Young men's views of masculinity

Linda McDowell

Young Men Leaving School looks at how young white working-class men, designated low achievers by their schools, think about themselves and the opportunities available to them as they approach the end of compulsory education.

After sketching in the theoretical and policy background, it allows the young men to take centre stage and speak for themselves. They talk about their attitudes and hopes whilst at school and their lives after leaving school, looking at both their working or college lives and their lives outside work and study.

The findings demonstrate that such young men need a wider set of opportunities if they are to avoid a future of low wages and uncertain employment which will make it difficult for them to achieve adult independence. These new opportunities require educational policies, to raise ambition and achievement whilst providing a vocationally relevant curriculum and appropriate careers advice, and employment policies, to better prospects for promotion and career progression for young people finding themselves in entry level jobs.

As such, Young men leaving school lays down the challenge to the Connexions Service, and other agencies working with young people, to find new ways to help young people achieve their potential.



Drawing on interviews with 23 young men in Cambridge and Sheffield in the year following the end of their compulsory schooling, this in-depth study explores young white working-class men's moves into employment, further study or a combination of both, their home and social lives and the ways in which they talk about themselves as men. The study explored the 'laddish' attributes commonly associated with white working-class masculinity and whether they have become a disadvantage in the new labour markets. The study found that:

  • Young men's views of masculinity in some ways conformed to the notion of a 'lad' but also emphasised domestic conformity.
  • Their attitudes and behaviour were varied and complex and their ways of defining masculinity also varied across time and locations. The main impression, however, was of the continued dominance of a 'traditional' masculinity rather than of a new version of masculinity which might be more in tune with the requirements of a service-based economy.
  • Although their exact experiences varied, many combined employment and study. Young men themselves emphasised the significance of employment rather than study, despite their jobs often being temporary or casual and sometimes less than full-time.
  • Family disruption could be destabilising but was not always. The young men in this study had variously experienced parental divorce and separation, the death of a sibling, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse: this affected the relative success of some interviewees in developing independence and participation in work and study, but others were unaffected by such experiences.
  • Virtually all these young men adhered to conventional aspirations and markers of adult status, that is employment, an independent home and a family. These men insisted that they were 'normal' or 'average' but also 'individuals'. Although they were conformists, they were also thoughtful and shrewd.
  • The impact of local educational traditions and attitudes had an important effect on decisions. Local and personal contacts were significant in gaining work, especially part-time employment. Male relatives in the main, who were themselves in work, 'spoke for' their son or their son's friends.


During the 1990s, a gender gap in educational attainment rates opened up as girls achieved greater success in exams, boys had higher truancy rates, were more likely to be excluded from school and were also more likely to get into trouble with the police. Suicide rates among young men also rose. At the same time, employment opportunities changed significantly for less well-educated young men. The long-term decline of the manufacturing sector reduced the opportunities for male school leavers who were often not regarded as suitable employees in the expanding service sectors which depended on personal contact with customers and clients, good manners and a clean appearance, careful attention to detail and deferential attitudes.

This research compared the experiences and attitudes of young men living on outer local authority estates in Sheffield and Cambridge.

The final year at school

All the men had been classified as low achievers by their respective school and, without exception, they were dismissive of their school experiences and anxious to leave. In both cities, the participants distinguished different groups or cliques in their school year but insisted on their own 'normality', belonging to no particular group but able to stick up for themselves if need be and sort out any challenges. In their conversations they were casually sexist, often dismissive or at best tolerant of their female peers, but more careful, in conversation at least, to avoid racist language and attitudes.

Most had already gained considerable work experience and were involved in a range of part-time jobs before and after school and at the weekends. These included typical work for school students - delivering newspapers, shelf-stacking - but also more 'adult' activities including parcel sorting, a telephonist at a call centre and assisting a painter and decorator.

Most young men had a clear sense of the changing labour market and knew that more jobs nowadays, compared to their fathers' experience at the same age, demanded skills and credentials that they did not have. However, they generally seemed confident of finding both interesting and reasonably well-paid work, especially in comparison to the girls they knew. They had a strong sense of gender segregation in the labour market and identified typing, office work, hairdressing and child care as the sorts of jobs suitable for girls, on the grounds of their own superior strength, stamina and interest in variety. Girls, it seemed, were more tolerant of repetition and boredom, but significantly they also felt that "girls work harder in school. Boys are more immature and just mess around".

Aspirations for work after school were more varied. Several young men expressed an interest in going to college. Three boys wanted to start an art and design course, whereas four hoped to acquire engineering skills, either through college or a modern apprenticeship scheme. Another four hoped to become mechanics and a small number were interested in crafts such carpentry and brick laying. Others had more ambitious plans, including a radio or TV presenter or a professional footballer. The less ambitious either did not know or would look for "just a job, building work or something". Only one explicitly identified a service sector job, hoping to work in a sports shop, which he felt was a suitably masculine environment.

After school

Almost all the young men came from working-class backgrounds. There was no experience of higher education in any of their families. When their GCSE results came out, some had to re-evaluate their plans as their results were not good enough for the further education courses they had identified. Only one young man was pleasantly surprised by his results but decided nevertheless to look for work. The Cambridge young men were more likely to combine studying with employment. A number gained access to jobs with training which involved part-time college attendance. Others decided to begin a full-time vocational course at a basic level but in all cases combined this with part-time employment. All these men were still at college at the time of the third interview. It was noticeable too that these young men talked about themselves as workers as much as students. Three of the Cambridge group were unable to find acceptable work and did a range of temporary jobs including kitchen portering and shelf stacking on a casual and temporary basis while looking for something more suitable.

In Sheffield, despite higher unemployment rates locally, the young men had more varied experiences. They were less likely to start college and more likely to take an entry-level job in both the manufacturing and service sector. Between the second and third interviews, a number had already left voluntarily or been laid off but had found other work, sometimes after a short period of unemployment. Only one young man's job involved periods of college attendance. In most cases, conditions of employment were poor; as well as low pay, many had no guaranteed hours, no paid holidays and often no written contract. Despite, this they were on the whole satisfied with their jobs and felt themselves to be reliable workers.

In both cities, the young men mostly worked with other men. Apart from those working in catering and shops, gender segregation was common. Working as a fork-lift driver in a warehouse, for example, a Sheffield participant reported that "it's all men on the factory floor, women work upstairs in the offices". Both working hours and breaks were spent with other, sometimes older, men, in typical male workplace pursuits such as playing cards. The young men at college also often spent their breaks solely in the company of men. These experiences reinforced the strong views about the suitability of particular forms of work for either men or women: "it's not really a woman's job, is it, working as a gardener?" and "girls tend to work in offices".

Leisure time

In their out-of work lives these young men oscillated between typical 'laddish' behaviour and more responsible behaviour. Many had a clearly gender-divided social life, going out with their girlfriend on Friday or Saturday but definitely not both. One evening was strictly reserved for going out "with me mates", usually to play pool or snooker in pubs or sometimes to go clubbing. Although a small number admitted to drinking too much and to sometimes fighting, more commonly they stressed that they were not trouble-makers: "I like enjoying meself on weekends ... have a laugh with some of me mates. I don't cause no trouble or owt".

Interestingly in both cities, the young men often regretted that their local neighbourhood was not as pleasant as it used to be. This sense of local attachment was also emphasised in discussions about their medium-term futures. Most wanted to stay around where they currently lived and their key aims, once they had become established at work, were to acquire "a car, a house and a wife"'. Most wanted children - "not now but in about five years" was the common view - and tended to speak warmly about the prospects of "having a little nipper". However, their views about teenage pregnancy were extremely judgmental. Common attitudes included blaming the girl in question or her parents: "it's mainly the parents fault 'cos they brought them up that way". There seemed little explicit recognition of the responsibility of the young men involved, although when asked what they would do in such circumstances, in most cases, they agreed that they would support the girl involved in whatever decision she made.

Implications for policy

This was a small-scale and detailed study, but the diversity of the young men's experiences and the range of issues raised suggest a number of implications for policy. The complex and long-term nature of these young men's experiences emphasises the key importance of providing ways of combining employment and further training in the years following compulsory schooling. In particular:

  • The young men valued the efforts made by both schools and the Careers Service to help them find suitable work and training, but they also found the academic content of most of their school courses difficult, boring or irrelevant. Consideration might be given to new ways of inculcating greater respect for academic achievement that specifically address disaffected young men in schools.
  • The Connexions Strategy will provide a personal advisor for individuals to offer support, guidance and access to skills training, as well as introducing an Educational Maintenance Allowance for teenagers from low income families. While these provisions will be valuable, additional forms of intervention may be necessary to improve the links between educational and labour market institutions and to alter the terms and conditions of low-income employment. A number of the young men in this study had been offered work after a work experience placement but none had accepted it.
  • The young men in this study were dissatisfied with the nature of sex education in schools and, more generally, with the type of personal help and support available. All the young men were clear that they wanted extensive and practical advice from an impersonal source. All the young men knew a girl of their age who was pregnant. Young men need help and advice to ensure that they are familiar with contraception and that they use it. A small number of the young men wanted more help in dealing with issues about violence and abuse in the home.

About the study

The research was carried out by Linda McDowell, then at the University of Cambridge but now in the Department of Geography at University College London (UCL). A small group (9 in Cambridge and 14 in Sheffield) of school leavers aged 15 and 16 took part in three qualitative interviews in the year after leaving school which focused on their experiences at school and in the labour market, their future hopes and aspirations and different aspects of their home and social lives as well as exploring the ways in which they thought about themselves as young men. The group were all white and in the main from working-class backgrounds. They all attended a single school on the outskirts of each of the two cities with a local catchment area predominantly of local authority housing. In both schools, attainment levels at GCSE were well below the national average.