In his great book Manhood Steve Biddulph coins the phrase Walking Wallets to describe what a chunk of the modern western middle class male population has become.
Walking Wallets are men that no longer fulfill different roles (father, son, breadwinner, friend, warrior, farmer, athlete, craftsman, lover, hunter, artist, husband etc) and have become only The Payer of the Bills.
This is an unnatural life – like wild tigers kept in a zoo. These guys may not know it but they have checked themselves into the Prison Camp.
How did this happen?
It’s partly down to economic forces. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith explains how specialisation of labour drives economic progress.
In a peasant economy everyone has to be a generalist –growing your own food, teaching your children and mending your own shoes. But by becoming specialists (e.g. cobblers, teachers or farmers) productivity increased.
This is mostly responsible for the incredible increase in economic living standards over the last 5,000 years. So The Escape Artist is, on the whole, in favour of capitalism and the things it has brought us such as antibiotics, warm houses and customised trainers.
However, since the industrial revolution, the specialisation of labour also produced some unpleasant side effects. Specialised work on a production line offers less variety than the craft approach it replaced. In other words, it gets boring.
Specialisation also crept into the home. In hunter gatherer societies, men and women would share food gathering, the raising of children and entertainment and leisure. Not always equally, no doubt, but shared nevertheless.
In modern societies, role sharing is replaced by specialisation. Many men focussed so hard on work that they sometimes lost sight of the bigger picture. Blackberrys and internationalisation meant that corporate slaves no longer got down time. Emails need answering and conference calls get scheduled at all hours. Many guys with these demanding jobs allow themselves to be squeezed out of their own families.
It’s easy for middle class guys to get sucked into competing for status via salaried employment. Employers play this by offering elaborate job titles and scales, the “carrot on a stick” annual bonus and more subtle status indications like whose office is closest to the boss and whose parking spot is closest to the front entrance.
I suspect guys do this partly in the hope (perhaps unconscious) it might make them more attractive to women. This is not really my area of expertise but, whilst people no doubt respond to status, I’m guessing most women are not that impressed by male wage slaves and that economic signalling is an over-played strategy in the mating market.
Whatever the reason, some men start to think of themselves as economic units and become Walking Wallets. As a side effect, they may unwittingly become an enabler to an over-spending spouse that uses shopping as filler for the gaps in their life.
I was chatting about this with a male friend recently. In economic and status terms, he is a successful guy – CEO of a decent sized company. As such he has made a lot of money. He has spent this on the normal shit that people buy when they score cash. So he has the McMansion in a “desirable” (well, according to estate agents) suburban commuter town in the South East of England and all that goes with it.
Now, this guy is smart and had been thinking. He realised he’d been working hard for years and this had enabled a high spending lifestyle for his wife that he had mixed feelings about (the lifestyle, not the wife).
This realisation came on returning home after a long week of 12 hour days, conference calls and dealing with demanding clients etc. He walked into his upscale white marble fitted kitchen to find it full of expensive kitchen gadgets, cut flowers from the florist and 14 Ladies That Lunch sat around drinking chardonnay from Waitrose. They were there under the pretence of a Book Club, Tupperware party or Kittens With Heart Disease charity evening, whatever the stated reason for a girls
piss-up bonding session happened to be.
Now these woman were in no doubt that they were worth it. If you suggested to them that they spend 40 years working 12 hour days in the Prison Camp of corporate life, they would look at you like you’d just suggested they slash their own wrists with a designer cake slice. Like, why the fuck would I do that?
But those 40 years working is what their husbands do to fund canapé and chardonnay habits. This reminds me a bit of The Salmon that expends its life force swimming upstream to its spawning grounds in order to reproduce, then dies of exhaustion.
I understand this is not how most people live. It is a real but extreme example, chosen to illustrate a “lifestyle” (albeit not much life and not much style) that some higher-earning men fall into by accident.
This is not an anti-female stance. Life is not a zero-sum game whereby men can only benefit at the expense of women or vice versa. For the avoidance of doubt, The Escape Artist is pro-women. My mother was a feminist, working woman and I admire that.
I’d guess that in most cases the woman doesn’t actually want the guy to waste his life in the office. Our wives don’t force us to do this, we do it to ourselves.
When I was in the Prison Camp, no one held a gun to The Escape Artist’s head and told him to work harder or else they’d paint the wall red. At that point in my life, I still had something to prove and I thought that cash and work status might deliver that proof. And in some ways they did. I got promoted at work and this proved to me what I’d previously suspected, that work status is not strongly correlated with happiness.
I can’t understand guys whose identity is so focussed on being the cash machine that they try to stop their wives / girlfriends from working. I assume they think having a non-earning spouse is another trophy, like a Porsche in the drive. This is insane. If your wife wants to work, you should be delighted. If she earns more than you, dude, put on some tunes and party. Unfortunately, I never had a wife / girlfriend that out-earned me but, if I had, I’d have been happier than a pig in shit.
I went with my wife to see the comedian Russell Kane live. Kane was riffing on his parent’s marriage. He contrasted his loner, breadwinner father (who, by Kane’s account, suffered from emotional constipation) with his mother, a well-balanced, emotionally high-functioning person with a wide friendship network.
Kane asked the rhetorical question: “How will Mum cope when Dad dies…what with her wide circle of friends, her varied hobbies and no one there to crush all the fun out of her life?. I thought this was quite funny. My wife, however, laughed so hard that I thought she might rupture something. Hhmmm. Sometimes the universe is trying to tell you something.
For a film portrayal of a marriage changing as the man becomes a Walking Wallet, check out The War of the Roses.
Michael Douglas starts out a likeable and fun young man just out of college. He becomes an ambitious trainee lawyer who eventually makes partner and along the way becomes a workaholic, status-obsessed jerk. Kathleen Turner plays the wife who is as intelligent as her husband but does not work. Bored and lonely, she throws herself into buying chandeliers and other shit to fill up the emptiness of their large house, if not the marriage.
Biddulph’s hypothesis is this. Much of the middle class in the English speaking countries has become populated with a certain type of male. They have been subdued, starting in school environments that have become feminised with fewer male teachers, a narrow focus on exam results and health and safety.
Their economic habitat is the professions (law, finance, IT, medicine etc.) and their geographic habitat is the suburbs where they shuttle in SUVs between commuter stations and homes during the week. At weekend they go to shopping centres, out of town DIY stores and ferry Jemima to her clarinet lesson.
They are good people but have been emasculated by an unfortunate combination of social conformity, wives, bosses, debt and consumerism. They often lose track of their own friends in their relentless focus on being good salarymen. They typically let their fitness slide. Their sense of humour atrophies, along with their abs and lower back. They often self-medicate.
If you can hold down a demanding job, good for you. If you can support your spouse and kids, that’s something to be proud of. But once their needs have been met, if your job causes you to neglect your own health, relationships and happiness, then it’s just not worth it.
Its not just women that need feminism.