I’m not sure if that’s what I want to do at the moment. I would rather make my own decisions, do what I want to do, not what others and my parents want me to do. I think instead of being against what I want to do, they should support me really in what I want to do.
Tony seemed also to be qualifying and distinguishing the particular closeness he had with his stepfather as a way to rationalise his embarrassment and rejection of his son when he saw him being publicly humiliated wearing a pizza uniform in the workplace as well as the consequent frustration of realising that his son is not following in his footsteps. Yet, at the same time, he did not seem to be fully aware of the emotional costs for himself of conforming to being the “closest and preferred son” of his stepfather. This is a complex (but not uncommon) father/son relationship and one hypothesis is that perhaps Tony unconsciously experienced the attitude of his stepfather as also conveying a sense of over protectiveness and control over his own life and work decisions – in the name of the affection and predilection his stepfather has for him as the preferred stepson.
Tony’s main content of his conflictive feelings did not appear to involve a burdened sense of inherited melancholic oppositional attitude towards service work per se, neither did he actually appear to believe that because he has had to work as a cleaner or pizza delivery boy that this automatically transformed him into an essentially other, unmanly, hopeless loser incapable of unlearning and differentiating himself from the conflicts of his own stepfather. Instead, what seemed to unconsciously keep him unnecessarily tied and subordinated to the bullying and rejection of his stepfather was perhaps a frustrating sense of impotence at trying to achieving the opposite, that is, mostly a sense that he needed to unlearn and to distance himself from what appeared to him as the sexist, narrow minded and bullying unconscious aspects implicit in his stepfather’s attitude to men doing “feminine” work.
Thus, what seemed for us to be troubling Tony was the realisation that although he could be critical of his father, at the same time, he could not, at the moment, avoid being isolated from his parental family and by implication being isolated and ridiculed as an improper man or a loser by his local peers . Therefore he still felt frustrated and resigned to conform to his stepfather in order to avoid feeling rejected by him and his family. In this way, Tony’s conflicted situation seemed to get reinforced by the realisation that, on the one hand, he needed his stepfather emotionally but at the same time he was slowly realising the cost of inhabiting/ conforming to being the preferred son of his father.
Additionally, although there might some slight melancholic tone in the father’s reactions to Tony, this does not suggest to us that what mediates Tony’s relation to his father is a simple father son unconscious melancholic transmission of unbearable loss of masculinity, which would then render Tony being incapable of engaging in work because unconsciously he would have to carry on re-enacting this loss in his daily life, as Kenway et al have suggested. Rather, we think that, primarily, the influence of Tony’s stepfather is one that basically ensures that he conforms to an upholding of the feared lost hard manual working form of heterosexual masculinity, which sustained these men and their community through the history of the steelworks.
This father son situation is also very relevant for our understanding of the ways in which some parents, especially chronically unemployed ones, tend to re-enact and reinforce their own painful experiences of living under benefits and chronic unemployment in their relations with their young sons. These enactments and distresses about the difficulties of living as parents under benefits with little aspirations and job prospects carry implicitly specific male gendered meanings in relation to the relative value of work, education and its associations with maleness and in this sense also shape in various ways the attitudes, values, feelings (e. g. shame, embarrassment) and expectations that these young sons internalise and use in their reflections, choices and decisions when they consider their work options and life projects.
Another example comes from one of the fathers, Andy, 46 years old, married with two teenage children and who has been chronically unemployed (for the past 16 years) and on benefits (like his wife). He told Luis about his last job 16 years ago and how he thinks he got to where he is at this moment in his life and the implications of his chronic unemployment on his children: … My father was in the steelworks and he was made redundant in ’77, I think, just after my mother died. He had to finish then because we was little, you know what I mean, and there was no one else to look after us. So, , they made him redundant because, he had to look after us because we was all children at the time…. And he always said to us the steelworks, was a job for life… I started off with a government training scheme and they took me on full-time.
And then, the Council wanted the youngsters again below us, they took them on and pay them less. They was paying them ? 19. 50 a week, and rather than pay me a tidy wage, they’d rather take youngsters on… That’s how it was and as I said, I haven’t done a lot since. I’ve had one or two factory jobs, , which I didn’t like, well, they was twelve-hour shifts, you know, the night shifts and god knows what, and it just weren’t for me like. I didn’t like the council policy and I just came out and, in a way, I did regret it, because I didn’t get back into full-time employment… I got to be honest with you, it’s about 16 years, I’ve been unemployed and I haven’t done a lot since because, well, there is not a lot out here anyway.
I just think I’m 46 now, and I think to myself, um, I got no hope, you know what I mean. Like my boy, he’s 16, he’s out of school already. He’s also struggling to find work. What hope have I got, you know what I mean? …My partner, she’s claiming disability allowance. She’s diabetic and she suffers with arthritis. So, I’m down as a carer for her… In these reflections Andy seemed to be re-telling his own preferred story as to why he has not worked for such a long time. This gives a further context to understand his disappointment with government, unfair policies on employment and how this has meant that both himself and his own father could not continue working because of circumstances external to their own control.
Although Tony’s reflections did acknowledge the fact that there has not been manufacturing work in his community for a long time, it might be over simplistic to understand him as stuck in the past, feeling melancholic all the time about the loss of manufacturing work, given that he himself did not have the opportunity to do so in the first place. In this context, he could not even be able to feel melancholic about a working past he did not have the opportunity to experience himself fully in the first place. However, that does not mean that the employment situation and loss of the steelworks did not have its own complex role to play in his feelings. Perhaps his feelings of hopelessness for his own working future, combined with his wary good wishes for his son, showed some of the ways in which he oped with unemployment and the associated shame and despair that he, like his own father could no longer provide enough for their own respective families, rather than simply feeling irresolutely melancholic about the loss of manufacturing work and the types of masculinities needed to do that type of work. In this context, we also wondered to what extent the shame and despair that he could not return to full employment and thus could not provide enough for his family could then get unconsciously projected into his own son. When Luis asked him to reflect on this and on the effects his long term unemployment might have had on his children, he replied:
I wouldn’t say that it has had an effect on the children, like my son Peter and my daughter have had no problems, because they grew up with it [his unemployment] but I know in the past I have provided for them… I hope I can continue, you know what I mean in the future, but as I said, my son now he is doing his best, to try and find tidy employment, and we stand by him in anything that he wants to do, anything whatever he decides we stand by him, and, I will provide for him as long as my eyes are open, I will continue to do it… As we have seen, both in the case of Tony and his father and also in the case of Andy and his son Peter, the ways in which fathers transmit to their sons their own difficult feelings of loss and pain and shame that there is no longer manly manufacturing work, get enmeshed in a complex context of disappointment, lack of hope, despair and grief that then gets rationalised and projected to their sons as the need of fathers to make sure their own sons won’t be subject to the same difficult experiences that their own fathers have experienced after the succession of redundancies that have taken place over the years in their ex steel community.
Furthermore, the way in which the sons assimilate and think about their own fathers’ projected feelings of despair are also connected in complex affective ways with the sons’ own needs to see in their fathers some kind of idealised strong supportive image that would also serve to consolidate their own masculinity. In this context, it can be difficult for the sons to disentangle the extent to which their own difficult struggles in trying to find jobs and their avoidance of service work already is a reflection of their own and/or a combined effect of the relationship with their fathers own difficult past and the associated expectations and values in relation to what counts as proper manly ways to cope with the massive unemployment in their community. At the same time, we also need to consider the extent to which the sons of these men still need to develop their own critical views as to how they want to approach their work and future life.
We cannot just assume that melancholia is the only framework that mediates all relationship between fathers and sons (however melancholic some fathers might feel at some point). Neither can we simply assume that there is an automatic intergenerational transmission of melancholic attitudes that just gets unproblematically incorporated and reproduced in the same way in the lives and aspirations of the young men. The complexity of relationships between fathers and sons is such that we also have to consider other psycho-affective and wider social factors mediating these relationships. We therefore do not just assume that melancholia is some form of inherited trait that the sons acquire regardless of their own will and specific situations.
For instance, as we saw in Tony’s case, it has been particularly difficult for him to disentangle his own situation, -as a stepson who is also at the same time a father of three children- and how he now needs to also consider his own parental responsibility to his children. At the same time, Tony also still sees himself as the preferred son of a stepfather to whom he also feels he needs to correspond to his love and expectations, e. g. , by conforming to his values and demands. In doing this, Tony unconsciously subordinates his own father role vis a vis his own children in order to carry on ensuring that he will still be the favourite stepson of his stepfather. This is a key aspect of the psychosocial dimension of the father son relationships that indirectly also shapes the son’s attitudes to further education and to available work which is already devalued as “feminine” and inadequate.
In this sense, the reflections of Peter 17 (son of Andy) further illustrate these complex father-son dynamics: I wouldn’t do women’s jobs, and I don’t think they’d [his parents] like me to do that either. Some men don’t mind being on the till, but me, in particular, didn’t like doing that because I felt it was for women.. although I’d manage to do that sort of work for short periods, just so I can get some cash to help with my daily expenses. Like Peter, other young men also thought that obtaining jobs that are socially considered manly (e. g. the armed forces, manufacturing work) was still important to their sense of proper manliness and in their priorities when they seek for available work. (Lyndsay & McQuaid 2004).
Nevertheless we also found that young men do not only comply with these cultural demands on their identities as males, since they are also perfectly capable of contemplating doing service work (even if it is for short periods). This also shows how young men are capable of self reflection and how they can prioritise their own thinking when they consider their job and study options, -regardless of the prescriptions and expectations of parents and local manly culture. We might wonder what aspects of service work the young men see specifically as feminine and why. When he asked Alan (17 years old), about this, he replied: That’s a good question. I don’t know.
But, you wouldn’t see, well, you mostly see women doing that job in [local supermarket], now, in’t it? It’s just like, oh, I can’t think of the word now…uhm, o yeah like a stereotype… So, when someone says, like look at that shelf stacker, you stereotype someone and you think, oh, yeah, he’s going to be like a gay person, kind of thing… Until you see them and talk, if you talk to them, it’s totally different then, if you talk to them. They might be really, really tough or hard and it’s how people think at the end of the day. Alan was aware of the difference between stereotyping someone and then how by listening to the person you can get a completely different impression.
However, his reflections implicitly acknowledged how he can do both, e. g. stereotyping and then listening to someone and realising people are often not a mere stereotype. As mentioned earlier, this is part of a complex emotional arrangement between young men with their fathers, whereby both fathers and sons incorporate cultural restrictions and idealised expectations on male subjectivity (Marsiglio, et at, 1997, 2005). This is often achieved through incorporation of aspects deemed as ideal for men ( often a sense of assertive confident, stoic non vulnerability, combined with unconscious normative splitting off (Layton, 2002) any other aspects of male identity that culture deems as inappropriate for men, e. g. temporal straightforward repudiation of and distancing from aspects that are associated with femininity -which can then be later reconsidered in more complex ways.
This is illustrated in Alan’s reflections that he would not mind doing service work as it would also give him some income which he urgently needed. In this sense, both fathers and sons comply to a considerable extent with such cultural demands in order to be recognised as a properly manly, classed subject (Frosh et al, 2002). However as the above examples of subjection and passive resistance to paternal authority show, in practice these norms and demands are also often more complex and dynamic , e. g. , these are both incorporated and resisted through relational repetition compulsions (e. g. he unconscious seemingly compulsive exposure to situations reminiscent of earlier complex –and often traumatic- emotional experiences which have not been fully assimilated emotionally in order to gain some control over its frustrating effects on conscious life) which in themselves express the simultaneous conformity, resistance and collusion with the local moral male gender order where these men live(Balsam 2007, Jay 2007, Salamon, 2007) . Conclusions: As our data shows, a key aspect of the psychosocial gendered production of the embarrassment, pain and shame that many ex steel men and their sons still experience is, in various ways, is still closely related to a complex past legacy of trying to cope with the loss of steel and other local manufacturing.
Consequently, the difficulties that we now see amongst the young men is also to some extent, a reflection of how these young men see their fathers’ own difficult experiences of unemployment and the associated shame and despair at the painful realisation that their proud manly hard labour masculinities are no longer needed in the emerging context of the new service sector work. This also suggests that the emotional cost of coping with the loss of manufacturing also involves a social trauma (Hopper, 2003), which gets re-enacted in the relationships between fathers and sons through the production of male shame and embarrassment and with it, other related effects associated with long term unemployment such as chronic stress and related chronic illnesses for the ex steel workers (Beatty, et al 2003). This painful situation then creates considerable anxiety and shame which is then projected unto these young men.
Therefore, it is in this context that the community turns on its most vulnerable, as these young men are the ones who could not get out because they had no qualifications and so they are the most vulnerable in terms of unemployment and in terms of their vulnerability to this shaming experience. As mentioned earlier, Kenway sees these intergenerational dynamics between fathers and sons as being fundamentally mediated by the melancholic attitudes of the fathers and their inability to unlearn the attitudes associated with regular skilled manual work, with the sons apparently simply incorporating these melancholic anxieties and reproducing them in their own lives in a uniform way. Kenway et also claim that the fathers simply become “melancholic figures” (e. g. , unreflectively living in the past and sidelined in the present), and that this is a cultural norm for all these men.
By contrast, we argue that whilst there might be some temporary melancholic reactions on the part of the fathers, these are not persistent and fixed, neither do they simply get transmitted automatically to the sons. The evidence that Kenway et al provide to explain how young men incorporate and reproduce the melancholia of their fathers is in the “hopes and views on education” that the young men display, (e. g. , how many young men do not want to do “head work” –going to school- and prefer instead to work “hands on” –using machinery- and how they see school as just being sitting “doing nothing” either at school or in an office. By contrast, within our data we have also seen many young men saying that they want to leave school soon (often at the age of 16) in order to start earning money early and they often talk about getting a trade (e. g. carpentry, plastering, plumbing) which they see as a form of a job for life.
However, our research and that of many others (Epstein et al, 1998, Murphy & Elwood 1998)) also shows how these working class men have traditionally left school early (at 16) and how their sons also do the same and then they start getting apprenticeships and this is part of their local work cultures and has happened for many years in coal and steel communities (way before the emergence of neo liberal work changes and the rise in service work). Clearly, what Kenway et al are trying to show is that the young men cannot give up this kind of manual work even after it has gone, being unable to stay on at school or go into ‘head work’.
While there is ample evidence in our data that indeed these particular unemployed young men are suffering from the complex relationship to the masculinity of their fathers and their fathers’ generation that we have outlined, this by no means describes all young men in the town, some of whom have been willing to change. Likewise, within our work with community workers who also try to help young men get an education and jobs, we have also seen how young men often prefer to attend community meetings where they want to play musical instruments and have a pleasant time but they would not want to go back to school because often they see this as not that relevant to their own interests and abilities.
This of course is a key challenge to educators and policy makers and this is something that Kenway et al acknowledge, e. g. how many young men (rural and urban) also have other abilities that they use to critically learn from their everyday cultural context (e. g. what they call “haptic tacticians” and “cool cartographers”) and how their reflexive self construction is also depending on these situational, temporal and spatial references and abilities and do not simply depend on a school curriculum. These examples further reinforce our view that we need to pay more detailed attention to how men have also other referents and abilities to make sense of their current circumstances and that in order to try to understand what support they need, we also need to think about more effective educational interventions. For example, the discussion of our data have shown instead, how even amongst those fathers who are chronically unemployed and/or ill do not necessarily become melancholic figures stuck in the past irresolutely, and then the sons simply “inheriting” these melancholic traits automatically.
Rather, we have shown how, despite all these difficulties, these fathers and sons are also eventually able to critically reflect and mobilise their melancholic and other feelings of loss, and, even sometimes clinical depression, and even if they still remain unemployed and ill, they can nonetheless also make efforts to not simply impose their own unresolved grief onto their sons. This is not meant to suggest that the presence of melancholic elements is absent or irrelevant in men’s responses to redundancies and lack of jobs. Rather we simply wanted to show how we cannot demonstrate that melancholia is neither a cultural norm for all these men nor that it affects all fathers and sons in the same way. A recognition of this long complex legacy of a sense of lost proud manufacturing work and manhood is important if we try to understand and contribute to find ways of helping the young men who are now needing to dress up in demeaning uniforms in order to survive in the new labour market.
This further reinforces the need to consider what trauma does to subjectivity, that is, looking psychosocially at the way in which both social male gendered norms are incorporated (through normative unconscious splitting up of unwanted aspects of desirable masculinity) in combination with an appreciation of the effect of traumatic experiences of loss of manufacturing work in the conscious and unconscious lives of working class men. This suggests a desperate attempt at preserving a form of working class heterosexuality which seems to them to be of in threat of disappearing or being replaced by other masculinities that are not suitable or desirable for these men. In this sense the rejection of feminine work and any other attribute that is seen as feminine also suggests that embodying this form of maleness can also be experienced as gender trauma involving a compromise formation.
This is a compromise between voice and experience, language and behaviour e. g. ow the so called “laddishness” that these men perform in front of each other can also be seen as an attempt to preserve self worth and thereby limit the scope for a gradual development of less defensive and narrow forms of masculinity. In this sense, it could be argued that it is absolutely necessary to further understand and work with this complex and painful dynamic if regeneration practices are to have any effects in getting young men like these into work. This involves working with the effects of traumatic loss by acknowledging its effects for masculinities, -including the loss not only of manufacturing but also the loss of male self esteem, certainty, physical power, group charisma, and the rights and privileges associated with specific stages of the lifecycle.
Only then would it be more feasible to overcome the depressive anxieties that many of these men still experience and to start re-evaluating and re-moralising what has been lost with a more realistic approach. This in turn also involves developing a sense of hope and confidence- in order to integrate into the male self other aspects of their masculinity that are less defensive and exclusive. Thus, while we support Kenway et al’s overall attempt to understand something about the transmission of affect from one generation to another, we have tried to outline the central importance for policy and practice of understanding this in a more complex and nuanced way.