What's wrong with men? According to one broadcaster, they've become 'useless morons' who need to man up and pick up the crescent wrench again - and a fair few Kiwi women agree.

When Paul Haines was raising his young family in the 1970s, the world was bursting with things to build, fix, pull apart and put together again.

If the record player broke he cracked it open, slipped the drive belt over the whatchamacallit, gave it a whack and 95 per cent of the time it started again.

When an extra room was needed to accommodate his growing brood he built one, even if it took nine years.

That bedroom was mine. But I can hardly complain about the wait because, these days, it may never have even been built at all.

Besides the regulations and consents that hadn't been invented back then, the know-how and tools my father used to survive the 20th century just don't cut it any more.

Now, he is more likely to try to mend his computer by shouting at it than prising it open and twiddling with a couple of wires.

In the past, "anything that broke could be fixed", Dad says. These days getting a modern appliance out of its box requires a level of skill that is beyond most men.

And so he was kind of bemused by the claim from James May, a host of Top Gear, that modern men are becoming "useless morons" who need to reclaim the lost arts of handymandom.

"But now things which once may have presented a small and interesting challenge to the would-be repairer are so out of reach to the casual handyman that it's no longer worth the effort - if actually possible at all," says Dad.

James May clearly thinks it's worth trying, and possible, as he launches a new TV series, Man Lab, in a bid to teach men a few of the old tricks.

But all this begs a few questions: Has modern man really lost his way with the spanner or is this just another attempt to typecast them as bumbling Homer Simpson-like children?

And, most importantly, if forgoing the ancient crafts of drain repair and TV tuning means they spend quality time with their kids on the weekend, what do we really care?

Someone who does care deeply about all of this is motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford.

Crawford was a philosophy professor and thinktank director until he left to fix bikes a few years ago.

He writes in his treatise in defence of handymanship - Shop Class as Soul Craft: An inquiry into the value of work - that undervaluing manual skills denies men a vital connection to the built material world.

For Crawford, the wad of cash in his pants when someone drives out of his workshop on a bike he's just fixed fills him with a satisfaction his thinktank directorship couldn't match.

Plus, he reckons, it is often more intellectually stimulating work.

"The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy," he writes.

"They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chatting interpretations of himself to vindicate his work. They can simply point: The building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on."

So, given the loss of opportunities for such stoic poignancy - when all the lawnmowers pack up and men lose the ability to parallel park - will women grow so bored of their "moronic uselessness" (as May suggests we will) that men will be reduced to mere sperm donors?

It's one thing to accuse men of turning into pansies, as Aussie rugby legend Mal Meninga lamented when a deodorant-sponsored survey revealed more men used moisturiser than knew what a socket wrench was. It's another thing for women to abandon them completely.

Babies are still being made - most in the old-fashioned way - and men, despite all the hysteria about being usurped by lesbians and computers, still earn much more money and hold the vast majority of powerful positions.

Yet cast around among women and it seems there is something to be said for the self-sufficient DIY man.

"It's not like I want him to be a typical Kiwi macho bloke," says Freda, a 30-something professional and mother-of-two. Her lawyer husband spends any time he can outside, building, fixing and DIYing around their small city-fringe home.

"I know that it's a bit rich given that I can't do any of those things, but I want my man to be able to build and fix things. In fact, it's a turn-on, the idea that they're self-sufficient and enjoy the challenge of building, or creating something."

And Freda's not alone. A 2003 poll of Swedish men and women sponsored by the makers of Viagra found both genders ranked handyman skills at the top of the list of desirable masculine traits, ahead of sexual potency and a well-paid job.

Which is interesting when anecdotal evidence does point to a decline in traditional handyman skills among men.

Schools can't find enough teachers to take technical subjects, so boys and girls could be missing out on skills many of us picked up in high school.

Hire a Hubby franchise director Andrew Chisholm says business is booming. Yet Chisholm is loath to blame men's uselessness for this, saying he doesn't mow his own lawns because he chooses to spend time with his family.

Nevertheless, American DIY magazine Popular Mechanics issued a challenge to men last year to master 25 basic tasks in response to its fears they were losing status as "real men".

Interestingly, the list didn't include changing nappies, or cooking something delicious and complicated for the people you love.

THE NOTION of masculinity comprising some aspects of traditional handiness is one thing - that it is contingent on them is quite another. Suggest to Michael Petherick, 39, that men are becoming useless morons and he's likely to throw a chicken at you.

Like Dr Crawford, Petherick left a knowledge-based job - as a senior government lawyer - to reconnect with some age-old traditional skills.

But, while he tinkers with the kids' bikes and builds retaining walls, he is also the primary caregiver to his two children: Rata, 5, and Lucian, 3.

"It's a load of rubbish to say men are becoming more useless," Petherick says. "Basically our role models are pretty much the same as they always have been. Men still go out to work and by and large women are the ones who stay home and look after the kids.

"What's happened is that mothers are doing really well getting into the workforce but there is not a lot of traffic going in the other direction. Men are not staying home to look after the kids."

While he wishes more men would step up, Petherick at least partly blames women, who he says don't always let their partners swap roles.

Even now, despite creating an almost self-sufficient lifestyle for his family, raising vegetables and chickens and ferrying the children to after-school activities, Mike sometimes feels subtly undermined.

"People talk about the Margaret Thatcher or Jenny Shipley effect - you have to be more man than the men if you want to compete in that world. I find the same staying at home. I strive to be 120 per cent woman. The house has to be tidier; I cook more often and better. But even then I feel ... I'm coming up short."

Arguably, there's a synergy between the traditional gender roles. Petherick's kids get to learn from their dad some of the skills James May might deem essential to masculinity, while also appreciating him as the primary nurturer.

And if he's at home during the day, why not fix the flapping skirting board? And while his wife can't fix the puncture on her bike, Rata will be able to, he says.

So what of the future? Who will build our decks and fix our dishwashers? Women don't seem particularly interested. Will there be enough tradespeople to pick up the slack? Not unless the numbers being enticed into the trades picks up.

And what of the loss of the "soul craft" that Dr Crawford so laments? For a young generation of country men, there doesn't seem to be a problem, says the director of Waitaki Boys' High School in Oamaru, Dr Paul Baker.

"The traditional No8 wire mentality still has not died. I see it among the hostel boys. If anything breaks, or anything needs fixing, the country boys are queuing up to be the ones to do it."

In that, there is a marked urban-rural divide, he says. While my urbanite father may know which end of a workhorse to saw from, it's not the same story two generations on. Ask his grandson - my son.

"We are not interested in defining ourselves by traditional masculine skills," says Dylan, 18. "And we don't feel it's expected of us."

Yet Generation Z hasn't given up on the satisfaction of creating new things. They tinker in their sheds like their grandfathers; but their sheds are virtual and girls are allowed in, too.

Web 2.0 lets people create and share things online for free, says Dylan. "Now they can make TV for themselves because the technology is available ... It's the new craft - just it's happening online."

My father wouldn't know where to find Web 2.0, let alone create something using it. But he could make a desk for the kids to put their computers on.

"As an Old Man, to manage, I guess I need something of the New Man," he muses.

"Sadly, to succeed today, the New Man probably needs quite a bit of the Old Man."


1. Patch a radiator hose

2. Protect your computer

3. Rescue a boater who has capsized

4. Frame a wall

5. Retouch digital photos

6. Back up a trailer

7. Build a campfire

8. Fix a dead outlet

9. Navigate with a map and compass

10. Use a torque wrench

11. Sharpen a knife

12. Perform CPR

13. Fillet a fish

14. Manoeuvre a car out of a skid

15. Get a car unstuck

16. Back up data

17. Paint a room

18. Mix concrete

19. Clean a bolt-action rifle

20. Change oil and filter

21. Hook up an HDTV

22. Bleed brakes

23. Paddle a canoe

24. Fix a bike flat

25. Extend your wireless network