Are we witnessing the decline and fall of men?

Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men shouldn’t be read as a cast-iron prediction of a newly gendered future, but rather as the raiser of important questions about the crisis of masculinity.

Nancy McDermott

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Ignore the hyperbolic title. Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women is filled with worthwhile insights and raises serious questions about the meaning and implications of shifting gender roles. Rosin, an editor at the Atlantic and founder of Slate’s ‘DoubleX’, has emerged as one of only a handful of American writers who has understood the centrality of so-called ‘women’s issues’ to American culture.

Her thesis goes something like this: our society is in the midst of a whole host of social and economic changes that women are benefiting from more than men, and perhaps at the expense of men. It’s a compelling idea, not least because it seems to confirm what many people have observed in the course of their own experiences.

It is not simply that men have lost their jobs, or even that those jobs are gone for good, or that it is mainly women doing the jobs that are now being created. It is more a sense of creeping demoralisation and ambivalence about the future that is as much in evidence in Charles Murray’s discussion of the decline of marriage, in his book Coming Apart, as it is in ‘The Myth of Work/Life Balance’ debate that appeared in the Atlantic last summer.

Rosin intuitively understands that discussions like these are related to, and have been shaped by, changes in women’s status over the past 30 years. What isn’t so clear is whether the current situation is the inevitable consequence of a shifting balance between men and women or a symptom of something else. Whatever the underlying cause, Rosin has made gender relations the focus of her investigation and she follows it through to the bitter end. The result is an engaging exploration of how life has altered for all sections of society, but perhaps most startlingly for America’s working and middle classes.

The little seaside town in rural Virginia where Rosin vacations with her family is typical. Once a ‘prosperous working-class town’, where most men found work in construction, recently Rosin began to notice something strange there: an absence of local men. Whenever she ventured away from the houses rented by affluent city folk, men seemed to disappear. Gone were the groups of men riding around in pickup trucks on their way to work or to socialise. Instead there were women. Women going to and from work, shopping, driving their children around, and outnumbering men in every public place. Her curiosity piqued, she began to investigate. It turned out the missing men were not really missing at all. They hadn’t moved away to find work or joined the army or done any of the things men did in past recessions. They were still in town, but were sidelined from the hustle and bustle of daily life. They were no longer primary breadwinners, or they were doing only temporary or menial jobs. Many had given up on finding work at all.

The women, by contrast, seemed to be taking things in their stride. For some women, there was a drastic role reversal, as their jobs became the primary source of their family’s income. Others were embracing new aspirations that did not always include the men in their lives – even if those men were the fathers of their children. The more Rosin looked, the more she found the same pattern repeated in working-class communities around America. Where men were slow to change and inflexible, women were quickly adapting to new realities.

This rejigging of the relationships between men and women is taking place among other classes, too. The balance between men and women in America’s elite also looks remarkably different to the past, as both men and women pursue professional careers. What’s more, these sorts of shifts in gender roles are occurring around the world, often without the self-conscious efforts of feminists. It seems more that the world is changing in some subtle way and women are somehow uniquely equipped to benefit as a result. They are flexible, plastic, where men are less so. Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man, Rosin calls them. She bends. He breaks.

This is an intriguing way to look at the world, especially 50 years on from the birth of the women’s movement. Didn’t some feminists predict something like this – that were women allowed to participate equally with men in the workforce, they would not only excel but would eventually prove better than men? Even rejecting the idea that women are somehow innately superior, it seems reasonable that they could be as good as men in comparable positions.

At the very least, Rosin shows that women’s lives, their expectations and opportunities, have changed positively and profoundly since the 1970s. In areas like work and education, the difference is startling. Women have gone from making 70 cents for every dollar made by men in the 1980s to making 90 cents to the male dollar today. In some industries they make as much or more than their male colleagues. Women now dominate college admissions, to the point where some institutions feel obliged to set quotas for male undergraduates to maintain a balance between the sexes. Some formerly exclusively male professions, pharmacology for instance, are now almost exclusively female.

Beyond this, even the so-called glass ceiling seems to be falling down in some industries. There are more women in top jobs in tech companies, and, for the first time, some very high-profile mothers, too. Women like Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo, or Google’s CEO Sheryl Sandberg, talk openly about balancing the commitment between work and family.

According to Rosin’s reckoning, there is no area of life where our culture has not changed to reflect women’s changed status – and not always in particularly positive ways. Among the not-so-encouraging developments, she explores hook-up culture and the cynicism young people seem to exhibit towards love and commitment. She looks at the dilemmas of working women, not just the difficulties of combining work and family life but the frustration of executive women in positions of power who still find they have to temper their ambition and their opinions (lest they be dismissed as ‘bitchy’). She looks at the rise in the numbers of female criminals, who now account for 50 per cent of domestic violence arrests in some states.

It’s a compelling story – but is Rosin overstating things? Her critics have been quick to point out that many of the gains for women that she highlights don’t hold across the board. Women still suffer disproportionately from discrimination, and conflicts between top jobs and family usually resolve in favour of the latter – as played out very publicly last summer when Anne-Marie Slaughter, President Obama’s director of policy development at the State Department, resigned for family reasons. Furthermore, women’s gains may not really have come at the expense of men but rather as an accident of history, because women’s jobs have been concentrated in areas of the economy that were once marginal but are now mainstream. Looking at cold hard data, Rosin seems to have jumped the gun.

The most trenchant critique of Rosin’s book comes from the family historian Stephanie Coontz. She makes the point that many of the gains women have made, wage increases in particular, are deceptive. Women’s wages have gone up, but they have increased at a time when men’s wages have stagnated or fallen. So women’s wages may be closer to men’s but mainly because men are making less. There may be more women managers today, but they still make much less than what male managers earn and they are still in the minority. What’s more, women with children are clearly discriminated against in work situations. Their wages stagnate after they have children, and if they switch jobs they are often offered much lower starting salaries and they are far less likely to be promoted. Finally, women are still politically marginal, making up only 17 per cent of the US Congress.

The End of Men and other books like it, Coontz argues, tend to exaggerate changes because they reflect a broader cultural anxiety about how masculinity and femininity are played out in the spheres of work and family life today. The masculinity of old, in which men never took care of their families or engaged in traditionally female activities, is just as distorted as the stereotypes of women finding their apotheosis as mothers and housewives. The changes in the position of women vis-a-vis men could offer a new beginning for both, says Coontz. She may have a point. And yet it would be wrong to dismiss The End of Men, for two reasons.

To the extent that there is no positive pressure on men to prioritise family life in the way that women do, it probably has less to do with the persistence of traditional masculinity in the workplace and more to do with a lack of infrastructure that would render the career disruption that women experience as a result of giving birth moot. In reality, our society is deeply ambivalent about masculinity. It is seen as synonymous with violence, bullying and thoughtlessness, and is blamed for everything from gang violence to gun culture. It is the butt of jokes and the thing to be watched closely when raising our sons. Rosin writes about how women who exhibit supposedly masculine characteristics in the workplace find they receive more negative reactions than men who do the same things. But is this a reaction against women or a result of hostility towards the qualities themselves, which are now things we might just about excuse in men in the very narrow sphere of work but will not tolerate in any other context? Are conditions hostile to men or hostile to those apparently male qualities of aggression, ambition, competitiveness, authority, and so on? And why are those qualities considered so problematic?

The second reason we shouldn’t write off Rosin’s book is that trends are notoriously difficult to make sense of in situ. How many times has history played tricks on us? For instance, when women entered permanent full-time employment en masse and divorce rates climbed, the time parents spent with their children dropped to 40 per cent of what it had been in 1965, prompting concern that the family was on the verge of collapse. Fast forward to today: mothers spend 20 per cent more time with their children than in 1965 and the amount of time fathers spend with their kids has tripled. Who could have predicted that?

And though families certainly persist, they are different in important ways. Their focus has changed from the relationship between husband and wife to that between parent and child. Parents spend less time together without their children and slightly less time socialising with other adults. Even the use of the word ‘family’ has declined in favour of ‘parenting’, which is now used to discuss what was once just ‘family life’. Anxiety about the end of the family may have been exaggerated, but it wasn’t entirely off the mark either.

The End of Men is not a prediction. It is a snapshot of a society and an economy in transition, in which some men are clearly losing out and women seem to be doing somewhat better. These changes are intimately bound up with women’s changing status and role. And yet, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this process aren’t really much clearer at the end of Rosin’s book than they were at the beginning. Ultimately, having looked hard through the lens of gender roles, we now need to discard it in order to see our situation for what it is. Hanna Rosin has written a compelling first contribution to what should be an ongoing discussion.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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