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2020 with Barry Golding

Peace on earth (and in Sheds) internationally: 2020 Christmas reflections

Professor (Adjunct) Barry Golding AM, Proud AMSA Patron[1]

I am delighted to be asked to contribute to UKMSA’s ‘summary of the year’. It is an understatement to say 2020 has been an annus horribilus for most Men’s Sheds and Shedders worldwide…

Before I reflect more on the year that was, I positively and warmly wish everyone an annus mirabilis, ‘a wonderful year’, in 2021. With social distancing restrictions including lockdowns now in place to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay, improved test and trace capabilities and several promising vaccines and treatments being rolled out or in development, hopefully the worst is behind us.

the creative caring and sharing that has happened between Shedders, by Men’s Sheds and peak body organisations within and across international borders, including through UKMSA and AMSA online and radio programmes, has been remarkable.

Here within Australia, with painful effort, we have (for the moment at least), basically snuffed it out, but are still unable to travel safely beyond our borders. In the US, with minimal national coordination and effort, the pandemic rages. I feel deeply for everyone and their families actually impacted by COVID, and by the debilitating side effects of being socially isolated as a very different New Year approaches. I am heartened to hear as I pen this that the first vaccinations have begun today in the UK.

We now know that COVID-19, aside from being highly contagious at close contact indoors, disproportionately impacts and can be deadly to older and health compromised people. Most Sheds and Shedders in community settings across the globe have had to err on the side with considerable caution, shutting down and creatively finding other ways of supporting each other and keeping in contact.

Given that we are ‘all in this together’, the creative caring and sharing that has happened between Shedders, by Men’s Sheds and peak body organisations within and across international borders, including through UKMSA and AMSA online and radio programmes, has been remarkable. I acknowledge and applaud the critically important achievements of UKMSA since Mike Jenn’s visionary early work creating the Association.

We now know that COVID-19, aside from being highly contagious at close contact indoors, disproportionately impacts and can be deadly to older and health compromised people.

I was the person who first spoke the ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ words, now widely adopted as a Shed movement motto, including for this UKMSA Newsletter, at the Australian Men’s Sheds Association’s first truly national Men’s Sheds Conference (appropriately at ‘Manly’) in Sydney in 2007. Since then, the Men’s Shed movement has unfolded and blossomed in many other countries beyond its birthplace in Australia. The first ‘The Shed’ was born just 27 years ago in 1993; the first ever ‘Men’s Shed’ created 22 years ago in 1998. When I charted this history internationally in 2015 in my The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men book, there were 1,325 Men’s Sheds globally, 70 per cent of which were here in Australia, with around half of the rest in Ireland (then with 227 Sheds), and all of balance in the UK (124 Sheds), New Zealand (54) and Canada (4).

International research for my forthcoming 2021 book, Shoulder to Shoulder: Broadening the Men’s Shed movement, again to be published by Common Ground Publishing in the US, confirms that before the pandemic struck in early 2020, the number of Men’s Sheds open globally had doubled in five years to around 2,670, with around one half (51%) here in the southern Hemisphere (Australia and New Zealand) and most of the rest (45%) in the UK and Ireland. We know there are many more not included in these totals in aged and residential care settings.

The most rapid growth has been across all parts of the UK, with a fivefold increase in five years. This is of huge credit to UK Men’s Sheds Association and the respective Shed-based partners across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are emerging new movements with Men’s Sheds and peak organisations in Denmark, Canada (35 Sheds) and the US (17), with a number of Sheds operating also in Kenya, and now four Men’s Sheds open in Iceland!

The most rapid growth has been across all parts of the UK, with a fivefold increase in five years

It has not all been smooth sailing and there are stormy seas ahead unless we act wisely and responsibly. In my 2015 book (page 400) under the heading ‘What are the future possibilities’, I flagged an ‘obvious future risk for the Shed Movement [that] movement theorists call cooptation, This is a mechanism by which ‘a movement may gain substantial benefits for its constituency, its members or leader, but [does] so in a way that it ceases to be an independent force and instead comes under the control of sections of the elite’.’

Unhelpful and damaging ‘Shed wars’ have broken out within several nations as a result of disputes over who does and should best represent the interests of Men’s Sheds and Shedders and how they should be represented. In some cases, these disputes have exploited or reinforced existing, historic, colonial or political divisions. It is something that all involved in the Men’s Shed Movement should remain vigilant of and work creatively to minimize in the future.

In my other, non-academic roles as a proud Patron of the Australian national association, AMSA (Australian Men’s Shed Association) and foundation Chair of the International Men’s Sheds Organisation (IMSO), my position has been that these differences should be amicably sorted and not get in the way of providing essential service and support to Men’s Sheds and Shedders. Most Men’s Shed organisations are proudly autonomous and have huge difficulties organizing and getting resources and support at a local level. While they welcome and benefit from the services, resources and support available through national, state or regional peak body organisations, they wisely try and steer clear of damaging political, ‘turf’ wars.

As the Movement matures and spreads there will always be a need for a range of supports for grassroots Men’s Sheds at different organisational levels up and across ‘the food chain’, including with supportive communities, governments (local, state, county, regional) and non-government organization partners. There is a strong case for working collaboratively in the best interests of Shedders by minimizing potentially damaging conflict between any of these partners.

Which brings me to Women’s Sheds, which have been quietly bubbling away, mostly below the radar in Australia, the UK and Ireland.

This need for working collaboratively for the greater good will become even more important in 2021 and beyond in a post-COVID world. Most world nations will experience significant economic recessions that will have a long and painful tail. The need for men beyond paid work to have ‘somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk with’, as envisioned by Dick McGowan in his first ever ‘Men’s Shed’ in rural Tongala, Victoria, Australia, will increase. There will be more men and women of all ages and more diverse backgrounds not in work for longer periods in most world nations. As Ireland experienced over a decade ago during the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), the average age of Shedders will most likely come down and the need to broaden the movement to reach and include new and needy groups beyond ‘old white men’ will increase. This is a theme I am addressing in my 2021 book.

Which brings me to Women’s Sheds, which have been quietly bubbling away, mostly below the radar in Australia, the UK and Ireland. I acknowledge that some Men’s Sheds bend over backwards to broaden their reach and find creative ways to be inclusive, including of women, and that some don’t bend at all. Whichever position you hold, research shows that loneliness and social isolation can be debilitating and deadly, full stop, not only for older men. Lucia Carragher (from Ireland) and I are including a Chapter about Women’s Sheds in our 2021 book on the back of our regularly updated Women’s Shed blog (https://barrygoanna.com/2020/07/13/womens-sheds/) to chronicle the nature and spread of the Women’s Shed movement internationally. I did something similar in the early days of the Men’s Shed movement in Australia from 2005-2007, until AMSA appropriately took over.

My overarching final message to UKMSA and all UK Men’s Sheds for Christmas 2020 and the New Year in 2021 is a positive one. It is possible and desirable to find and share new and innovative ways of broadening the reach of Men’s Sheds, and new platforms for sharing the spirit in and beyond the Shed, as we have found globally during the COVID pandemic. Men’s Sheds will always be Australia’s gift to the world, but it’s a very fragile legacy worthy of nurturing, preserving and duplicating. Where and how it spreads in the future is very much in all our hands. Peace on earth and in Sheds internationally in 2021!