Suicide is the biggest killer for men between the ages of 18 and 35 in the UK, according to the Men's Heath Forum. More suicides in this age category occur annually then there are total fatalities from road accidents.
In the UK we also have a culture of owning your own home. This is not a recent phenomenon, harking back to the days of landed gentry. Since the baby boomer generation, this has become an aspiration across the society and is no longer the preserve of the wealthy, with everyone wanting their piece of Little England and a tidy retirement investment. Right now, we have a housing crisis with demand for housing far outstripping supply and house prices keep on soaring, whilst offers on mortgages keep on shrinking.
We also have some of the most expensive childcare costs in the world, amounting to an average cost of 68% of the second income of a two parent household, according to the OECD in 2011. Worryingly, there is evidence to suggest it is on the increase. We also have a gender pay gap.
I am arguing that all these things are related and they are an example of how we need to take a joined up approach to tackling gender equality and the negative effects it has on women, men and wider society.
The desire to own a property soon becomes a pressure to do so. This pressure has fallen disproportionately on men, due to the existing gender inequality in society that still often views men as the providers and women as the homemakers. This pressure and related ones of acquiring and sustaining a well-paid job I am speculating could be contributing factors to the high rates of mental health problems and in some extreme circumstances, suicide, in men. This coupled with the rising unemployment (particularly for the under 25s) means there is now a huge amount of pressure just to get a job, let alone a highly paid one.
Since the crisis in 2007 it has been much harder to get on the housing ladder, for both men and women. Gone are the days of 100% mortgages, and after a brief steady spell, house prices are rising again and demand is significantly outstripping supply especially in the South East. The alternative is the rental market, in which again demand far outstrips supply and in the UK you are invariably treated like a second class citizen (certainly from mine and my peers' experience).
A Swiss friend who recently moved to London spoke of the difference she'd noticed between her peers back in Switzerland compared with those here, and in particular the men. Swiss men (and women) just aren't as concerned about buying property and consequently don't feel as pressured to seek those higher paying jobs or to work all hours.
Some of you will, rightly, note that this is changing and that the pressure is falling more equally on women as society becomes more equal (however given what the pressure can lead to this isn't one to necessarily celebrate). There are three reasons, however, why perhaps it has not reached the levels that men may experience; childcare costs, unequal parental leave and the gender pay gap. Parental leave, which I've blogged about in the past, is finally becoming more equal, so I'll leave that one for now.
The gender pay gap sadly is still a problem, with women earning on average 20% less than their colleagues in the private sector and 14% less than colleagues in the public sector, despite the Equal Pay Act and widespread campaigns. Why is this then related to the extra societal pressure on men? For two reasons. The first is back to childcare. With childcare in the UK as expensive as it is (compared to the OECD average) this forces many parents to make a rational decision as to who will be the main earner - for most this means the highest earner. However, the gender pay gap means that women will more often than not be the lower earner in the couple and consequently they are forced to put their career second to the family.
Secondly I also reckon that the gender pay gap is in part exacerbated by the pressure on men; you are more likely to ask prematurely, (or perhaps even when you don't even think you deserve it) for a raise if you are struggling as the main earner in a family, or are seeking to become the main earner in a family. These men who are the main earners are then more likely to put in longer hours or overtime to seek that promotion or clock that extra hour's pay, again incentivising them to take those jobs with longer hours that have higher earning potential. So, perversely, I think the gender pay gap is a symptom of, and a perpetuating cause of, the harmful pressure placed disproportionately on men. In short; the gender pay gap actually causes harms to men (in addition to of course the harms to women) despite them being the obvious beneficiaries.
And of course, no piece I write about gender would be complete without a mentioning of how we are conditioned from a young age. Despite most women in a country like the UK being encouraged to do well at school (in fact outstripping men in terms of achievement) this pressure on men starts from a young age at almost a subconscious level. The added problem is that in the UK economy we have a culture of longer working hours than many of our European counterparts. In many industries it is an 'all or nothing' approach when it comes to working hours, so even if women are receiving their increasing share of the pressure, I only have to site the myriad health problems associate with this kind of pressure and consequent stress to say that his pressure is not a good thing. Not to mention the lifestyle this leads to and the unhappiness it can cause on both parts - with some women wanting but unable to work and some men wanting, but unable, to reduce their hours and share the burden.
So now I have outlined a pretty gloomy picture to you. What should we do to solve this picture? Here a few suggestions:
a) Build more houses. This to me is just patently obvious but not nearly enough is being done currently. We should flood the market, drive prices down making it more affordable for everyone and thus alleviating some of the pressure.
b) Alternatively, or in addition, we could try to change the culture towards renting, by say holding landlords better to account or introducing longer rental agreements, thus becoming more like our friends on the continent. (However we still need a) in order to make this more affordable)
c) Subsidise childcare. This has a huge economic benefit to the country not to mention the effects on gender equality and quality of life for those struggling. The little we do in this area now is simply not enough.
d) Change our culture towards inflexible jobs with long hours. This is changing thanks to technology and some leading firms (e.g. the big four accountancies who have some great schemes in place), but could do with a bigger nudge. However, we still need c) to make this happen.
e) And finally; we need to raise greater awareness of mental health issues - and try not to condition gender stereotypes and put pressure on people from a young age
Some of you may find my argument speculative, yet this is inevitable given that I am trying to join the dots and demonstrate the links (speculative or otherwise) between issues. Hopefully then more people (especially those in power) will be aware of the interconnectivity between this issues and take a wider lead approach to tackle them , rather than thinking one policy or solution alone will solve it, or in some cases ignoring the issues altogether.