Of all the things that need to be said about Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, the most significant is that it is not entirely true. Even before the book’s US release, informed critics were pointing out numerous flaws in the social statistics, the international perspective, the economic figures and even the accuracy of her case study interviews. I’ve thrown in a little credibility grenade of my own here. The apocalyptic case for The End of Men is far from made.
Rosin’s sensationalist hyperbole and slapdash attention to detail are frustrating, because as John Harris points out, the trends she examines are all too real. The underperformance of boys and young men in education and employment should be a major concern for us all. So too should be the impossible strains being felt by many women to fulfil simultaneous roles as dedicated breadwinner, successful careerist and devoted mother. As I read Rosin’s account of an exhausted cleaner sleeping in a stairwell after the triple shift of childcare, education and paid work, or of the Silicon Valley executives who rush home to put the kids to bed at eight before returning to the office until midnight, I was reminded of Sarah Palin’s great jibe at the newly elected President Obama, when she asked her Tea Party audience: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” On the evidence presented here, the brave new world of female triumph ain’t workin’ out for nobody.
To a large extent, the newly fashioned workplace is a victory not for feminism, but for capitalism. Since the 1980s economists have used the term “the feminisation of labour” to refer to the growing premium of communication and interpersonal skills, perceived emotional intelligence and other supposedly feminine attributes at work, and also to the development of an insecure, low-paid, low status, disposable workforce. Feminist theorist Nina Power has astutely noted that the feminisation of labour has been accompanied by the “labourisation of women” – unprecedented social and economic pressures to become another busy little worker bee in the globalised hive. The financial dynamics of employment rates, wages, rents, house prices and living costs have created a snare for us all. As Power says, the personal is not political; it is always entirely economic.
With that in mind, suggesting that men take it upon ourselves to reinvent our masculinity is little more than an instruction to pull our socks up, and doesn’t get to the question of why the socks might be down in the first place. Rosin argues that women have become better than men at playing the game of modern capitalism. Harris says the solution is for men to become better at playing by the rules. I’m more inclined to think that it is the game itself that needs changing.
How could that happen? We could start by correctly identifying the problems. Men are not becoming obsolete in the home and the workplace, but a significant proportion, especially of working class and poorer young men, are being left behind on pretty much any measure of success and wellbeing. Discussions of masculinity need to acknowledge that a significant minority of men do very well out of the current norms, and they are likely to be the ones who attain wealth, influence and power. As for the others, if they feel unsure as to what their role is meant to be, it may be because the wider culture doesn’t really know either. They are no longer needed as a mass workforce or as providers for families. They don’t need self-help books; they need decent training and meaningful jobs.
Many of the difficulties in achieving genuinely equal opportunities and social equality for men and women ultimately hinge upon the juggling act of children, household and career. Much of this can only be sorted between couples or within families, but employers need to ensure not only equal rights but equal acceptance of fathers and mothers working flexibly, taking time off for a child’s illness or appointments, and of course taking parental leave. Even among better employers, too often “family friendly policies” still mean “mother-friendly habits”.
There are institutional issues too. From paternity leave rights to the practices of the family courts, even sentencing in the criminal courts, our legal framework too readily assumes parent equals mother equals woman, and it is dispiriting when even modest proposals for reform meet resistance, not least from some feminists. Many men wish to be or become more active and responsible fathers only to find they have to fight the systems to do so.
Over the coming decades, our understanding of what it means to be a man will undoubtedly change. The change will not be so much in how men see ourselves, but in how all of us see each other – our peers, our friends, our partners and lovers and, above all, our children. Portray men as lazy failures, and lazy failures they shall become. Consider boys to be trouble, and troublesome boys they shall be. Concern about cultural misandry is usually considered the preserve of frothy bloggers and unhinged men’s rights activists, but the routine denigration and mockery of any man who deviates from heroic and patriarchal gender ideals – in movies, TV and advertising, in media coverage and political discourse – should concern anyone who desires a more fair and less gender-bound society. It’s rather tragic that in identifying some of these problems, The End of Men has added to them significantly.