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Daddying Helps Navigate Shifting Landscapes of Work and Masculinity


Guest Post by Elizabeth F. Fideler, EdD

Author and Founding Member, Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work


Traditionally, a son followed in his father’s footsteps. Generation after generation, the sons of farmers became farmers, sons of fishermen became a fisherman, shopkeepers handed down their shops to sons, young coal miners followed their fathers and grandfathers into the mines. Others went into the military or the ministry where their fathers had served. Still other sons joined the family’s long line of doctors or lawyers.

A hard-working father or grandfather was often a boy’s positive role model, or it might have been a coach, a schoolteacher, a college professor, a boss. Fortunate young men embarking on careers were mentored by more senior colleagues. (Where young women fit into this picture is a subject for another day!)

At the same time, traditional ideas of masculinity held sway. Young men knew they were expected to get an education, land a job, get married, and raise a family. Much later, they could retire and try to enjoy well-deserved leisure in the so-called “golden” years left to them.

Masculinity was also synonymous with sports – the rougher the better. So, a boy who was uncoordinated, timid, or simply disinterested was something of a disappointment. All over the country, many youngsters played catch with dad in the back yard, shot hoops in the driveway or on the public basketball court, learned to skate on a pond or rink ice. To be sure, many kids organized their own football, baseball, hockey, and soccer games in the days before adult-run leagues began to proliferate.

Over the years, however, those conventional patterns of behavior have largely been eroded. A son who refused to stay on the well-trodden career path, especially if the parental style was overbearing, might instead choose to become a teacher, a social worker, a writer, an artist, a performer – just about anything his father wasn’t in charge of.

Divorce frequently took a toll on family life and, more frequently, there were fewer dads around to toss a football or baseball. Abuse of drugs and alcohol, while hardly new, accelerated during and after the Vietnam War, which made more fathers unavailable to their children even when they were physically present.

Even before the current COVID-19 outbreak, which has overwhelmed healthcare systems worldwide and caused terrible social disruption, business closures, and widespread unemployment, too many young men were dropping out of school, having trouble finding and keeping a "good" job, and having babies but avoiding marriage.

As a result of these trends, which have conspired to make dads less involved in the lives of their children, the need for an evolved version of male role modeling, or “daddying,” with its “commitment to a child’s physical, emotional, social, intellectual, creative, and moral/spiritual well-being,” is needed now more than ever. As DADvocacy Consulting Group founder (and the man who coined the term) Allan Shedlin points out, daddying is a role that also can be played by other significant men in children’s lives, including granddads, uncles, older brothers, teachers, and other mentors.

Like other traditional life patterns, retirement has undergone significant changes, most notably in that it less often means a permanent exit from the labor force. Retirement these days is apt to be a gradual process: a transition from full-time to part-time work or a position that bridges from a career job to a new assignment with the same employer. Then again, one might unretire and return to the same occupation and role or an altogether different one.

In fact, as my research shows in Men Still at Work, Women Still at Work, and Aging, Work, and Retirement, work life has been extended. Increasingly, men (and women) are deciding to bypass retirement altogether and stay on the job into their 70s and 80s, either because they love what they do or because they need the money.

Some people may even decide during their “retirement” to shift their focus entirely and devote their energy and experience to serving the public good. Essential as a paycheck may be, the extrinsic reward it provides cannot substitute for the intrinsic rewards of the work itself: a sense of purpose or meaning that comes from knowing you’re making a valued contribution. That is one important lesson older workers – many of which are dads and granddads – can readily share with those in younger generations who still want, need, and value their guidance.

Elizabeth, today, with her grandkids.
Elizabeth (at age 16) and her father.

Elizabeth F. Fideler, EdD, is a founding member of the Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work at Boston College. After several years of classroom teaching in the Framingham, MA, Public Schools, she earned a doctorate in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard University. She continued working for many years as an education researcher and senior manager in non-profit organizations. She is the author of three books about older workers: Men Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job (2014), Women Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job (2017), and Aging, Work, and Retirement (forthcoming 2020), all available from Rowman & Littlefield and Amazon.

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