Ken Skates reflects on how masculine stereotypes have been transformed over the past 50 years
In many important and significant ways we have underestimated the impact the last fifty years have had on men in Wales. The sexual liberation of the 1960s, the economic transformation of the 1970s and 1980s, and the technological revolution of the last decade – all a seemingly unending process of transformation – have radically reshaped and re-imagined masculine identity.
I was born in the 1970s, a decade that gave us Star Wars, the disco revolution, punk, microprocessors and Old Spice. Laugh all you like, but in many respects the latter was the most significant gift of the decade. Until the 1970s, fragrant body scent was something real men didn’t wear. The alpha male had survived at the top of the food chain for thousands of years and didn’t need a feminine fragrance to top up their masculine hegemony. The 1970s had presented a new dawn for gender identity.
In many ways Wales remains a socially conservative and traditional part of the UK. Nonetheless, the impact of the last fifty years have been monumental. Communities once characterised by clear gender division within the workplace, the home and in the social sphere have seen revolutionary change.
Fifty years ago the centrifugal forces of Welsh life were heavily male dominated, whether you lived in the tough agricultural communities of Montgomeryshire, the terraced sprawl of the Glamorgan coalfield or the slate mining heartland of north Wales. From the latent exclusivity of the upstairs room of the local Labour club to the foot of the Welsh hearth, Wales was a very different place.
In a sense we have marinated our history, our identity and the story we told ourselves in ‘Male Wales’. Even today, our national narrative is still infused with traces of the dominant Welsh man that ploughed fields, brought in the weekly wage, mined the anthracite, scored the tries and made the speeches that changed a nation. Yet in the last half-century both the role of men and traditional stereotypes of masculinity have been transformed. The ‘Breadwinner’ role of Welsh men has been challenged and technological change has rendered once prized industrial skills obsolete.
I’m certainly not saying I’m opposed to the changes we have seen over the last decades. Quite the contrary, in fact: the diversity, equality and richness of 21st Century Wales is something to keenly celebrate. However we do have to deal with the consequences of an unwinding of our history.
I’ll take one example – mental health. Recent figures released by the ONS have shown that the suicide rate in Wales has risen 30 per cent in the last two years, reaching its highest level since 2004. The rates, now higher than in England, obviously have to be treated with caution as the factors that lead to suicide are complex and multi-layered.
However, one of the at risk groups identified by the new body of research being done appears to be middle aged men. Men and Suicide: Why it’s a social issue, a recent report by the Samaritans, highlighted that males from disadvantaged backgrounds in their 30s, 40s and 50s are at higher risk of suicide than other groups.
It showed that on average, men from low socio-economic backgrounds living in deprived areas are ten times more likely to die by suicide than men from high socio-economic backgrounds living in the most affluent areas. Some of the increase may be down to changes in the way deaths are recorded by coroners. However, much of the recent rise could be explained by the prolonged economic downturn.
But there may also be longer term factors that are having an impact on mental health and well-being in Wales, such as the slow unwinding of the heavily male-dominated structure of Welsh life I’ve described above. From the workplace to the rugby club to the family home, men’s lives and roles have been transformed. The world of 20th Century Wales that has now evaporated – much of it for the better – has nonetheless left its mark. Where the father once worked in the local colliery or strip mill and the son was likely to follow, that story is no more and the psychological impact of that, in part, may be a cause of some of the problems we see today.
We know that instances of domestic abuse rise dramatically in the immediate aftermath of major rugby and football matches. Though much of this is linked to the excessive amount of alcohol that is also consumed alongside the event itself, it is perhaps no coincidence that these are two sports that, although changing, continue to promote a more traditional image of masculinity.
So alongside tackling welfare reform, and other issues such as the need to increase basic literacy rates amongst adults and the barriers that continue to women participating in the workplace, we need also to understand the legacy of our recent past and the hollowing out of an older, more traditional form of masculinity. We are a more equal and a more tolerant nation, but we need to understand and manage many of the transitional problems we are seeing in a more comprehensive and sophisticated way.
The old Wales is gone. Some men have been liberated by the past generation. But many are still coming to terms with what is the dramatic transformation in what constitutes and defines masculinity. Many of the problems we struggle to resolve today may indeed be because of this rupture with the past and the struggle many men face in coming to terms with the new reality.
We need a reckoning with our history if the future is to accommodate all men and women equally. We need to de-gender roles traditionally associated with either sex and instill in future generations a greater sense of self-respect and respect for others. Ultimately, we need to go on opening more doors for women in society, to shatter remaining glass ceilings, but also to ensure all men are freed from the burden of expectations linked inexorably to traditional masculinity.
There is no going back. Yet in looking back and appreciating the realities of the past we can move together into the future with greater confidence.