Men will be…boys

The UK Office for National Statistics' new report on men seems to show that blokes are okay - if only they'd grow up.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Social Focus on Men, a major report published on 12 July 2001 by the UK Office for National Statistics (1), prompted some predictable coverage. The modern male drinks too much, smokes too much, commits too much suicide, lives unhealthily, avoids his doctor like the plague….Our womanish world pursed its lips and offered up one big ‘huh!’.

But delve into this lengthy report, and you find some more subtle and interesting facts.

Men spend more per week than women on alcohol and tobacco (£22.30 compared to £11) and on gambling (£2.70 compared to £1.40). But are the girlie alternatives that much more worthy? Women spend more on toiletries and beauty products (£5.80 compared to £1.80), and on clothing and footwear (£14.20 compared to £9.10) (2). Call me old-fashioned, but my ideal date is more likely to be propping up the fruit machine in the pub than behaving like a character in a Clearasil advert.

Men drink more than they are supposed to. On the heaviest drinking day in the week before interview, 37 percent of men aged 16 to 24, 28 percent of men aged 25 to 44, and 17 percent of men aged 45 to 64 admitted to having drunk more than eight units – over twice the UK Department of Health’s recommended daily alcohol consumption level. But women weren’t so angelic either: 23 percent of women aged 16 to 24 admitted to having drunk more than six units, as did 11 percent of 25- to 44-year-old women (3). Let’s not forget the real problem here: that the UK Department of Health’s recommended alcohol consumption levels are just too low.

Men spend money on cigarettes – but the prevalence of smoking among men has plummeted, from 50 percent in 1974 to under 30 percent in 1998-99 (4).

Men eat unhealthily – 38 percent of 16- to 24-year-old men have a high fat intake, only seven percent have a high fibre intake, and 34 percent add salt without tasting the food. But hey, they’ll grow out of it! By age 25 to 44, only 24 percent of men have a high fat intake, and 13 percent have a high fibre intake (5). In any case, it is dubious how much impact what you eat has upon your health. Just as everybody seems to want to panic about women who eat too little and too low-fat, so they worry about men eating too much and too unhealthily. It’s worth taking all this with a pinch of…well, salt.

Social Focus on Men paints a gloomy picture of men’s general state of health: ‘Men have lower life expectancies than women; mortality rates are higher among men; and men are more likely to commit suicide, suffer from coronary heart disease, have a major accident, or drink too much alcohol’ (6). But it’s not all bad – men’s life expectancy has risen by over three years, from 69.2 years in 1972-76 to 73.9 years in 1992-96; and death rates have gone down, from 16.6 per 1000 men in 1971 to 11.2 per 1000 men in 1999 (7).

Health professionals often bemoan men’s reluctance to visit their GP – but the figures just don’t bear this assertion out. In the two weeks before interview, half as many men aged 16 to 24 as women had had a consultation with an NHS GP (seven percent compared to 15 percent) – a ratio repeated for the 25 to 34 age group (nine percent of men compared to 18 percent of women) (8). But as the report points out, ‘This may be partly due to the fact that many women consult GPs for reasons associated with family planning and pregnancy’ (9). I can safely say that, were I not on the Pill, I would go nowhere near my GP – and I would pity any young man who found an excuse to do so. In any case, when consultations with a GP are analysed across the whole age range of 16 and over, the difference is less pronounced: 12 percent of men had consulted their GP in the two weeks before interview, compared to 18 percent of women.

Male suicide has become a major concern over the past few years: but as the report points out, ‘Despite the fact that more men commit suicide than women, men’s mental health in general is much better’ (10). Men suffer a lower rate of neurotic disorder than women do when it comes to mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, depressive episode, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and ‘all phobias’. Only panic disorder affects men and women equally – at the rate of about eight per 1000 population (11).

We might tut-tut about the fact that men sleep around – but look! So do women! In 1998, 25 percent of men aged 16 to 24 had had two or three sexual partners in the previous year, compared to 20 percent of women that age. And women are quicker off the starting-block: only 21 percent of 16- to 24-year-old women had had no sexual partners in the previous year, compared to 32 percent of men (12).

Men gamble – but so do women. In 1999, 68 percent of men had participated in the UK National Lottery Draw in the past year, compared to 62 percent of women; and an identical proportion (22 percent) had used scratchcards. Some might consider it a bit sad that 20 percent of men had used fruit machines, compared to eight percent of women – but how much sadder is it than the fact that 10 percent of women participated in bingo, compared to five percent of men? (13)

‘Criminal activity has traditionally been, and in many instances still is, a male preserve’, states a rather po-faced page 78 of the Social Focus on Men report. But the peak in male criminal activity comes at under age 20 – and by the time they hit their mid-thirties, less than two percent of men are criminal offenders (14). And almost half the offences committed by men aged 16 to 24 seem to have been theft and handling stolen goods or drug offences – what some might consider fairly standard, laddish, ‘growing-up’ misdemeanours (15).

Every year, the release of exam results prompts a soul-searching discussion about how boys are failing in education. But as the report puts it, ‘although women’s attainment has increased at a faster rate than men’ (16), the percentage of men achieving two or more GCE A-levels or three or more Scottish Highers has risen steadily since 1975/76, with one-fifth of men having achieved those qualifications in 1999/2000 (17). Bearing in mind the charge of grade inflation levelled at each year’s exam results, I have my own doubts about exactly what this achievement represents – but it certainly shows that boys aren’t failing.

If, from this report, it is possible to isolate a problem with men, it is not that ‘men will be men’ so much as that ‘men will be boys’. In 1999-2000, 53 percent of men aged 20 to 24 lived with their parents, compared to 37 percent of women. At age 25 to 29, 22 percent of men lived with their parents, compared to 11 percent of women – and at age 30 to 34, 10 percent of men were still in the parental home (18). In 1999, the mean age of fatherhood was 30.1 years – three years older than it was in 1971 – and the 1991 National Child Development Study found that by the age of 33, 34 percent of men were childless, compared with 23 percent of women (19). If it goes on like this, it would seem, men are less likely to have kids than they are to remain kids – and that can’t be good news for anybody.

The increasing infantilisation of men is possibly indicated by their new choice of reading matter: whereas in 1980 and 1990, the most popular monthly magazine read by men was Readers’ Digest, followed by various car, DIY and golf magazines, in 2000 the favourites were the ‘lad mags’ FHM and Loaded, and various TV guides (20).

But hey, it’s nice to know that some stereotypes refuse to die. When asked which type of crime they were ‘very worried’ about, almost half of male car owners aged 16 to 24, and over one third aged 25 to 34, prioritised ‘theft of car’ and ‘theft from car’. (21) Fears about physical attack came much further down on the list. Hurrah! Maybe the culture of FHM and Men’s Health has not conquered, after all.

(1) Social Focus on Men, Office for National Statistics (UK)

(2) Table 4.15, p54

(3) Table 5.14, p63

(4) Table 5.13, p62

(5) Table 5.16, p64

(6) p55

(7) Tables 5.1 and 5.2, p56

(8) Table 5.20, p66

(9) p66

(10) p60

(11) Table 5.9, p60

(12) Table 5.18, p65

(13) Table 6.8, p73

(14) Table 6.18, p78

(15) Table 6.19, p79

(16) p32

(17) Table 2.8, p30

(18) Table 1.7, p15

(19) Table 1.17, p20; p22

(20) Table 6.3, p71

(21) Table 6.22, p80

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Topics Politics


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