Why (Some) Men Still Have It All
Working-class men may be doomed, but the ones who run the world are doing just fine.
The problem with The End of Men is that it pushes its high-concept premise beyond a point that the evidence supports. That’s not to say that Rosin’s deeply reported stories of sex roles in flux aren’t absorbing. The book ranges all over the country and beyond and is rich with beautifully rendered, idiosyncratic characters. In a chapter celebrating the liberating potential of the college hook-up culture, Rosin visits alpha-girl, Ivy League MBA students who recoil from commitment. Describing what she calls seesaw marriages—couples who trade off earning and child care responsibilities—she profiles a Pittsburgh family in which the wife, a lawyer, works 80 hours a week while her husband watches their toddler (though he refuses to do even half the housework). In a compelling final chapter, she ventures to South Korea, where the mores of what has long been a rigidly male-dominated society are being challenged by an ascendant class of professional women.
One of the book’s most heartbreaking sections takes us to Alexander City, Alabama, whose economy once revolved around the Russell Corporation, an athletic wear manufacturer. After it was sold to Berkshire Hathaway and production was outsourced to Central and South America, local men who had prided themselves on providing middle-class lives for their families were left flailing. Writes Rosin, “The townspeople referred to the ex-Russell men as three types: the ‘transients,’ who drove as far as an hour to Montgomery for work and never made it home for dinner; the ‘domestics,’ who idled at the house during the day, looking for work; and the ‘gophers,’ who drove their wives to and from work, spending the hours in between hunting or fishing.”
Since Rosin often weaves personal narrative into her writing, I hope it’s not untoward if I do the same. As I was finishing The End of Men, I discovered that my first child is going to be a boy. In many ways, my reaction confirms Rosin’s thesis. I immediately started worrying about the behavioral problems boys today are constantly being diagnosed with, and about the fact that boys, as Rosin documents, do worse than girls in school. That’s especially frightening given the ever-escalating importance of education in avoiding chronic economic insecurity.
More abstractly, I realized that when I picture youthful dynamism, spunk, and audacity, I picture a girl. In pop culture, as Rosin points out, daring young heroines have eclipsed heroes. Harry Potter is old news. Now we have Katniss Everdeen. It doesn’t surprise me that, as Rosin writes in her introduction, at some assisted-reproduction clinics that offer sex-selection through sperm sorting, there are significantly more requests for girls than for boys.
“Just before middle school, parents start to think of their boys as facing a choice of two roads: trouble or success,” she writes. “The responsible ones recognize that they can’t change the way the world is heading, but they can put a boy in an environment that doesn’t make him feel like a failure, and give him enough tools at least to keep up.” It’s almost as if my son will be starting out in life with a handicap. At least, I reassured myself, he might benefit from affirmative action: As Rosin documents, many private colleges, unbound by Title IX, have started quietly giving preferential treatment to boys in order to maintain some sort of gender balance in their student bodies.
Outside the educated upper middle class, meanwhile, prospects for boys and men are even more precarious. In one of the book’s most searing scenes, at a mandatory fathering class for men who have failed to pay child support, the social worker in charge voices the anguish of his reluctant students. “ ‘What is our role?’ ” Rosin quotes him asking. “ ‘Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.’ He writes on the board: $85,000. ‘This is her salary.’ Then: $12,000. ‘This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?’ ”
Elements of The End of Men echo Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The two books have very different political orientations, but both describe working-class cultures upended by men’s economic emasculation, and both discuss the way marriage is increasingly the preserve of meritocratic elites. Rosin’s book is far more insightful than Murray’s about these trends, since she understands that they’re largely the result of seismic economic shifts and not, as Murray would have it, simply due to the sexual revolution and general moral decay.
But there’s one way that Murray’s book is inadvertently useful in understanding our current gender relations, which are more contradictory than Rosin allows. Coming Apart places a lot of emphasis on the cultural bifurcation between the upper class and the rest of the country. Even as Murray casts a cranky glance at the newfangled pleasures and pieties of contemporary elites—their environmentalism, wine connoisseurship, and NPR listening habits—he shows that their domestic relationships are models of traditionalism, with low divorce rates and comparatively few out-of-wedlock children.
This idea of divergence—of two different cultures with entirely different trend lines—is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about gender roles. Because the fact is, while working-class men are in crisis, patriarchy, like the traditional family, endures at the most elite levels of American life. Boys may have a harder time in school than girls, but that’s not entirely new—women have been earning more college degrees than men since 1982. Once men make it through the educational gauntlet, however, they make more money and ascend more quickly to positions of power than their female peers, and that shows few signs of changing. It’s a bit premature to declare the end of men in a country that is still almost entirely ruled by them.
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