It’s not just that women are adapting better to seismic shifts in economy and culture – as this provocative extract from The End of Men explains, they are surpassing their male counterparts at work and home
In 2009, in a beach town in Virginia where my family had been vacationing for several years, I noticed something curious. Every time I ventured away from the houses rented by the vacationers – to the supermarket, say, or the ice-cream store – I almost never saw any men. Hardly any showed up at the fairgrounds Saturday evenings, nor did many climb out of the cars in the church parking lots on Sunday mornings. This was a prosperous working-class town and one of its main businesses had always been construction. I recalled in earlier years seeing groups of men riding in pick-up trucks down the main streets, even on Saturdays. But this time, there weren’t all that many pick-up trucks; mostly Chevys and Toyotas filled with women and children going about their weekend business.
On a food run one afternoon, I accidentally slammed my cart into another woman’s and knocked out of it some granola bars. I apologised and she was forgiving and in fact she turned out to be the kind of stranger who is open to conversation. Her name was Bethenny, she told me. She was 29 and ran a daycare centre out of her house. She was also studying to get a nursing degree and raising her daughter, who was 10. Because she was so forthcoming I thought I’d edge closer to the heart of the matter. Was she married? I asked. No. Did she want to be? Kind of, she said, and spun me a semi-ironic fantasy of a Ryan Reynolds lookalike swooping in on a white horse. Was there any mortal male who might qualify for the role? I asked. “Well, there’s Calvin,” she said, meaning her daughter’s father. She looked over at her daughter and tossed her a granola bar and they both laughed. “But Calvin would just mean one less granola bar for the two of us.”
Bethenny seemed to be struggling in the obvious ways. Later I saw her at checkout, haggling over coupons. But she did not exactly read as the pitiable single mother type. There was genuine pleasure in that laugh, a hint of happy collusion in hoarding those granola bars for herself and her daughter. Without saying as much, she communicated to me what her daughter seemed already to understand and accept: by keeping Calvin at arm’s length, Bethenny could remain queen of her castle, and with one less mouth to feed, they might both be better off.
How is it that the father of her only child had so little hold on her? How is it that he could be dismissed as the domestic equivalent of a snack? I got up the courage to ask her if I could contact Calvin and she readily gave me his phone number. Over the next few months, Calvin and I talked every few weeks, me always trying to figure out how he had become so invisible.
The terms “mancession” and “he-cession” featured prominently in American headlines that year, their efforts at cuteness meant to soften the painful reality that the primary victims of our latest economic disaster had been men such as Calvin, the ordained breadwinners. If these men had already been laid low by the recession of the 1990s, I wondered, where were they now, nearly 20 years later, after this last series of blows? And how would they find their way back? My hope was to stay in touch with Calvin long enough that he would start earning enough money to pick up the grocery bill again, that he would find his way home. Part of me kept imagining some distant point in the future when Calvin and Bethenny would be saved, the happy trio would drift back together and, in the dramatic crescendo, the streets of the town would once again become peopled with men.
But as I spent time with Calvin and dug into the research, I discovered that I had started with the wrong questions. Calvin and his friends were not really trying to get back the lives they’d once had, because those lives were no longer there to get back. I began to understand that something seismic had shifted in the economy and the culture, not only for men but for women, and that both sexes were going to have to adjust to an entirely new way of working and living and even falling in love. Calvin was not going to take his rightful place at the head of the table one day soon, because Bethenny was already occupying it, not to mention making the monthly payments on the mortgage, the kitchen renovation and her own used car. Bethenny was doing too much, but she was making it work and she had her freedom. Why would she want to give all that up?
The story was no longer about the depths men had sunk to; that dynamic had been playing out for several decades and was more or less played out. The new story was that women, for the first time in history, had in many ways surpassed them. The Calvins and Bethennys – all of us – had reached the end of 200,000 years of human history and the beginning of a new era, and there was no going back. Once I opened my eyes to that possibility, I realised that the evidence was everywhere and it was only centuries of habit and history that prevented everyone from seeing it.
With a lot more reporting and research, I was able to put a clear story together. In the recession, three-quarters of the 7.5 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of those jobs have come back, but the dislocation is neither random nor temporary. The recession merely revealed – and accelerated – a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years and in some respects even longer.
In 2009, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who continue to occupy around half of the nation’s jobs. (The UK and several other countries reached the tipping point a year later.) Women worldwide dominate colleges and professional schools on every continent except Africa. In the United States, for every two men who will receive a BA this year, for example, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the United States over the next decade, 12 are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the US economy is in some ways becoming a kind of travelling sisterhood: professional women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill. Our vast and struggling middle class, where the disparities between men and women are the greatest, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the workforce and from home, as women make all the decisions.
In the past, men derived their advantage largely from size and strength, but the post-industrial economy is indifferent to brawn. A service and information economy rewards precisely the opposite qualities – the ones that can’t be easily replaced by a machine. These attributes – social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus – are, at a minimum, not predominantly the province of men. In fact, they seem to come easily to women.
Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men, to meet the demands of new global call centres. Women own more than 40% of private businesses in China, where a red Ferrari is the new status symbol for female entrepreneurs. In 2009, Icelanders made Johanna Sigurdardottir prime minister, electing the world’s first openly lesbian head of state. Sigurdardottir had campaigned explicitly against the male elite she claimed had destroyed the nation’s banking system, vowing to end the “age of testosterone”.
These changes have reached deep into the intimate lives of couples, shifting the way men and women worldwide think about marriage, love, and sex. In Asia, as women gain more economic power and retreat further from the culture’s long-standing ideal of a perfect wife, the average age of marriage for women is 32 and divorce in many Asian countries is skyrocketing. The mismatch between tradition-minded men and forward-marching women has given rise to an international market for spouses, as men around the world seek out brides with values (for now) more consonant with their own. In the west, meanwhile, women behave in sexually aggressive ways that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.
For the vast majority of less well-educated Americans, the rise of women is associated with the slow erosion of marriage and even a growing cynicism about love. As women slowly improve their lot, they raise the bar for what they want out of marriage. But the men of their class are failing to meet their standards. The men may cling to traditional ideals about themselves as providers, but they are further than ever from being able to embody those ideals.
Among the educated class, women’s new economic power has produced a renaissance of marriage. Couples in possession of college degrees are much more fluid about who plays what role, who earns more money and, to some extent, who sings the lullabies. I call these seesaw marriages, where the division of earnings might be 40:60 or 80:20 – and a year or two later may flip, giving each partner a shot at satisfaction. More wives at the top are becoming the main breadwinners for some period of time and, as a result of this new freedom, more couples are describing their marriages as “happy” or “very happy”. But even “happy” can hide complications. As I interviewed such couples, I realised that men, even if they check the “happy” box, are not nearly so quick or eager to inhabit these new flexible roles as women are.
Throughout my reporting, a certain imaginary comic book duo kept presenting themselves to me: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Plastic Woman has throughout the century performed superhuman feats of flexibility. She has gone from barely working at all to working only until she got married to working while married and then working with children, even babies. If a space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. If she is no longer required by ladylike standards to restrain her temper, she starts a brawl at the bar. If she can get away with staying unmarried and living as she pleases deep into her 30s, she will do that too. And if the era calls for sexual adventurousness, she is game.
She is Napoleonic in her appetites. As she gobbles up new territories she hangs on to the old, creating a whole new set of existential dilemmas (too much work and too much domestic responsibility, too much power and too much vulnerability, too much niceness and not enough happiness). Studies that track women after they get their MBAs have even uncovered a superbreed of Plastic Women: they earn more than single women and just as much as the men. They are the women who have children but choose to take no time off work. They are the mutant creature our society now rewards the most – the one who can simultaneously handle the old male and female responsibilities without missing a beat.
Cardboard Man, meanwhile, hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same. There are many professions that have gone from all-male to female and almost none that have gone the other way. For most of the century, men derived their sense of manliness from their work or their role as head of the family. A coalminer or rigger was manly not because he wore overalls and had fingernails black from dirt, but because he had a physically demanding job and he put food on the table. A frontiersman only became whole when his family came west to join him. He was a man because he had a very specific role to play.
Some decades into the 20th century, those obvious forms of social utility started to fade. Most men were no longer doing physically demanding labour. They were working in offices or not working at all. And as fewer people got married, men were no longer acting as domestic providers, either. They lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new one. What’s left now are the accessories, maybe the “mancessories” – jeans and pick-up trucks and designer switchblades, superheroes and thugs who rant and rave on TV and, at the end of the season, fade back into obscurity. This is what critic Susan Faludi in the late 1990s defined as the new “ornamental masculinity” and it has not yet evolved into anything more concrete.
As a result, men are stuck or “fixed in cultural aspic”, as critic Jessica Grose puts it. They could move into new roles now open to them – nurse, teacher, full-time father – but for some reason, they hesitate. Personality tests over the decades show men tiptoeing into new territory, while women race into theirs. Men do a tiny bit more housework and childcare than they did 40 years ago, while women do vastly more paid work. The working mother is now the norm. The stay-at-home father is still a front-page anomaly.
The Bem test is the standard psychological tool used to rate people on how strongly they conform to a variety of measures considered stereotypically male or female: “self-reliant”, “yielding”, helpful”, “ambitious”, “tender”, “dominant”. Since the test started being administered in the mid-1970s, women have been encroaching into what the test rates as male territory, defining themselves as “assertive”, “independent”, “willing to take a stand”. A typical Bem woman these days is “compassionate” and “self-sufficient”, “individualistic” and “adaptable”. Men, however, have not met them halfway and are hardly more likely to define themselves as “tender” or “gentle” than they were in 1974. In fact, by some measures, men have been retreating into an ever-narrower space, backing away from what were traditionally feminine traits as women take over more masculine ones.
For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, a trait that shows up in contemporary life as a drive to either murder or win on Wall Street. Women are more nurturing and compliant, suiting them perfectly to raise children and create harmony among neighbours. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order.
But now it seems as if those fixed roles are more fungible than we ever imagined. A more female-dominated society does not necessarily translate into a soft feminine utopia. Women are becoming more aggressive and even violent in ways we once thought were exclusively reserved for men. This drive shows up in a new breed of female murderers and also in a rising class of young female “killers” on Wall Street. Whether the shift can be attributed to women now being socialised differently or whether it’s simply an artefact of our having misunderstood how women are “hardwired” in the first place is at this point unanswerable and makes no difference. Difficult as it is to conceive, the very rigid story we believed about ourselves is obviously no longer true. There is no “natural” order, only the way things are.
Lately, we are starting to see how quickly an order we once considered “natural” can be overturned. For nearly as long as civilisation has existed, patriarchy – enforced through the rights of the first-born son – has been the organising principle, with few exceptions. Men in ancient Greece tied off their left testicle in an effort to produce male heirs; women have killed themselves (or been killed) for failing to bear sons. In her iconic 1949 book The Second Sex, the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir suggested that women so detested their own “feminine condition” that they regarded their newborn daughters with irritation and disgust. Now, the centuries-old preference for sons is eroding – or even reversing. “Women of our generation want daughters precisely because we like who we are,” breezes one woman in Cookie magazine.
In the 1970s, the biologist Ronald Ericsson came up with a way to separate sperm carrying the male-producing Y chromosome from those carrying the X. He sent the two kinds of sperm swimming down a glass tube through ever-thicker albumin barriers. The sperm with the X chromosome had a larger head and a longer tail and so, he figured, they would get bogged down in the viscous liquid. The sperm with the Y chromosome were leaner and faster and could swim down to the bottom of the tube more efficiently. The process, Ericsson said, was like “cutting out cattle at the gate”. The cattle left flailing behind the gate were of course the Xs, which seemed to please him.
In the late 1970s, he leased the method to clinics around the United States, calling it the first scientifically proved method for choosing the sex of a child.
Feminists of the era did not take kindly to Ericsson and his sperminator. “You have to be concerned about the future of all women,” said Roberta Steinbacher, a nun turned social psychologist, in a 1984 People profile of Ericsson. Given the “universal preference for sons”, she foresaw a dystopia of mass-produced boys that would lock women into second-class status while men continued to dominate positions of control and influence. “I think women have to ask themselves, ‘Where does this stop?’?” she said. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here right now if these practices had been in effect years ago.”
Ericsson laughed when I read him these quotes from his old antagonist. Seldom has it been so easy to prove a dire prediction wrong. In the 1990s, when Ericsson looked into the numbers for the two dozen or so clinics that use his process, he discovered, to his surprise, that couples were requesting more girls than boys. The gap has persisted, even though Ericsson advertises the method as more effective for producing boys. In some clinics, he has said, the ratio of preference is now as high as two to one.
Polling data on Americans’ sex preference in offspring is sparse and does not show a clear preference for girls. But the picture from the doctor’s office unambiguously does. A newer method for sperm selection, called MicroSort, is currently awaiting clinical approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The girl requests for that method run at about 75%. The women who call Ericsson’s clinic these days come right out and say: “I want a girl”; they no longer beat around the bush. “These mothers look at their lives and think their daughters will have a bright future their mother and grandmother didn’t have, brighter than their sons, even,” says Ericsson, “so why wouldn’t you choose a girl?” He sighs and marks the passing of an era. “Did male dominance exist? Of course it existed. But it seems to be gone now. And the era of the first-born son is totally gone.”
Ericsson’s extended family is as good an illustration of the rapidly shifting landscape as any other. His 27-year-old granddaughter – “tall, slender, brighter than hell, with a take-no-prisoners personality” – is a biochemist and works on genetic sequencing. His niece studied civil engineering at the University of Southern California. His grandsons, he says, are bright and handsome, but in school “their eyes glaze over. I have to tell ’em, ‘Just don’t screw up and crash your pick-up truck and get some girl pregnant and ruin your life.'” Recently, Ericsson joked with the old boys at his elementary school reunion that he was going to have a sex-change operation. “Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way – these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”
The shift is apparent not only in the United States, but in many of the world’s most advanced economies. For several centuries, South Korea constructed one of the most rigid patriarchies on the planet. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Now, that preference for first-born sons – or any sons – has vanished. Over the last few years, the government has conducted a national survey of future parents, asking: “If you found out you were pregnant, what sex would you want your child to be?” In 2010, 29.1% of women said they preferred a boy as their first-born child and 36.3% said a girl (the rest answered “no preference”). For men, the gap was even higher, with only 23% choosing a boy and 42.6% a girl. It took an imaginary third child, after two hypothetical daughters, for people to say they’d prefer a boy and then by only a tiny margin.
From a feminist standpoint, the recent social, political and economic gains of women are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in the continuing struggle for gender equality. But a much more radical shift seems to have come about. Women are not just catching up anymore; they are becoming the standard by which success is measured. “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” is a phrase that resonates with many parents of school-age sons and daughters, even if they don’t always say it out loud. As parents imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl than a boy that they see in their mind’s eye.
Yes, the United States and many other countries still have a gender wage gap. Yes, women still do most of the childcare. And yes, the upper reaches of power are still dominated by men. But given the sheer velocity of the economic and other forces at work, these circumstances are much more likely the last artefacts of a vanishing age rather than a permanent configuration. Dozens of undergraduate women I interviewed assumed that they very well might be the ones working while their husbands stayed at home, either minding the children or simply looking for work. Guys, one college senior remarked to me, “are the new ball and chain”. It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.
In the year since I wrote the story in the Atlantic magazine that inspired my book, I have been called a radical feminist for trumpeting women over men and an antifeminist for suggesting that the struggles are over for women. I am neither of those things, but my findings do herald both straightforward progress for women on some fronts and tremendous headaches on others. Women like Bethenny have a kind of ambiguous independence right now. They are much less likely to be in abusive relationships, much more likely to make all the decisions about their lives, but they are also much more likely to be raising children alone. It’s a heavy load. One reporting experience that lingers with me is waking up a woman in the elevator at a community college in Kansas City. Between floors one and five she had fallen asleep, so hard had she been working to get her degree, hold down a night job and raise three kids.
Among the college-educated class, ambivalence comes in the form of excess choice. Educated women take their time finding the perfect partner, seeking out creative, rewarding jobs, and then come home and parent their children with home-schooling intensity. Their lives are rich with possibilities their mothers never dreamed of. And yet in most surveys, women these days are not more likely to rate themselves happier than women did in the 1970s. Choice creates its own set of anxieties – new spheres to compete in and judge yourself wanting, a constant fear that you might be missing out.
Men today, especially young men, are in a transition moment. They no longer want to live as their fathers did, marrying women they can’t talk to, working long hours day after day, coming home to pat their kids on the head at most. They understand that the paternal white boss, like the one on The Office, has now become a punchline. But they can’t turn away from all that because they fear how power and influence could be funnelled away from them: by wives who earn more money than they do, jobs with less prestige, tedious Tuesday afternoons at the playground. There are plenty of opportunities for men. Theoretically, they can be anything these days: nurses, teachers, homemakers. But moving into new roles, and a new phase, requires certain traits: flexibility, hustle and an expansive sense of identity.
I started my book thinking that we were heading into a woman’s world and that this world would reflect some set of “womanly values” as defined by the Bem test – “tender”, “yielding”, “compassionate”. But by the end of my research, I became less convinced that what has happened to women and men reveals or is the result of any such fixed values or traits. Assuming a world run by women is more “tender” seems to me, again, just a story we tell ourselves to make the current massive upheavals in gender roles seem tamer and more predictable, when they are anything but: more like revolutionary, potentially exhilarating and sometimes frightening, but definitely not predictable. For the moment, all I can say for sure is: there is no “natural” order, only the way things are.