With the publication of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex, and most controversially, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, a spate of essays about gender and sex in the modern world has appeared. And the future, according to some, looks grim for men. Just look at some data. In elementary and high school a full three quarters of Ds and Fs are earned by men. Men earn only 40% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And now women under 30 out-earn men under 30. What’s more, in 1950, only 5% of men in their prime were not working; today, a startling 20% aren’t. Perhaps the most widely expressed explanation of why this is happening is this: “The information age economy rewards traits that, for neurological and cultural reasons, woman are more likely to posses,” writes David Brooks in his column on Rosin’s book. “To succeed today you have to be able to sit still and focus from an early age. You have to be emotionally sensitive and aware of context. You have to communicate smoothly. For genetic and cultural reasons, many men stink at these tasks.”
So what are men supposed to do? Rosin actually argues for a different explanation: That women are more adaptable and men more attached to the outdated mores, to put it crudely. A change in attitude is essentially what’s needed on her view. But I’m not sure that this is right. In elementary and middle school, if boys are 2.8 times more likely to be medicated for some kind of attention disorder and if three quarters of Ds and Fs are really earned by boys, then doesn’t this suggest that the system is rigged against them? Recommending a change in attitude might help someone in his or 30s or 40s, but telling a five-year-old that he’s too attached to the old ways doesn’t seem to make much sense.
At any rate, whatever the true reasons for the male decline are, we can all agree that we are on the horizon of a major change in family structure. Today the average wife contributes 42.2% of her family’s income — up from the 2 to 6% that wives contributed in 1970; and in almost 40% of American marriages today, the wife earns more than the husband. Data suggests this trend will continue. Soon enough, it’s likely that the majority of American households will have a female primary breadwinner, an event that would overturn a social order some six thousand years old.
I think this change should benefit everyone. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in her colossal Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” that it is impossible for the most high-ranking and successful women, by today’s customs, to be both good mothers and reliable professionals: that the idea of a healthy work-life balance is a myth. But what Slaughter failed to consider in her article is that men haven’t had it all either. Traditionally, while men have been the breadwinners, they have also not been involved fathers and parents — the brunt of that role was traditionally borne by women. As a follow-up article in the Times says, as more women rise to positions of authority, we can expect changes in the workplace that encourage better parenting by both sexes — more flexible hours, mandatory maternity and paternity leave, and other measures that both eliminate advantages to hiring men over women and enhance family life. In short, changes that benefit men just as much as women.
Interestingly, many of these workplace alterations are enabled by the internet and other technologies. And many female leaders are taking advantage of them. “According to the Women’s Business Center,” Slaughter writes, “61 percent of women business owners use technology to ‘integrate the responsibilities of work and home’; 44 percent use technology to allow employees ‘to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules.’” Since work is not necessarily tethered to the workplace, as it has been before, it is now possible to leave the office at 5:30 to have a family dinner at home and to help the kids with their homework. The work time can easily be made up on the computer after dinner. This is something that wasn’t possible until recently.
Women are more likely than men to bring about changes of these sorts because even women who are primary earners still spend more time raising their children than their male counterparts. It’s still the expectation that women bear the brunt of the parenting. However, the more change that is realized in the workplace that promotes healthy work-life balance for both sexes, the more reason we have to believe that that expectation will change too.
There is a caveat, however. The optimistic outlook I’ve expressed presupposes that, for a significant number of families, the male ego can withstand being out-earned by his spouse. The data on this issue are fascinating. According to “The Weaker Sex,” an article by the Atlantic’s Sandra Tshing Long, a “2010 study showed that when a woman’s contribution to household income tops 60%, the couple is more likely to divorce.” What’s more, “women who are financially dependent on their husbands tend to be faithful, while, paradoxically, financially dependent men tend to stray.” Whoa! There are several questions we should ask about these statistics. Are they indicative of some immutable biological reality? Or are the reactions of financially dependent men more likely to be engendered by our social norms, which are mutable? If the former is true, then this presents a major stumbling bloc for the women’s movement and the trajectory of American culture generally. If the latter is true, on the other hand, (which is what I suspect) then both men and women will have to be involved in altering our norms.
But here cynicism abounds. In Sandra Tshing Long’s article, for example, she expresses frustration about financially subordinate men to whom she and others find themselves attached. She describes a dinner out with her friends — all divorced mothers, except one married mother who recounts the inadequacies of her husband for failing to change a lightbulb in the garage after her repeated plea. “I find Ron in the kitchen, as usual,” she says, “cooking a red sauce from scratch when Prego is just as good. I ask him to take care of it.” Short story: after three nights of asking, he still doesn’t. $275 an hour couple’s therapy ensues.
Later, Long describes her own frustrations with her boyfriend whom she out-earns and with whom she shares a home. “When the 2012 Type A woman listens to you describe a problem in your workday,” Long writes, “she is mentally leaping forward, positing solutions, and also deciding how well or poorly you’ve handled the situation.” Too many poorly handled situations can lead to big trouble: “I made the mistake of asking ‘How was your day?’” she continues, “and he made the mistake of responding, and as I watched his mouth move, I felt my trigger finger twitch and thought those awful words only a woman who needs a man neither to support her nor to be a father to her children can think: How long until I vote you off the island?”
I think there is something somewhat disagreeable about Long’s reading of the female breadwinner paradigm. Why do the men in her article seem so pathetic? Is this what we can expect the norm of female breadwinners to be like? Why doesn’t she just vote her boyfriend off the island? And why does the homemaker — male or female — always seem to lose? Consider the situation: A dinner. All attendees but one are divorced mothers. The bias is palpable. I don’t think this is a telling look at the future norm of female breadwinners.
So what will that norm look like? I really don’t know. But one thing is certain: True gender equality will not be achieved until all the various genders come to an understanding of one another. We might as well face facts: Men are not going anywhere and it’s likely that their economic dominance will soon be usurped by women. A healthy and productive series of norms needs to be developed and disseminated — norms that do not disparage the homemaker or anyone’s gender or biology. I don’t think any of the articles and books I’ve read over the passed couple weeks make progress on any of these fronts. We need honest and open discussion about the coming reality. What we don’t need is another spate of provocateur books and articles.