By Janette Dill
The election of Donald Trump has brought attention to a group of voters that helped to bring him into office: the working class, and especially working class men. The shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy, referred to as the New Economy, has been a difficult transition for working class men: the percentage of men working in manufacturing and production jobs – jobs that used to be “good jobs” for men without a college degree – has declined by over 50% since the 1970s, and men’s wages have also dropped over the same time period. Working class men’s support for Donald Trump, who has promised a return of the manufacturing economy, shows their frustration with the labor market and their careers.
As male-dominated manufacturing and production jobs have declined, there has been a concurrent rise in demand for many female-dominated occupations, such as nursing assistants, home health aides, and child care workers. However, few working class men are entering these female-dominated occupations, despite high demand for these workers. Why? A recent article in the New York Times explored this issue, asking why men don’t want to do work that is mostly done by women. The article primarily focuses on the masculine identity; men don’t want to do jobs that require doing tasks that are associated with femaleness, such as caring for an elderly person or child. Indeed, the swagger and machismo of Donald Trump promises not only a return of men’s manufacturing jobs, but a return of the working class masculine identity.
Of course, another reason that men don’t want to do work that is mostly done by women because these jobs don’t pay well. An average nursing assistant or medical assistant – common entry level health care positions – earns around $10-12 per hour. In contrast, a middle-age man working in a manufacturing plant might earn $25-$35 per hour. Movement into one of these feminized care work occupations is not only inconsistent with a masculine identity; it means a painful cut in pay as well.
That said, men are carving out spaces for themselves in the service economy. In a study included in the Times article that was conducted by myself, Kim Price Glynn, and Carter Rakovski, we looked at how men fared when they entered entry level jobs in the health care sector. We found that there are some occupations in the health care sector – relatively new occupations – where the work is less feminized and less stigmatized, where there has been an increase in male workers. These jobs – what we call entry level allied health occupations – require some training but not a four-year college degree, and include occupations like surgical technicians, respiratory therapists, radiology techs, or emergency medical technicians. Entry level allied health occupations typically provide decent wages ($25,000-$45,000 a year) and benefits, and not surprisingly, there has been a substantial increase in men in these occupations. In 1996, about 16% of entry level allied health workers were male; in 2008, the percentage was 26%.
In contrast, we found that there has been no increase in the percentage of men in health care occupations that require tasks that are associated with femaleness, like bathing, feeding, or toileting. These direct care jobs are also more likely to be filled by men who are minorities, suggesting that men are being “pushed” into these jobs when they are disadvantaged in the labor market. Men in these jobs also have devalued wages, or wages that are far lower than their counterparts in male-dominated occupations.
So will men eventually start to do “women’s work” in the New Economy because of a lack of other options? The movement of men into frontline allied health occupations leads us to ask whether the health care industry may be new pathway to the middle class for men with a college degree. Are these jobs— and the certification required—the new threshold for entry into the middle class in the New Economy? Men with a high school degree previously gained access to the middle class through male-dominated occupations that provided a lifetime career with opportunities for upward advancement. Much has been written about the breakdown of labor market opportunities for this population, but our study suggests that the associate’s degree—and perhaps feminized health care occupations—may be replacing blue- collar occupations as a key path to stable earnings and careers.
Finally, the presence of men in entry level care work occupations may redefine “women’s work” as both men’s and women’s work. However, our research suggests that men, particularly white men, are moving into the more technical, medical areas of care work in the health field in order to reap the rewards of rising wages and stability. While women and minority men continue to be clustered in lower- paying direct care occupations, the more technical entry level allied health occupations may be culturally reinterpreted as men’s work, preserving conventional understandings of masculinity.
Janette Dill is assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Akron. Her research interests include the sociology of work and occupations, the labor market, and medical sociology. Her current projects explore the career trajectories of members of the healthcare workforce, the dynamics of partnerships between healthcare organizations and educational institutions, and the work experiences of men in the service sector.