It would be easy to misunderstand the meaning of Hanna Rosin’s now celebrated theme “the end of men”. The title of the American writer’s 2010 Atlantic magazine article, and now of a full-blown book, signifies not the total redundancy of men as sub-species of the human race (although a biology professor recently suggested we were near that point) but the end of masculinity as we have known it. What is in sight is the end of men as providers and protectors, as leaders and authorities — roles based on their physical strength and capacity for fatherhood.
As I have noted before, this also means that what Rosin calls “the rise of women” (the subtitle of her book) is actually “the end of women” in the sense that femininity has no meaning once masculinity disappears.
Her prediction is based on long-term changes in the workforce which have now given women an edge over men in some respects, and resulting domestic changes. She assumes that this is a good thing, that we have arrived at a kind of evolutionary point from which women can lead men towards a new balance of power — if only men will learn from women how to adapt to the new economic and social climate.
Is she right? It depends on what you mean by adaptation. Few lament the passing of the strict role segregation of the “patriarchal” era, or higher education for more women and their increasing role in professional life and public leadership. But the attempt to push this trend towards a strict equality that refuses to give any significance to sexual differences is a denial of reality that will have serious consequences for the family and the whole of society.
One can reject such assumptions, however, and still benefit from Rosin’s presentation of statistical trends and their impact on particular lives, since they are potentially revolutionary and we do have to contend with them.
The “mancession” and the house-husband
Men — working class men anyway — have been hard hit by the changing economy. The decline of manufacturing and the rise of the service and “knowledge” industries have made male strength and the skills based on it increasingly redundant and left large numbers of men unemployed. This process has been accelerated by recent recessions to the point where people talk of a “mancession”. Around one in five of men of prime working age today are not working.
Rosin observes that men who have lost their old jobs find it hard to accept the jobs that are available — typically “women’s work” such as sales, teaching, accounting, nursing and child care. It is easy to appreciate that a man accustomed to using heavy machinery in a textile mill is not thrilled at the prospect of sitting in front of a computer in a call centre or looking after toddlers in daycare — let alone collecting the meagre pay packet for such work.
Women, by contrast, have seized the opportunities of the new economy, and by early 2010 had become a small majority of the US workforce. While men start again at the bottom of the ladder in some new activity, women are climbing into managerial positions. They study part-time at community college and get new qualifications. At universities they outnumber men and outstrip them in completing degrees. Young women overall earn more money than young men, says Rosin.
Why? Because women are “plastic” and willingly adapt themselves to the new conditions, and because the new jobs happen to value skills that come naturally to them: things like sitting still and concentrating, listening to people and communicating openly. Men need to learn from women’s flexibility and skills, Rosin suggests.
Becoming a house-husband while your wife spends all day (and perhaps half the night) at the office is one way to learn. Rosin paints a picture of wives becoming breadwinners and husbands looking after the kids and doing the housework and shopping — while, perhaps, doing some freelance work or trying to start a new business. Just the way mothers at home have tended to do. College girls in Kansas tell Rosin they expect to be the breadwinners. One talks about men as “the new ball and chain”.
Rosin lays out this whole scenario from her vantage point as a married woman with a husband, who could well be one of the new-style plastic men (David Plotz is the editor of the Washington Post’s online magazine Slate and Rosin runs the site’s XX blog), and three children. The new work and domestic dispensation has worked for them, presumably.
Further down the social scale, however, the imbalance between men and women in education, skills and employability is wreaking havoc on the family. Women with jobs and prospects don’t want to marry down; they would rather, it seems, join the swelling ranks of single mothers. Nearly 60 percent of births to women with high school degrees or less now occur outside marriage, and while some of these women may be cohabiting with the father of their children, such relationships are notoriously unstable. Marriage is becoming a luxury of the educated elite.
It’s the family, not the economy, stupid
So much for trends. But what are we to make of them?
One can accept that working class men should be more adaptable. They should contribute more to childcare and domestic work — as many already do. They should be happy to see women succeed in the workforce and, if they are unemployed with a family, they should be grateful that at least one parent is bringing in a wage. All this can be taken for granted.
What should not be taken for granted is that society is evolving to a point where gender based roles don’t count at all. What we should not accept is Rosin’s cheerful assumption that masculinity itself is doomed — and with it, necessarily, femininity.
The distinctive masculine and feminine roles of the past have a sound basis: male and female biology and its orientation towards procreation and the family. And it is the needs of the family – in particular what is best for children — that should shape the economy, not the other way round.
Since one of the parents must invest more heavily in nurturing young children, why not the mother, who has been favoured for it by nature? Why not let men play second fiddle at home and invest more heavily in providing for the family’s material needs? Why not look to the father as the protector, since his physical strength fits him for the role?
This is not to deny that women can combine motherhood and careers, or that at times mothers will have to be breadwinners and fathers play the domestic role, but all this can happen without the need to discard the norm of sexual complementarity altogether. Studies consistently show that mothers of young children typically prefer part-time work to full-time.
The pill, sexual culture, and the end of the human race
There is no evolutionary inevitability about current trends, as Rosin seems to suggest.
The current feminised form of the workforce is not the outcome of some inherent law of production and distribution. It is, to a large degree, an artefact of the contraceptive revolution and the abrupt end that brought to a more natural level of fertility and the domestic culture that went with it. As Rosin herself notes, women came flooding into the workforce in the 1970s, after the pill and legalised abortion became available.
Feminist ideology also played its part in this revolution with its insistence on equality — a term that meant, in practice, sameness. And so we arrived at the notions of gender equity and the interchangeability of women and men in both the public and domestic spheres. Some of the consequences of this should alarm us.
In a revealing chapter of her book, published separately in the Atlantic under the heading “Boys on the Side”, Rosin describes the sexual customs of some (presumably typical) college women. Practically every serious-minded person who has commented on the trend of “hooking up” — that is, casual sex on the agreed basis that there is no emotional investment or commitment at all — regards it as harmful to young women. But Rosin reports that today’s ambitious college girls are appropriating the hook-up culture as a way to stay focused on their career track while getting their rightful share of sexual pleasure. (See “A dangerous dish” for further comment.)
From the point of view of human dignity, of course, this points to the “fall of women” rather than their “rise” and yet, disturbingly, Rosin completely approves of it. “To put it crudely,” she says, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hook-up culture.”
It’s Rosin’s views on sex, ultimately, that undermine her judgement concerning the future of either men or women, but we are obliged to her for showing so clearly on what morally precarious foundations the rise of women now rests.
What is clear is that the end of men (masculinity) would also mean the end of women (femininity) and the reduction of both sexes to a state of plasticity that makes them perfect ciphers for “the economy” (the political and financial establishment). That way lies the end of the human race itself.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.