Work, Place and Gender Through a Life Crisis
Listening to Kjell (67) and Jan (42), it was apparent that their experiences of going through life crises, which Kjell referred to as a ‘crash’ and Jan as an ‘identity crisis’, continued to pose challenges as they went about their lives. However, the consequences of these crises differed. Owing to the seriousness of his burnout depression, Kjell had been unable to return to work for over a decade and was about to retire. Jan still suffered from anxiety and chest pain, but was functioning well in the sense that he worked about 65 per cent of full-time. Despite differing experiences, both Kjell and Jan composed their stories using narrative linkages to the key cultural constructs of white urban middle-class career masculinity, work society, the gender-equal man and anti-Stockholm. I see these cultural constructs as discourses on the abstract worker (Acker 1990). Referring to these discourses enabled them to establish a firm narrative footing in these themes and to provide the listener with ‘the kind of stories that could be told’ (Gubrium and Holstein 1998: 169). These linkages, developed and positioned throughout their life stories, gave their stories coherence (O’Callaghan and Warburton 2017: 449).
Both interviewees said that before their breakdowns, despite strongly disliking it, wage work had been an important part of their identities. For instance, Kjell described work as a ‘necessary evil’. Throughout his working life, he had often held several jobs simultaneously. He had often worked longer days or done overtime, not necessarily to further his career, but rather because ‘that is what you do’. Similarly, although Jan ‘had to share [his] everyday life with colleagues [he] was not comfortable with’ and sometimes ‘hid crying by the computer because people were so mean’, it was still important to him to climb the career ladder, to gain status and make money. They had both followed the norm of workinghard and for long hours, despite not liking it. Jan expressed this duality of safety and discomfort when following work norms:
For me, as for many others, it was the norm, of course, and security; it was the way it was supposed to be, that culture, society is based on it. ... A man takes responsibility, a man provides for the family, takes care of himself. How important status symbols are to fit in ... attributes like jobs and cars and all these stereotypes are actually true, you know? I’ve also carried with me ... all these expectations of how it is to be a man. I’m an incredibly performance-focused person, which has sprung from a survival instinct. Perform, perform, perform.
By reflecting on the discourse of white urban middle-class career masculinity and norms of work society (Paulsen 2010), parts of their work stories, such as working more than full-time and being in work cultures that had made them ill, can be understood as constructed within their narratives. Qualities of the ideal worker - autonomy, hard work, not asking for help and not showing vulnerability - are embedded in the culture and in the construction of a masculine work identity, and can be seen as being central to norms of what a masculine work subject should be and do to become successful. As Jan put it, ‘I did not have any time to reflect; it was not in my world that I could do things differently.’ They never really questioned either moving to urban areas to find work or the amount of time they worked. In their ways of relating to wage work and narrating rurality as a place ‘where you can’t live’ to either be successful or to be able to find a job, I trace discourses of performance and norms of ‘work society’, where the countryside is seen as inefficient and lagging behind at the periphery, while the modern city represents the centre. The culture around work society, with the unquestioned role of wage work in their lives and, especially for Jan, white urban middle-class career masculinity, provided not only a firm footing for their stories, but also guidelines on how to behave, think and act as a man in relation to work. Whereas building a career was highly important to Jan, Kjell described the expectation of autonomy and independence - not showing vulnerability and not asking for help - as more important to him, as indicated when he talked about how he had handled his work-related breakdown: ‘I did not talk very much. I closed up emotionally, sat at home. Today I wonder what I was actually doing [during these years] ... I guess it was a way of keeping everything at a distance.’ In the interviews, Kjell said that he had attempted suicide several times, which speaks to previous research suggesting that health issues are given lower priority and suicide is more common among men in rural areas than among men in general (Folkhalsomyndigheten 2018; O’Callaghan and Warburton 2017).
In the same way that Kjell and Jan positioned paid work as an essential part of their identities, studies show that wage work and being a breadwinner constitute an important part of many men’s identities (Brandth and Haugen 2005: 14). Going through a work-related life crisis like Kjell and Jan, being unable to either work at all or as much as previously, may therefore affect future identifications with work. For instance, a study of Australian farmers shows that despite losing their physical strength as they aged, they tried to regain ‘narrative control’ over what an aging body is and hoped to retain their farming identities (O’Callaghan and Warburton 2017: 451). This did not seem to apply to Jan and Kjell. After experiencing their respective crises, it had become increasingly difficult for them to live up to the notion of the ideal worker. However, they did not seem to call their masculine/gender identities entirely into question. Rather, they seemed to articulate new narrative maps of how to go about their lives, where wage work had become something different from before. In the process of downshifting in terms of wage work and consumption and moving back to the countryside, Jan described how he had come to change many views on how a man can be and act:
Men are really shit at talking. ... I’ve had to learn that, which has built all my new relationships. Good, healthy relationships are with women. ... I’m seen and included. ... And now I think it’s uncomfortable to talk about myself, ... because I feel like I’m taking up too much space ... [And] the benefit of asking for help has become much more obvious ... and has helped me, hopefully, to change into a - I shouldn’t say that I’m neutral and gender-equal, it has to be ... up to others to judge that - but I feel like we’ve made a project of what we’ve said that we’re trying to be [more genderequal] just by working [less].
Jan frequently highlighted how he had changed, as a man, after his ‘identity crisis’. Through his wife and her contacts, he had come to think differently about friendships, focusing on making new kinds of relationships and ending some old friendships with men. He also said that he had changed as a parent, as he had gone from ‘almost giving up on his parenthood’ [being a good parent] to becoming a ‘house wife’ who ‘spends a lot of time at home’ and does most of the reproductive work. In his story, different relationships with work were coarticulated with various forms of masculinity and a kind of disidentification from ‘other men’. In Jan’s positioning as different from other men, whom he described as ‘really bad at talking about feelings’ and ‘asking questions’, I trace the presence of the gender-equal man, closely related to national discourses on the new gender-equal man (Jarvklo 2008) and the good gender-equal man (Dahl, 2005). These discourses characterize a heterosexual man who is encouraged and expected to incorporate traditionally feminine duties of domestic work and parenting. I also see the discourse on the gender-equal man as a masculine subject who takes emotional responsibility, challenging the idea that men must be emotionally closed. This type of discourse, of a communicative, present, gender-equal father who does his share of the domestic work, is associated with status in the kinds of environment in which Jan moved -‘academic’, ‘politically conscious’ and ‘opinion-builders’, as he put it. Although Kjell did not articulate the same kind of academic approach to gender equality and men as Jan, he also appeared critical of men’s behaviour. He talked about masculinity norms as something that he had to ‘deal with’ in his everyday life in the village. When talking about the stereotype of the ‘northern rural man’ as tough and emotionally closed, I asked: ‘Do you know of any such men?’ Kjell answered:
Yes, unfortunately. ... Every day when I go into ICA [the local grocery store] in [village name], I see some of them, and then I’m reminded about them and I laugh. On the inside, imagine that it can be so ... the blinkered horse ... But ... I’ve even got friends there, in that group. ... Sometimes I can’t resist telling them what I think. I say ‘that’s not fucking you’, ‘you’re talking shit’ ... So it’s - I’m pretty direct!
Listening to Jan and Kjell’s narrations of new narrative maps following their crises makes me think of Andersson’s (2003: 102) description of how being unemployed may create a discrepancy between norms and experiences, which gives room for reflexivity. This ‘resistance of reflexivity’, as Andersson describes it, can be found in Jan storying a revaluing of relationships and work norms, and Kjell talking critically about other men. They had also become more critical of urbanity, and had developed a kind of Stockholm hatred around which they structured their narratives of work, place and gender. Even though Kjell had lived in the capital for over two decades, he described Stockholm as ‘horrible’ and as:
a jungle, because it’s so overgrown ... When I’m out walking in the city [Stockholm] and I don’t have time to look at people because they’ve already passed me. Everything goes so, like this the whole time [waving quickly with hands]. People don’t have time ... for other people; they’ve hardly got time for the people they have to have time for. The pace is terrible. No one can leave without being affected. ... No, I just think the city is disgusting, today.
This kind of local, anti-Stockholm discourse was frequently used by the interviewees and can be seen as a preferred narrative (Gubrium and Holstein 2008: 225). Being critical of Stockholm is very common in
Intersectional perspectives on Northern Swedish Rural Men 167 Jamtland, and it is therefore easy to structure experiences and other narratives of one’s life around it. However, it can also be seen as a critical response to negative ideas associated with Norrland and stereotypical ideas of northern rural men, often described in negative terms and depicted and understood from (urban) normative viewpoints (Eriksson 2010; Stenbacka 2011; Vallstrom and Vallstrom 2014). Therefore, the process of going through a crisis and being unable to live up to certain expectations of the abstract worker had not only made the interviewees peripheralized, but had also given them an observer position from where they seemed to have developed critical perspectives on work, place and masculinity norms.