Sunday, 19 March 2017

Coincidences, punctuation, and originality

There is story told by the writer Bill Bryson which has always appealed to me. He recounts how, when working as a journalist, he was commissioned to write an article about strange coincidences. Moments later, he stumbled by chance on a book on the desk of a colleague. Its subject was ‘strange coincidences’.

I recalled this story because last week during a meeting I made a joke about the ‘Oxford comma’ (I know that sounds strange: you had to be there). The joke fell flat because no one else in the room knew what an Oxford comma is. The answer to that is that it is a comma (also known as a ‘serial comma’) inserted in a list of nouns before the final ‘and’ (and/or, sometimes, the final ‘or’). For example: ‘John, Jane, and Jill’. Sometimes, this can make a significant difference to the meaning of a sentence. For example: ‘This shirt is available in blue, black, green and white’ might be taken to mean that a green and white shirt is an option, whereas the insertion of the Oxford comma avoids this ambiguity. Thus: ‘This shirt is available in blue, black, green, and white’. It is called an Oxford comma because it is the house style of Oxford University Press (but by no means all publishers) always to use such a comma even if its exclusion would not create ambiguity or change the meaning.

So now for the coincidence. Immediately after the meeting, I logged on to twitter (my new addiction) and almost the first thing I saw was a link to a news story about how the absence of an Oxford comma had, that very day, proved decisive in a legal dispute about overtime payments between dairy drivers and their employer in the State of Maine in the USA. The State’s law says that the following activities do not count for overtime pay:The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods”. (By the way, unless I am wrong, that last semi-colon is an Oxford semi-colon, if there is such a thing).

The case hinged on the ambiguity created by the lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or”. The drivers distribute but they do not pack and the lack of the Oxford comma means that the law implies that it is “packing for distribution” that is exempt from overtime payments, not distribution itself. The court agreed; the drivers are entitled to overtime payments, and this may cost the company some $10 million. That, by the way, is the tangential and only link between this post and the ostensible organization studies focus of this blog.

This is not the first time a comma has featured in a legal case (in fact, I am sure there are many examples). Famously, Roger Casement was ‘hanged for a comma’ in 1916 having sought unsuccessfully to defend himself from the charge of treason on the basis of an ambiguity created by a missing comma in the 1351 Treason Act. This case is discussed by Lynne Truss in her estimable book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003: 99-101). It is a bit much to be hanged for a comma - it is not as if he had used the word 'disinterested' as if it meant 'uninterested'. That really is a hanging offence.

In my book (p.14) I refer to the saying ‘words are loaded pistols, we use them at our peril’ (I refer to it is an anonymous saying, but I’ve since learned that the ‘words are loaded pistols’ part, at least, is attributable to Jean-Paul Sartre). If so, punctuation is the firing mechanism. One should be wary, though, about pedantry as all too often it is liable to backfire as other pedants correct one’s own pedantry. So, like Yiannis Gabriel, who recently wrote about the use and misuse of the apostrophe, I see little point in being too fussy about punctuation. On the subject of apostrophes, though, I do like one arcane point which is that adjectival nouns do not take apostrophes. For example, there is no apostrophe after ‘boys’ in ‘boys night out’ (although Word spellcheck does not like it) in those cases when it is used to describe the nature of the night rather than the participants. Thus, pleasingly, one can write: ‘John went to the opera; the boy’s night out was enjoyable. Jim and Bill went to the pub; the boys’ night out was a great success. Meanwhile, the girls had a boys night out’. This knowledge, even if it is correct, has never been the slightest use to me.

However, as the Oxford comma court case shows, you can never tell when knowing about punctuation may come in handy. It may even provide material for an unusual blog post. Or so I thought. But, in a final coincidence, having written this post with the idea that it would relate to an obscure news story that very few would be aware of I discovered that it has featured in numerous articles in all the main national newspapers in the UK, USA and, no doubt, further afield. It was only when I searched for a link to the definition of an Oxford comma that I realised this. Attempts at originality, like linguistic pedantry, are fraught with risk. Perhaps the best way to put the lesson learned is in future to think, google, and write.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

In praise of universities

This week the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a hard right free market think tank, produced a report entitled ‘Lackademia: why do academics lean left?’ It claims – and treats as a problem – that “left-liberals” are “over-represented” in British academia. The methodology used to establish the political views of academics was risible, being based on a self-selecting survey (what survey methodologists call a ‘voodoo poll’) and this and other flaws were pointed out by John Morgan in the Times Higher Education.

Even if the data were more robust, it is a bizarre notion that academics’ political views should be ‘representative’ of the general population and that, if they are not, they are, to use the report’s word “skewed”. Academics are not appointed for their political views, or to represent anyone under some kind of proportional representation system – and it would be disastrous if they were appointed in this way, rather than on the basis of their academic expertise. But the choice of the term ‘over-representation’ is deliberate, as signalled in the closing line of the full report – it tries to take the language of diversity (in relation to gender, class and ethnicity) in order to imply, although there is absolutely no evidence of this, that those on the political right are victims of discrimination so that whilst being qualified for academic posts they are excluded from them.

The word ‘victims’ is significant in understanding what is going on here, which is a species of the populist politics sweeping Western societies. That populism has at its heart a victim narrative in which the ‘liberal elite’ (sometimes the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’) has a fiendish power to do down the common sense of ‘the people’. It is a nonsensical reading of where power lies, since the intellectual apparatchiks of recent decades are more obviously the ASI and similar neo-liberal bodies than anyone else, but after the events of the last year no one can doubt its traction. Another part of the populist wave is its anti-intellectualism, with ‘experts’ being denounced and even compared to Nazis. So the ASI report channels that strand of populism, too.

The populist implications of the ASI report were quite apparent in the way it got picked up in the media. Especially grotesque was a spiteful piece by Tom Utley in, inevitably, the Daily Mail. It started with a long whine about having been put down by his ‘left-wing’ tutor at Cambridge (like so many of the populist Right – Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg - Utley is a product of ‘elite’ universities) some forty years ago.  The ‘put down’ was, in fact, a correction of his misunderstanding about the subject under discussion – as it happens John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ concept, discussed on p. 146 of my book - although Utley clearly doesn’t realise this and it apparently still rankles.

The rest of the article is a series of tendentious assertions (e.g. cherry picked examples of Oxbridge college heads) and smears (e.g. the ‘endless holidays’ of ‘dons’) exhibiting such a degree of intellectual dishonesty and disregard for evidence that one can at least agree that he was not very well-taught when at university. These are then explicitly linked to populist politics by pointing out that most academics opposed Brexit. That is hardly surprising: most people with a degree and even more with a higher degree did.

The irony is that British universities are extraordinarily successful in any terms they might be judged. They perform far better proportionate to either the size of the UK or the funding they receive than those of any other country in the world in terms of placement in world rankings, where the UK has 34 of the top 200 universities, and quality of research. They are intimately linked with medical and industrial innovation and the communication of culture. Moreover, they earn billions of pounds for the UK in student fee income (though this is under threat from government immigration policies). To jeopardise this in pursuit of ‘politically representative’ staffing would be, to coin a populist phrase, political correctness gone mad. Would we want, say, biologists, to be selected on the grounds of political representativeness rather than scientific ability? Is that the Lysenkoist dream of Tom Utley and the ASI? I fear that it might be.

But universities should be defended on wider grounds than this. To the extent that it is the case that they are bulwarks against populism then that is a good thing in itself. The hallmark of populism is what we are learning to call post-truth. The hallmark of universities is still that of a liberal Enlightenment commitment to truth, evidence and reason (that is so even when academics interrogate and critique the liberal Enlightenment). So it is small wonder that they are under attack from populists, and that is all the more reason to hold on tight to what they embody and represent.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Losing my twitterginity

A long way behind the trend, I started using twitter a couple of weeks ago. The reason for this was to try to publicise my other blog (the Brexit blog) to gain a wider audience for it. Several people had advised me to do this, as indeed they had for this blog. But this blog has managed to develop a fairly large readership whereas the Brexit blog was languishing largely unread. So I took the plunge, set up an account (@chrisgreybrexit) and started tweeting.

My previous resistance to twitter was much more than a disinclination. I remembered having written a post on this blog back in October 2014 about my antipathy to twitter but it was not until I went back and checked that I found just how hostile I had been. To give a flavour:

“It is not just another medium of communication, neutral in itself, it entails an emotional, political and intellectual infantilisation of communication. That, I think, is the image we should have of tweeting: an endlessly, insatiably egocentric infant spewing out its thoughts and feelings at the instant they occur. The trolls are not so much a side-effect as an exemplification of this: far from being an anomaly they define the ideal-type of the tweeter. But unlike infants they claim a right, albeit one detached from any kind of defensible ethics or politics.”

Gosh. Well, I recant. Converts are almost as depressing as ex-smokers in their evangelism so I want to be careful that I do not bounce from one extreme to the other. Even so, I have (largely) changed my mind.

Starting out is a rather curious experience. You can tweet, yes, but who will read it if you have no followers? But, then, who will follow you if you have not tweeted anything? It is reminiscent of being picked (or not) for sports teams at school. Until picked you can't show your prowess; until you have shown your prowess you won't be picked. So I alerted a few people who I thought might be interested and who I knew were on twitter, and I followed a few people who I thought were interesting and might be interested in following me; and some of them did indeed follow me. So a day or two in I had a heady following of 15 or so and after a few provisional tweets put out a message alerting them to my latest post on the Brexit blog.

Nothing much happened until a couple of days later when, suddenly, I started receiving hundreds of email alerts from twitter about new followers, mentions, retweets, likes (all completely new language to me) and the readership of the Brexit blog started shooting up into the hundreds and, then, the thousands. My followers rose to an admittedly still puny few hundred, but within them were several well-known journalists and politicians. What had happened took me a little while to reconstruct but in essence one of my early little pool of followers had tweeted a message to his large group of followers, one of whom tweeted a very positive message to his even larger group of followers one of whom, a leading journalist, had added a positive endorsement and sent it to his half a million plus followers. I was picking up the crumbs, so to speak, of the twitterati cake.

So the first thing to say is that my aim of getting a bigger readership for the blog had, unquestionably, worked. It was undoubtedly dumb luck and it has died down considerably since, but it did work. Beyond that, I began to be quite fascinated by the way that I now had a kind of tailored news site in which those I followed fed me interesting things and I could feed to those following me things I considered interesting. It has an addictive quality.

So I saw her face, but am I now a believer? Yes and no. There are some clear downsides. Given the Brexit focus there have inevitably been some nasty messages, not so much on twitter or the blog but (since people can google me and find my email address) on my work email. But I must admit that I’m quite amused by this insight into the Brexiter mindset (and for anyone reading this who sends me such messages please note that I laugh, delete and don’t reply). As for comments made on twitter itself, my view remains that 140 character messages is not a good way of having a discussion.

What I can now see is that twitter is a good way of sharing news stories and other resources that one might otherwise miss. But even here there is a downside. There has been a lot of talk (that until now I had not really understood) about how social media tends to create silos, or echo chambers, in which one’s own views are simply re-confirmed by contact with like-minded people. I can see this from my two weeks on twitter. Obviously that’s mainly to do with my choices of who to follow, and these have indeed given me the impression that, like me, others are fuming with anger and fear about what Brexit means. There may be a danger in that if it leads to misreading the balance of opinion – but perhaps not in this case, since it is a counterweight to the bulk of media reporting. But isn’t that exactly the reasoning of the post-truth loonies who insist that the ‘mainstream media’ ignores their nonsense?

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the use of twitter is declining but it seems to be the preferred medium of Donald Trump so who’s to deny its political importance? I started following him on twitter this week but, alas, so far he has not returned the compliment.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Romania's protests

A remarkable victory appears to have been won by anti-corruption demonstrators in Romania. The largest street protests – involving a reported half a million people, that in a country with a total population of 20 million - since the fall of Ceausescu have forced the government to abandon a policy to decriminalise corruption by public officials if the sums involved are less than US$ 48,500. By way of context, average GDP per capita in Romania is about US$ 9,500 (2015 figure, a record high). This policy, derived from a government decree, rather than from parliament, would have had the effect not just of stopping investigations of corruption below the specified level but also releasing from prison thousands of officials already found guilty of such corruption.

Corruption in Romania, as in many other countries, has a long and complex history, and it long predates both the communist and post-communist eras. However, in recent times there have been significant attempts through the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) to tackle the problem, resulting in hundreds of prosecutions and convictions, including that of former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase. Even so, Transparency International’s corruption index rates Romania 57 out of 176 countries (Denmark and New Zealand are joint first in the list, Somalia is at the bottom), making it one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. Unsurprisingly, then, the EU Commission was also strongly opposed to the proposed decree.

Corruption is not just a crime like any other. As its name suggests, it corrodes, deforms and ultimately destroys the moral and legal fabric of civilized society, whether within politics or business organizations (see Burke & Cooper, 2009). Within organization studies, the foundational work of Max Weber shows how one of the distinctive advantages of the rational-legal bureaucracy is to both render illegitimate and to monitor and control corruption. This, indeed, is one of the ethically distinctive features of such bureaucracies (see du Gay, 2000). The Romanian protestors are absolutely right to see corruption as a foundational, fundamental issue.

At a time when so much is happening in the world that seems to be beyond our control, it is heartening to see that peaceful protest can influence political decisions. People can, still, make a difference. In particular, the success of these protests gives hope to the beleaguered cosmopolitans in what I have described elsewhere as the new politics of cosmopolitans and locals. In the UK, with Brexit, the US, with Trump, and in many other countries such as France, Germany and Hungary populist localism is in the ascendant. But the Romanian protests can be understood as a revolt of the cosmopolitans. According to Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Professor of Democracy Studies at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the former leader of Romania’s anticorruption Coalition for a Clean Parliament: “… the people of deep, poor, dependent Romania nevertheless returned the families of their corrupt patron politicians to parliament, as they hope for more redistributive policies in return. In contrast, the crowds in the big cities are made of English-speaking Romanians working in multinationals and NGOs”.

The conjunction of cosmopolitan Romanians and the EU Commission is a reminder that, whatever populist rhetoric suggests, these are not some out of touch establishment bent on doing down the people. On the contrary, populist localism benefits not the poor and marginalised but corrupt political elites (in the genuine sense of the term). The most important guarantor of universal well-being is the rule of law, which is why the independent judiciary are under such attack in Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America for insisting that governments remain within the law. The successful demand by the Romanian protestors that their officials must be subject to the rule of law is a remarkable and timely inspiration to countries around the world and, especially, to the cosmopolitans currently at the lash end of populist localism.

Burke, R.J. & Cooper, C.L. (eds.) Research Companion to Corruption in Organizations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Du Gay, P. In Praise of Bureaucracy. Weber, Organization and Ethics. London: Sage, 2000.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Reviewing anger

In my book I write briefly (p.xiv) about the depressing nature of academic journal publication in organization studies, and have done so at more length in a post on this blog. In that post, written in 2014, I bemoaned the tendency for the anonymous reviewers of journal submissions to write reams of comments making demands of authors so excessive that whole books could not satisfy them.

Recently, though, I have noticed a different trend. I now find that papers I submit to journals come back with very brief comments. Occasionally, they are brief but positive. More often they are brief and not just negative but hostile, dismissive and, often absurd. For example, I recently had a damning review, endorsed by the editor, whose main complaint was that I had completely ignored a key piece of work in the field when in fact it was not just referenced but extensively quoted. Again in contrast to my experience a few years ago reviews are accompanied by an editorial letter that is curt and content-free apart, of course, from the message that the paper has been rejected. I should say that I am talking here about what are regarded within the UK and Europe (the US ranking of such things being different) “top journals” as defined by the ubiquitous Chartered Association of Business Schools’ (CABS) listing.

Anyone reading this who works in the field may be thinking that I am giving vent to sour grapes at having my papers rejected by journals. And of course I am. But there is more to it than that. I’ve been doing this job for a long time and so like anyone else I am used to papers being rejected. With the top journals’ overall rejection rates being in the order of 90% that is pretty much inevitable. So that is not the issue. What I see shifting is the manner of rejection.

That reviews are getting briefer is perhaps not surprising. I know, from the other side of the fence, how many requests to review I receive, and this activity is time-consuming to do thoroughly. Perhaps spending that time used to be seen as part of the communal reciprocity of being an academic, but with the time pressures now much-increased I can see why brevity might be becoming the norm.

What is more surprising, though, is how angry these reviews are. In recent weeks I’ve had reviews of papers which positively bark about, for example, there being ‘no contribution’. Several times there’s also been a sense of outrage at the impertinence of the paper under review for entering territory apparently regarded as ‘owned’ by the reviewer. It’s as if the reviewers feel insulted – and so insult the author.

Now, again, an obvious reaction would be to say that perhaps the problem is that my papers make no contribution and/or are amateurish forays into others’ fields. No wonder, then, that reviewers are angry. The problem with that diagnosis, though, is that the very same journals send me articles to review on the very same topics, on the basis that I have expertise in them. So whilst it is plausible that my own work has flaws that I am blind to – and I will happily own to that – it seems implausible that my critical faculties are so blinded that I can both be an expert reviewer of others’ work whilst myself producing work of such dire quality that angry dismissal is not only justified but positively demanded. And, if that is so, why do those same journals constantly send me papers to review?

So now let’s suppose another objection to what I am saying. Perhaps it is that I am sent papers to review on the basis of my expertise because in the past I did good work but I’ve now gone downhill and the papers I submit now are as risible as the referees say. But that can’t be true, either, because more often than not those same papers have gone on to be accepted by a different journal, with a different editor and different reviewers. Again, such discrepancies aren’t new – there’s always been a zone of judgment and ambiguity about what is a good paper – but they seem to me to be getting far more extreme, with a paper being as likely to be dismissed as worthless as lauded as excellent.

Based on conversations with other people I am pretty sure that the experiences I am describing are not unique to me. I am not entirely sure what the explanation is but I have a couple of ideas. One is that journal editors are not paying very much attention to their work and (despite the inevitable claim of having read the paper “very carefully”) are not exercising much editorial judgment; and bear in mind that ‘editor’ means, typically, one of a massive array of associate or assistant editors of varying ability and diligence. There are also, probably, cases of personal animosity: although submissions are anonymously reviewed it is often easy for reviewers to guess author identity (and vice versa) and, of course, handling editors know author identity anyway.

The other, more important, thing is that I think that reviewers have got angrier because as authors they have been on the receiving end of angry reviews. Which is chicken and which is egg is impossible to say, but there is surely a psychological logic in the idea that if your paper is trashed on spurious grounds you will look to trash those you review. That’s really the obverse of the point I made earlier about the incongruity of me being regarded as an expert reviewer and yet an incompetent author. It arises from that fact that all of us in the field are simultaneously authors, reviewers and, for that matter, editors.

All of this is annoying – infuriating, in fact – but it is worse than that. For me, the stakes are not very high. Deservingly or not I am reasonably well-established, securely employed, have no post I can be promoted to on research grounds, am not that far off retirement, and one way or another more than meet institutional systems of research evaluation. So a paper getting rejected in a spurious or unpleasant way is upsetting but doesn’t make any real practical difference to me. But many people, including many that I write with, are not in this happy position. For them, a publication in a “top journal” can make or break their careers, or can make huge differences to promotion chances or to salary levels.

Despite the huge power they wield there is no accountability whatsoever of journal editors and anonymous reviewers, and no possibility whatsoever of challenging their judgments. I believe that some authors do seek to challenge decisions, but I have always thought that this is a hiding to nothing and have never done so. Apart from being undignified, it’s not clear what it could achieve: if, for example, reviewers have trashed a paper and the editor has rejected it then unless an appeal yielded a whole new set of reviewers, which is highly unlikely, shifting an editor to allow a revise and resubmit is probably not going to lead to a better outcome. Pragmatically, it’s better to send the paper to another journal and hope for better luck with the editor and reviewers.

Be that as it may, it does not negate the fact that sloppy editing and angry reviewing is damaging to academic careers and – which may matter more to those who are not academics – to what gets published and therefore read. It’s a hidden scandal, and though a minor one in the general scheme of things no less important to its victims.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Willing robots

I posted recently about the growing possibilities for replacing human workers with robots, but alongside that it’s possible to discern a growing ‘robotization’ of human workers. That thought was prompted by a recent article by the excellent journalist John Harris about employee monitoring. Harris discusses the soon to be released film The Circle based upon a 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. I have not read it, but apparently it depicts the dystopian world of a high-tech corporation where:

“… privacy and autonomy count for almost nothing. Under a veneer of feelgoodism, employees are complicit in their own constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.”

Harris goes on to discuss real life counterparts of this, including the ‘Humanyze’ system of ‘people analytics’ which tracks and records employee movements and interactions, biometric data and so on. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear of this, as back in February 2014 I wrote about the Hitachi Business Microscope which has very similar functions.

The theme of workplace surveillance has been very widely explored within organization studies for at least 25 years, especially under the influence of Foucauldian analysis, and I discuss it at some length in my book (pp. 72-77). Yet we should not dismiss it as ‘old hat’, not least because of the ever-advancing technological capacities to extend surveillance.

Alongside the technology, there seems to be a growing acceptance and normalization of its use, so that (as Foucault recognized of surveillance and disciplinary power in general) those subject to it welcome it rather than experience it as intrusive. As the Circle Corporation sloganizes: “Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft”.

The obligatory reference to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four hardly seems necessary, but the ‘feelgoodism’ of contemporary surveillance is rather different to the austere, monochrome ambience of Orwell’s Oceania. It resonates more with Jacques Donzelot’s (1991) thought-provoking essay ‘Pleasure in Work’. Donzelot’s argument is that work was being re-imagined as a “means towards self-realization” (p. 251) as a reaction against the effects of the drive for productivity in the workplace.

Yet the contemporary harnessing of ‘feelgoodism’ is different in that it seeks to re-inscribe productivity into pleasure. That is to say, pleasure is not the antidote to techniques of enhancing productivity but is itself a technique to do so, what organizational theorist André Spicer calls ‘the cult of compulsory happiness’.

Harris concludes by saying that “what all this means is pretty obvious. On the way to being replaced by a robot, you will have to become one”, and I have some agreement with that. However, in co-opting pleasure for and securing subservience to productivity, the kind of robots we are suppose to become are oxymorons like the ‘willing slaves’ described by both Madeleine Bunting (2011) and Andrew Scott (1994). In being willing robots we are simultaneously robots and that one thing that robots cannot be – willing, in all senses of the word: cheerfully prepared and possessed of choice and purpose.

The centrality of productivity to contemporary economic discourse is pointed up by the consultation document on its industrial strategy released by the UK government today. The longstanding weakness of UK productivity by international standards is the central theme of this strategy and throughout the document it is linked to the need to work ‘not harder but smarter’ (p.13) and to new technologies, including robotics (p.63). Like everything else in British politics at the moment it is refracted through Brexit, so that the opening preface from the Prime Minister declares that the vote to leave the EU was also a vote to “change the way our country works forever” (p.3).

It strikes me as unlikely that those who voted for Brexit realised that they had also voted to be replaced by robots or themselves to become willing robots – after all, neither this nor, for that matter, industrial strategy were on the ballot paper - but if this turns out to be the case it underscores that the exercise of human will is less predictable than the operation of robots, so that the choices we make may lead to consequences we never envisaged.

Bunting, M. (2011) Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruining our lives. London: Harper Collins.
Donzelot, J. (1991) ‘Pleasure in Work’ in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller P. (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in governmentality, pp 251-280. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Scott, A. (1994) Willing Slaves? British workers under human resource management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Jobs for the boys

Today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced a widely-reported research document showing the huge growth of part-time working amongst British men in recent years. Specifically, amongst men aged 25-55 in low-wage occupations, those working part-time work has risen over the last 20 years from 5% to 20%. The 20 year timescale indicates that this is a long-term trend, not just an effect of recession.

There are various issues arising from this. Those highlighted by the IFS are that part-time work is much more common now amongst men in low-wage occupations than it is amongst men in higher paid occupations; and that the trend for women is exactly the opposite (the percentage of women working part-time in low-wage occupations has fallen).

These seemingly dry statistics are extremely important. Interestingly, they do not show increasing inequality (which the report shows has actually fallen) but they do imply increasing insecurity and precariousness in employment. In particular, they probably help to explain at least part of the populist convulsions in the UK and elsewhere which are largely driven by angry, white, working-class men whose place in the world has been threatened. Within that, the regional discrepancies in men’s employment and wages are also important, as they then join together with resentment against the ‘metropolitan elite’ to drive populism.

However, the particular aspect I want to focus on is the way that these figures speak of a kind of crisis of masculinity. For generations in Britain (and elsewhere) masculine identity has been bound up with being ‘the breadwinner’. That is both an economic and a cultural – and psychological – notion. Economically, it requires stable, secure and reasonably well remunerated employment. That is the ‘bread’ bit. Culturally, it enables having a successful place in the world. That is the ‘winner’ bit. And taken together, it is a potent identity: bread + winner = breadwinner.

It is important to understand that the loss of this identity is both economic and cultural because it explains why the corresponding improvement in women’s situation does not ‘compensate’ for the deterioration in that of men. It’s not enough to add together the overall household position and conclude that nothing has changed because economically the household is just as well off in absolute terms and (if the IFS Report is right) even in relative terms. That does not assuage the cultural and psychological hurt of lost identity and meaning.

A generation ago, as explored in Paul Willis’s fantastic ethnography Learning to Labour (1977), young boys could disdain education because an unskilled factory job was there for the taking. That world has disappeared, but the sons and grandsons of those in the study have not moved on (see also Dolby et al., 2004). The sub-title of Willis’s book was ‘how working class kids get working class jobs’, but those jobs – in the form they once existed – have massively declined.

The most under-achieving educational group in the UK is now white working-class boys, three-quarters of whom fail to achieve five good GCSEs. This directly impacts upon their employability, as does the more nebulous issue of behavioural skills (time-keeping, self-presentation etc). Thus just as the opportunities for good jobs erodes so does the capacity of white working-class British boys to get whatever good jobs there may be, feeding directly into the populist anger against immigrants seen to be ‘taking’ the jobs. It is a situation that was starkly exposed by the 2010 BBC documentary The Day the Immigrants Left.

The biggest problem in all this is that three separate issues have come together: the changing nature of work in developed countries; immigration; and what it means to be a (working-class) man. Populist politics speaks to the first two, but it has nothing to say about the third. The period that saw the transformation of work and the global economy also saw a transformation, through feminism, in understandings of what it meant to be a woman. I don’t mean by that the tired old trope that feminism has, somehow, undermined or de-masculinized men. That’s nonsense because it is not a zero-sum game in which ‘advances’ for women come at the ‘expense’ of men. I mean that what has still not occurred, and urgently needs to occur, is a transformation in understandings of what it means to be a man.

That is not to say that the only problem here is the cultural understanding of masculinity. Economics and culture are indivisible, which is why the feminist movement has always been about changing both economic and cultural realities. It has to be both. And because it has to be both, the populist approach to the new situation of men is inadequate, because it is solely economic. If (and, in my view, when) it fails to deliver it will leave working-class men even angrier and even more economically marginal. To avoid that, the old equation that real men = real jobs needs tackling on both of its sides.

Yes, we need more real jobs for both men and women. But we also need men to understand that being a ‘breadwinner’ is not the definition of a ‘real’ man and, moreover, that there are many different ways and many different potentials for masculinity that have little or nothing to do with work. Part-time work may well be a problem for many economic reasons, for both men and women; but it doesn’t carry the meaning of not being a ‘full-time’ man. To put it another way, if feminism broke the link between femininity and unpaid homemaking then what we need to do now is to break the link between masculinity and paid work.

Dolby, N., Dimitriadis, G., & Willis, P. (2004). Learning to Labour in New Times. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour. How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough, UK: Saxon House.