The Men’s Shed movement has taken the stereotype of men isolated in their back sheds into a new space, allowing them to keep engaged and involved with their communities as they get older.
University of Waikato’s Dr Ottilie Stolte was part of a research project, alongside PhD student David Anstiss and co-supervisor Professor Darrin Hodgetts from Massey University, looking at the social practices in Men’s Sheds, collective areas for men to come together to work on projects, which is growing internationally, and locally. Researchers looked specifically at one on Auckland’s North Shore, but the findings could well be universal.
Dr Stolte says as men get older they are often moving into retirement villages or smaller housing where they no longer have a shed. She says it is the social function of the Men’s Shed and the community that are crucial. “If they potter on their own in the back of the garden, or the garage they’re not getting the social benefits. And the collective projects.” She says they do a lot of community work, like making children’s toys, and pest traps. “It is the importance of feeling like you’re contributing; you’re not a retired person who is on the shelf, of no value to society any more. You can utilize the skills you’ve built up over a lifetime for the community.”
The Men’s Sheds offer purpose, social connection, and a sense of belonging. Dr Stolte says that David’s PhD research shows that the work in the sheds extends to the wider community. “Because it radiates out from the shed, people come to them now for projects, like kindergartens wanting little wooden toys, because people know they are there.”
Dr Stolte says such men may not do traditional therapy as much as women, especially for some generations of working class men. “They don’t sit and talk to a therapist, that’s a very middle class thing to do. But what happens in the shed is when they’re working on projects, there will be banter, and discussions, and a whole lot of emotional support, but it’s not in a therapy room, it is much more subtle. They will end up talking about really personal things, like impotence, cancer or diabetes, a whole pile of health and personal stuff is discussed in a way that works for these men. It is more shoulder to shoulder.”
Dr Stolte is an advocate for expanding the model, and creating more and varied positive spaces for men. “There might be other things men want to do that don’t involve manual skills, like an art space, or somewhere to write. The key is that it is a communal space, and it is separate from the economy. The men often talk about how when they were in the workplace it was a dog eat dog world. It was all about climbing over the top of each other to make it in the world of work. This is a co-operative space, and those rivalries are gone. It allows them to explore being together with other men in a different way, a more co-operative and collaborative context, which they really value.”
A lot of research on men is about problems, and the negative aspects of masculinity, so for Dr Stolte it was a pleasure to work on the project. “It was very much about men’s strengths, what happens in a very positive space, so it’s telling a different story.”