Masculinity: On the Wane in the U.K.

Masculinity: On the Wane in the U.K.

Why you should care

Because definitions can change. 

John Crowley sees no need to prove his masculinity, other than for a bit of fun among friends. Masculinity, says the 28-year-old from Sheffield, England, who sees no reason why culture or tradition should dictate how men express themselves, “is an outdated notion held mostly by narrow-minded people.”

Turns out, many of Crowley’s peers feel the same way — so much so that “masculinity” seems to be evolving into a dirty word for British millennials. A recent YouGov poll found that

only 2 percent British males between 18 and 24 define themselves as “totally masculine.”

By comparison, that same question was answered affirmatively by 56 percent of British men over the age of 65 in the survey of nearly 1,700 U.K. adults. There was even a big discrepancy across generations slightly down the scale — while 18 percent of young British men reported feeling somewhat masculine (around 0-1 on a sliding scale to 6, 6 being completely feminine), that number was a whopping 74 percent for the 65-plus group.

Many complicated factors affect an individual’s view of masculinity, says Nigel Edley, a senior lecturer in social psychology at Nottingham Trent University whose collaborative research on men and masculinity has led to numerous publications. “What I would say is that the male body looms increasingly large in men’s and boys’ understandings.” But even if we accept the notion that a real man is someone with broad shoulders, muscled pecs and a six-pack, Edley warns, “then a high proportion of men will feel that they don’t make the grade.” Just as some women believe that they fail to measure up when they look in the mirror, Edley explains, “there is strong evidence that an increasing number of men feel profoundly unhappy with their own bodies.” Part of the drop in British affiliation with the idea of manliness, then, could stem from a sense of deficiency.

The 98 percent of young Brits who claim to be anything less than “totally masculine” may simply be expressing modesty.

It could also be related to how researchers pose the question, Edley says. While “masculinity” may be a less favorable term these days, “it is also possible that describing oneself as ‘totally masculine’ would be seen as boastful.” In this sense, the 98 percent of young Brits who claim to be anything less than “totally masculine” may simply be expressing modesty. It can’t really explain the huge generational gap, but Edley points out that “such surveys tend to overlook the nuances of what people mean” when it comes to responding to gender-related questions.

It could also be that younger generations are growing increasingly gender-fluid. “Masculinity of 30 years ago is a YouTube parody today,” says Eric Anderson, a sociology professor at the University of Winchester whose theory of inclusive masculinity looks at how adolescent males increasingly no longer fear being “homosexualized” (i.e., perceived as gay). This, Anderson argues, enables men to behave in ways previously conceived of as “feminine.” The growing acceptance of all genders and sexualities among younger generations may partly account for the age-related differences and their views on masculinity. “The lines between masculinity and femininity are increasingly blurred, and this has a very large number of positive outcomes for the lives of young men, and hopefully women too,” Anderson says.

One such positive, according to the YouGov poll, is that men who identified as less than totally masculine were less likely to be involved in fights, while 64 percent of those at the upper levels of masculinity were more likely to throw a punch.

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