Men stuck in the ‘miserable middle’ can learn a valuable lesson from women


So many men lost their jobs after the 2008 financial crisis that the American writer Hanna Rosin asked in an article titled “The End of Men” whether women were simply better suited to the new economy.

Was an unprecedented role reversal underway? Male-dominated industries had been so badly decimated by the crash – down went finance, construction, manufacturing – that the period was dubbed the “mancession”.

But it wasn’t the end of men at all. Although earning power in households has been slowly levelling up as more women work, this is still very much a man’s world.

Men have continued to dominate corporate life since the financial crisis, with white men from higher socio-economic backgrounds around 30 times more likely to succeed in finance than working-class women, according to consultants from the Bridge Group.

All that chatter about a post-2008 role reversal never came to pass. The so-called mancession was short-lived – after 2010 job growth for men overtook job growth for women by a huge margin.

The gender pay gap is alive and well (women are on average paid 5.2pc less than men at the start of their career but the gap grows to nearly 13pc in subsequent years) and sexism is rife.

The UK Government last week pushed back on recommendations aimed at tackling misogyny in finance despite a group of MPs warning that there was a “shocking” prevalence of sexism in the City.

Yet despite all the challenges facing female workers, it is apparently men who are less happy in their jobs. A new study has found that men in so-called “medium-status” jobs are more miserable than women who are in the same position.

“We found that men stuck in mediocre jobs were the most miserable, and that occupational mobility is key to life satisfaction for those men,” said Professor Yannis Georgellis, who led the research for SP Jain London School of Management.

His findings suggest that traditional gender roles have an enduring grip – men are less happy to consider themselves professional average joes than women. The researchers highlight how this only applies to men in middle-status jobs, which they say include store managers, prison officers or accountants, and not those in low or high-status roles.

They believe that this is a manifestation of the “silver medallist” effect, where silver medallists are the least satisfied as they compare themselves to gold-medal winners, whereas the bronze medallists consider the alternative of not getting a medal at all.

It’s not clear why this bothers men more than women, but a guess would be that it has a lot to do with different expectations. Economists have argued in the past that women are socialised to feel that they should be more grateful for what they have.

The silver medallist effect probably doesn’t carry much weight for women who can only see men in the game. Men, on the other hand, are surrounded by role models who they can compare themselves to.

Many likely still feel societal pressure to be the breadwinner, keeping self-esteem closely tied to employment status even though women are much more present at work and men much more so at home.

A study of 3,000 UK adults conducted by Starling Bank earlier this year found that 70pc of men aged between 18 and 24 felt that men should be the primary breadwinner in a relationship. Just a fifth of the women surveyed said men should be the main earner.

The responses are surprising considering how much has changed in recent years, with men carrying out more care work during the pandemic than at any other time in recent history.

Anecdotally I know a number of City dads who have quit all-consuming jobs since having children so that they can spend more time with their families, although it is notable that they remain the breadwinners.

Traditional gender roles have in some ways been torn apart, but in others haven’t changed at all. Although nobody wants to be stuck in a dead-end job, life satisfaction still appears to be more tied to job status for men than it does for women.

Those who are fed up at work should give their female colleagues a chance and do something else. The study on men in so-called “miserable middle” jobs suggests that slipping down the occupation status scale isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Some men may feel happier spending more time with their children by picking a more flexible or less high-profile job, if they can afford it. Others might prefer to retrain and try a profession better suited to their lifestyle.

The “mancession” never really materialised, and nor will it. Men have a dominant position in the workplace and the earnings disparity isn’t expected to change for decades.

But much has changed in terms of gender roles at home, and societal expectations need to keep up. Presumptions about workplace dynamics are still stuck in the past and it’s making some men feel trapped in jobs they don’t like.

As work and home become more equal, men will have to do what women have done for decades and make some choices. Women have always been reminded that it is impossible to “have it all”. Men are now starting to realise that, too.