Male Decline Is No Myth
Things are changing. So why do we only focus on what’s exactly the same?
Photograph By BSIP/UIG via Getty Images.
There have been moments during my book tour when I’ve wondered if I should have chosen a less combative title than The End of Men. The End of Male Privilege or The End of Macho or something that does not so easily alarm and send people running for safer ground. One of those moments was when I read historian Stephanie Coontz’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, “The Myth of Male Decline,” the latest entry in this important debate about whether women are still doing what they have always been doing—that is, struggling to catch up to men—or whether, as I argue, something new and more interesting is going on.
I have always been grateful to Coontz for the valuable lesson she taught me in her 2005 book Marriage, a History, in which she argues that we’ve all essentially gotten stuck in a rigid reading of the history of Western marriage: that the 1950’s Ozzie and Harriet days were the golden age, and everything since has been a tragic decline. Coontz shows that if you get a little more nimble and creative about how you read the trajectory—zoom back 100 years, for example, or telescope out to look at different cultures—you see that the pat narrative we have told ourselves about marriage is actually a lot more complicated. It was liberating for me to learn that, for example, some of our modern Jerry Springer-ish ways (my-sister-slept-with-my-husband!) were actually standard practice in ancient China.
This is what I have tried to do in my new book: get people to see that they are applying the same standard gender analysis to a rich and new landscape, and thus are missing or downplaying some of the genuinely novel trends that are emerging.
I hesitate to get drawn into data wars (if you have an appetite for them you should visit the blog of University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen). I’ve learned over the course of my research that data can support many different stories. For example, one figure in my book, and in Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex, that’s been much fought over is how many wives earn more money than their husbands.
We all agree that the number of female breadwinners leapt from only 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent in 2010. Coontz, however, discounts this gain by arguing that when we look at all married couples, not just dual-earner couples, the numbers look much weaker because some wives don’t work at all. This is a fair point. But if we are going to add on extra data samples, then I offer another, more relevant one: the growing number of single mothers. Trends in the United States do not point toward an explosion of full-time stay-at-home mothers but of single mothers who are, by default, for better or worse, often the main breadwinners of their families. We recently passed the threshold, for example, at which more than half of all births to mothers under 30 were to single mothers. I’m not sure this counts as feminist progress, but it does count as a profound shift in the traditional power dynamics of the American family.
In my book I call it “ambiguous independence.” The women are struggling financially but also learning by necessity to support themselves and their children. And because they are less economically dependent on men, these women are also less likely to stay in abusive relationships, as Coontz herself mentions.
Coontz takes on another data set that I discuss in my book: that young, childless women in their 20s have a higher median income than the equivalent men in the vast majority of metropolitan areas. These findings by market researcher James Chung were first reported in a Time magazine story in 2010. Coontz cites a new analysis of similar data showing that this particular demographic includes a disproportionate number of low-earning Latino men, which explains why women in this age group earn more.
For one thing, it’s hard to say if this new data set she points to is a statistical anomaly. Unlike Chung’s, the new numbers only cover a single year. But even if her data is accurate, and young Latino men are weighting the data, should we not care about that? It seems like just a fine-tuning of my thesis, that certain men are struggling in this economy. And even by Coontz’s reading, these young, childless Latino women are out-earning the Latino men, and these young white women and men earn the same—which alone is a remarkable shift. The explanation for that is simple: At that age, many more women have college degrees, and there are generally better jobs available for college graduates.
Coontz mentions a new analysis that will be unveiled later this month proving a wage gap in various professions for that same young, childless set. But how is that new? We know there is a wage gap. We know that Suzy likely earns less money than Bill who sits in the cubicle next to her, for many complicated reasons that I discuss in the book. The new development is this: For many jobs there are a lot more young Suzies in those cubicles these days than young Bills. That’s why these young women as a group have a higher median income.
Coontz makes the broader point that women—and even college-educated women—are continuing to segregate themselves into less prestigious, lower-paid professions. She points out that women are even more concentrated now than they were before in the fields of legal secretaries or “managers of medicine and health occupations.” We can call this by its old disparaging name: “gender segregation.” But we can also see it through a new paradigm—as Coontz so successfully encouraged us to do when looking at marriage—as women making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy. (You can see this decision-making at work in community colleges, the training camps for the current workforce, where the gap between men and women is the greatest.)