It’s a Woman’s World With the End of Men

Men are floundering in the 21st century, according to Hanna Rosin, and the shift has wide-ranging implications for the workplace and the home

Book jacket: Courtesy of Darren Haggar; Portrait: Courtesy of Nina Subin

In 1966, music legend James Brown recorded “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” in a New York City studio. The song quickly climbed Billboard’s music charts and became a classic in Brown’s repertoire.

“This is a man’s world,” strains Brown in the raw, soulful song.

Over four decades later, Hanna Rosin is singing a different tune. As senior editor at the Atlantic, Rosin wrote a much-talked-about cover story in the summer of 2010, boldly declaring that for the first time in our male-dominated history, women are pulling ahead. In her new book, The End of Men, she describes in greater detail this shift in social order and how it is profoundly impacting the way we live.

The “end of men”—those are fighting words.

You are right. My son hates the title, which is why I dedicated the book to him. I have also heard reports of people having to hide the cover on the subway as they are reading it, so they don’t alienate the men sitting next to them.

What do you mean by “the end?” What does this look like?

What you notice about the men in the book is that they are struggling now, largely due to economic factors. We are in this transition moment where men have to really think about the future and how they can be in the future. The book is calling for and trying to make a cultural space for the rise of a new kind of man. That is where we wind up, rather than at the very end.

Women are pulling ahead of men, you say, “by almost every measure.” What specific metrics do you consider?

The very basic one is the number of women in the workforce. For the very first time, women make up more than 50 percent of the workforce. I think that is a really interesting thing to note, because our workforce is set up for a country in which somebody is always at home. We haven’t quite accommodated all of women’s ambition. So, we have this lopsided situation where the economic reality is not acknowledged or responded to in any way.

The second thing is education. Right now, it is still true that the precursor to success is a college degree. Women are just much better at getting degrees than men. It seems that school at every level plays to the natural strengths of women more than it does to men. That is true all over the world, except Africa.

You imagine the modern woman as Plastic Woman, a heroine who performs “superhuman feats of flexibility."

Women have changed vastly over the last century in terms of how they present themselves in the public sphere. At first, women did not work, at all. Then, they didn’t work when they got married, and they didn’t work when they had kids. Women solidly broke through all those barriers. Once more, they had characters on TV that would show them how to be that person—Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown. At each phase, you had a role model.

Who then is Cardboard Man?

Cardboard Man is the man who has a hard time training himself for new jobs or is just really worried about stepping into new roles. Women have taken on traditionally masculine roles and professions, and there is no real equivalent for men. Men are still extremely reluctant, as we all are reluctant to see them, take on traditionally feminine roles or professions. That is just not something that they do easily.

How have the qualities that are valued and rewarded in the workplace changed in the last 50 years—and in ways that favor women? 

When we thought of ourselves as a manufacturing economy, strength is what was required and what was important. On down the road, we had top-down, autocratic models of leadership that favor men, like a general issuing orders. Over time, we have started to value transformational modes of leadership—the idea of a leader being more like a coach and inspiring people. Men and women are equally intelligent, but separate factors, such as the abilities to focus, be collaborative and take other people’s views into account, allow you to be successful.

Of course, you acknowledge that female CEOs are still very rare, women are the minority in engineering and hard-science fields, and there is still a gender pay gap. What is it going to take for women to rise in these areas? Do you have any predictions?

Women on aggregate are making more money, because there are more of them working. But that doesn’t mean that individual woman A sitting next to man B is making more money than him. There is still a little leftover discrimination. Bob is making more money than Susie. That is the wage gap.

About that, I definitely think we are in a transition moment. You look down successive generations and you have more and more men working for female bosses. We are close to a tipping point.

This book is often misunderstood as feminist triumphalism. It really isn’t that. I think that some of the changes that are happening are good, and some are not as good. Part of what I do is try to explain what the transition looks like and what the latest research says about how you can move through this transition.

For your reporting, you spoke to college-aged women, unemployed men and married couples. What was the most enlightening experience for you?

I think the hookup culture at colleges. I am about a decade older than these women. Just getting a glimpse of how women talk, how raunchy they are, how determined they are to keep up with the boys, and why that is important to them, was a real revelation to me.

I was also really surprised to learn how deeply these changes, which I had thought of largely as economic, had seeped into intimate relationships. What a profound difference they make in the very fundamental act of falling in love, choosing a partner, getting married and maintaining harmony in your household.

Marriage is an obvious place to look for the impacts of this social change. What changes are you seeing in how people perceive marriage and how marriages work?

In the college-educated classes, marriages are stronger than ever. They have this model that I call “seesaw marriages.” Each person in the marriage has a shot at being the breadwinner at any given moment, which means no one feels really trapped. Women don’t feel like they are absolutely dependent on men. And, men don’t feel trapped in the way that men felt in the 1950s and ‘60s, in the strong, shove-it-down-your-throat breadwinner era, because they feel like they can have a creative outlet and it is okay for their wives to earn more money at some point.

For the not college educated or the partly college educated, it is very, very different. Their marriages are basically falling apart. Far fewer people are getting married. A lot more children are born to single mothers. And, I think this also has to do with women’s growing economic independence. This is the category that I call “ambiguous independence.” In some ways, it is pretty good. Women are not dependent on men who might abuse them. They are not trapped in marriages. They have some degree of economic independence. But I call this independence  “ambiguous” because these women are raising children by themselves, working and going to community college. That is very exhausting and probably not the best family structure around.

How has your research and writing on this topic impacted your own marriage? I know your husband, Slate’s editor David Plotz, has called the book a "mixed blessing."

It has changed the way I think about my marriage. We don’t often think of our marriages happening in a particular era or moment. You just think, I fell in love. I got married. But what I realized, in being with some of these other couples, is that I do come from a feminist era. I expect equality, and I will get upset if my husband doesn’t do certain things. I would never stay home full time because I feel like I have to prove something by working. And I would never let him do nothing domestically.

The younger generation operates so much more cleanly. Now, it is: who is better for this particular role at this particular time? They remove a lot more of the gender stereotyping from these roles than I have.

Men, as you describe in the book, are sort of mired in this transition. As a mother of two sons (and a daughter), do you have any advice on how to raise boys to better adapt?

It has definitely changed the way I raise my children. My daughter and my elder son are both equally smart and they are both equally good students, but it is obvious that the things that school requires of you as a student these days come more naturally to her than they do to him. These are things outside of academic achievements, like sitting still, focusing, organizing yourself, getting yourself together for a project, doing these long verbal reports. They can both do them, but it is more of a struggle for him than it is for her.

A mom once told me, “Given the way school is these days, we all have to be our son’s secretary.” When she said that, I thought, I don’t want to be my son’s secretary. I don’t want his wife to have to be his secretary. We want him to be as independent as possible.

I feel like there are three ways that one can respond. The first way is to try and change him. The other option is to try to change the schools, which a lot of people do. But the middle ground I struck was to try and cultivate his own inner secretary. I set up a chart for him that tells him what he needs to do everyday. It will say, bring your P.E. bag, and don’t forget your lunch. Do this and do that. He has to check the chart everyday. If he forgets his lunch, he forgets his lunch, and it’s too bad, rather than me haranguing him on every single detail of his life. That is the way of meeting the world halfway, giving him the tools so he can meet the world as it is as best as he can without completely bending his nature or the nature of the world.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?

Can women fit the genius mold? We all know women can succeed within institutions and in school and sort of check the boxes in the workplace, but do women fit the out-of-the-box mold? Can you imagine a female Bill Gates, someone who works outside the institution, drops out of work, completely follows her own rhythm? That is the kind of woman that seems next on the landscape. And can that be a woman?

From my last interviewee, Alain de Botton, founder of the School of Life in London and proponent of bibliotherapy: What is wrong with the world, and what are you trying to do about it?

I think we are so fixed in our ways of thinking about gender dynamics. I am trying to get people to acknowledge what is happening right now and to respond to the world as it is, as opposed to how they think it is. I think that is the very first step of changing anything about our American workforce, about marriage relations, about the decline of marriage and children being raised alone.

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