Young men worry many people: they are under-represented in higher education, and over-represented in deviant behaviour. The title Michael Ward has chosen echoes Paul Willis’ classic 1977 ethnography of working-class “lads” in the West Midlands, Learning to Labor, and shares its rejection of lazy accounts of those we hear stigmatised as chavs, neds or Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Unlike Willis’ book, this study embraces more contemporary concerns about masculine identity to provide a new view of men in society.
We follow the lives of one group of young working-class men as they enter adulthood in one of the South Wales valleys that were, until the 1980s, at the heart of the British coal industry. For this cohort’s fathers and grandfathers, work in and around the mines set out a template for the way in which adolescents became men. We don’t need to romanticise this context in order to appreciate that its disappearance (or destruction) has had an impact on young working-class males’ understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
The author’s desire to uncover the meanings behind the facade takes him to some strange places, including “pimped-up” cars and strip clubs. He encounters three broad friendship networks: the exaggeratedly male Valley Boiz, the seemingly anti-sexist and studious Geeks, and the flamboyantly transgressive Emos. For most, the choice at 16 is generally to stay on in school; even the Boiz try, for the most part, to take courses, albeit of a vocational bent. Their default point of reference, however, remains the aggressively masculine industrial identity of previous generations.
Although the Geeks and Emos appear to be critical of this traditional display of class, they show contradictions and insecurities. The Geeks distance themselves from the Boiz’ attitudes towards women and perform a kind of studious masculinity, yet celebrate a birthday by watching lap dancers, while the Emos’ alternative masculinities do not inhibit a strong and sometimes homophobic performance of heterosexuality.
This is, then, a complex world in which young men work their way towards uncertain futures. The one fixed point in their environment is the locality, which Ward suggests is an under-researched dimension of youth transitions. Some of his subjects express a vague pride in nation, but for the most part, space makes itself felt through the tangible and local world of the valley town where these young men live.
Ward’s main conclusion is that the forms of masculinity that these young men perform are damaging, not least to themselves. There is no readily available script for being a young working-class male in what they see as the feminised world of education, and their inability to create a viable alternative script is holding them back. That said, the fact is that those who do adapt best to full-time education post-16 are likely to leave the valleys and create a new life elsewhere. Although Ward rejects exaggerated claims of a “crisis of masculinity”, his book contains some brutally depressing messages, not least in its opening account of the funeral of one subject, Davies, killed in a car accident at the age of 19.
Labouring and Learning breathes new life into the ethnographic tradition, takes the reader into an unfamiliar world and asks some hard questions. It is written in a lively, clear and accessible style that should enable it to reach the wide audience it deserves.
John Field is emeritus professor in the School of Education, University of Stirling.
From Labouring to Learning: Working‑class Masculinities, Education and De-industrialization
By Michael R. M. Ward
Palgrave Macmillan, 224pp, £60.00
Published 22 September 2015