Recently over several pints of cheap domestic ale, my brother-in-law held forth on the topic of the unnaturalness of men working in offices. Like most guys chained all day to a desk, he confessed to feeling somewhat ambivalent, if not embarrassed, about his desk job.
For once we were in agreement. Consider the following: for most of his existence the male homo sapiens worked chiefly alfresco, first as hunter and fisherman, and more recently as planter, rancher, trader, teamster or builder, often alone, sometimes with his sons, to whom he passed down the values of hard work.
Females, on the other hand, worked mostly indoors, cooking, sewing, nursing, washing, childrearing, which is why even today gals are better than guys at multitasking, experts say. Naturally, there were exceptions — the few big city bankers, lawyers, architects, and CPAs who got through the day by drinking heavily and flirting with secretaries — but by and large men’s work lives were solitary, nasty, brutish, and out of doors.
This began to change in the last century, and for that we can blame Big Government. With the creation of the Federal Interstate Highway System (an idea Ike stole from Adolf) and free college (thanks to the GI Bill) more and more men decamped from small town and rural America and crowded into the cities, exchanging the quiet drudgery of the field for the strident drudgery of the cubicle. By the 1950s, a good many of our formerly strong, taciturn young men were poised uneasily behind desks in such formerly unimaginable jobs as sales manager, marketing specialist, bond trader, and human resources manager. With the advent of the personal computer still more desk jobs opened up (data entry, financial risk manager, software engineer), jobs that were increasingly impossible to explain to one’s children. Meanwhile, employment in agriculture and industry declined or was supplanted by machines.
WAS THIS MORE OF THE same Men’s Movement baloney? Uneasy, mid-life crises guys blubbering about how liberated women have stolen their masculinity? Not exactly. That more work has been moved indoors is undeniable; that women are more comfortable in social situations than are men is likewise indisputable. That men were freer and better off in the old days planting and making and fixing things — a barrel that wouldn’t leak, a wheel that could withstand any pothole — is open to debate, though I personally have yet to meet a male desk jockey who doesn’t on occasion feel like an Indian on a reservation.
That includes me. My vision of hell is a morning meeting, surrounded by a dozen chirpy women, cold coffee and stale donuts. Women, of course, thrive in meetings. They prefer a cooperative working structure, whereas men prefer to simply give or take orders and get on with it. Meetings give gals an opportunity to chitchat, and, best of all, to hear themselves talk. I suspect that for every female seated round a conference table you can add an extra 15 minutes to the meeting. (Women are also distinguished in their ability to sit for incredibly long periods of time without getting up, i.e. nesting.) If anything, these evolutionary quirks give women a competitive advantage in the indoor business world.
Men, in general, can grin and bear their way through an occasional social event (a PTA meeting, a high school reunion), but it is simply cruel and inhuman to require us to collaborate and be sociable eight hours a day, five days a week. The ideal American man has always been the strong, silent type, a stoic Gary Cooper in High Noon who sees what needs to be done and does it without making a fuss. His contemporary opposite is someone like Michael Douglas in Wall Street, a weasely, manipulative arbitrageur lacking all the traditional male virtues.
This year’s election is between two Harvard-Wall Street types, guys who never plowed a field or skinned a rabbit in their lives. I think that’s why Americans keep harkening back to the days of Ronald Reagan (if you are a Republican), or Bill Clinton (if you are a Democrat). We desire a leader, preferably from America’s heartland, who knows how to do something besides sit behind a big desk and talk.