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Today's young men need a new kind of level playing field

By Lindsay Tanner - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

Our society has a growing problem with young men. All around us we can see the evidence of increasing alienation, anger and violence among younger males.

Over the past five years, school retention rates for boys, already well behind those for girls, have fallen even further behind. Recent Australian Council of Educational Research analysis indicates that boys’ literacy is inferior to girls, and the gap is widening. The overwhelming majority of deaths from illicit drug use involve young men. The incidence of serious assault by young men is increasing much more rapidly than crimes such as robbery. Since 1979 the number of suicides of men between the ages of 25 and 39 has virtually doubled. The rate of increase for women in the same age group has been much lower.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that social alienation among young men is growing. Emerging phenomena such as road rage point to a latent anger in many younger males which is liable to be transformed into action by quite trivial events. This trend was acknowledged by prominent criminologist Paul Wilson on 60 Minutes recently.


It is increasingly common to encounter young men who are angry and disengaged from society. The political messages which attract them are viscerally negative themes that allow them to vent their anger. Old hands who have run focus groups for some years say that there is a clear trend for young men to be less articulate, more negative and less engaged.

Many men feel under siege from a society which seems to have turned against them. In their eyes, many of their attributes are either no longer valued or are even actively repudiated by our society. Social behaviour that was normal twenty years ago is now unacceptable.

These trends are external symptoms of very deep changes in our society. The male role is being restructured. In particular the nature of work is changing dramatically as technology reduces the importance of physical labour

Throughout human history most men have played a physical role in the production process, and through that role, have gained automatic respect, recognition and identity. Men have been needed primarily to perform physical tasks, from hunting savage animals and bashing bits of metal through to building skyscrapers and damming rivers. A more intellectually oriented minority has always been required for mental work, but the majority of men have been physical workers. Brawn has been more important than brain.

Within a generation, technology has inverted this ratio. Work has always comprised mental, physical and relational skills. In the new world of work, the need for raw physical input where males tend to dominate is declining quickly. Mental and personal skills are in much higher demand.

In her landmark book Stiffed Susan Faludi links this loss of dominance in the production process to the decline in the male role of protector. For many men their role as protector of women and children has been central to their contribution to society. This role has diminished as women have achieved increasing levels of independence.


Many young men have seen their fathers accorded a certain degree of respect and recognition because they are manual workers and protectors, but have entered a world where these characteristics seem to be devaluing rapidly. Loss of status is a guaranteed recipe for anger and resentment. A feeling that they are no longer important is eating away at many younger males.

The tendency to blame feminism for these problems is totally misconceived. The changes which are beginning to redress the enormous imbalance in rights and opportunities between men and women must continue. There can be no respite from the battle to eliminate entrenched injustice and discrimination.

Yet this does not oblige us to ignore the negative aspects of the enormous social upheaval we are living through. If more young men are killing themselves and injuring others, we need to find out why and tackle the problem. We cannot just dismiss them as people who are unable to handle the loss of unjustified privileges.

The path to dealing with these problems lies largely within our education system. If young men are to play a vital role in our future society they will require skills. They will also need a different kind of socialisation. In spite of some notable efforts to address these needs, our education and training system has failed to keep pace with changes in society. We have adapted to revolutionary changes in the production process in the past, and we can do so again. The struggle to reduce male alienation, anger and violence must start in our schools.

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This article first appeared in The Australian on March 5, 2001.

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About the Author

Lindsay Tanner is Shadow Minister for Communications and Shadow Minister for Community Relationships and the Labor Member for Melbourne.

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