June 17, 2024

First of all, I hate this title; it works as a representation of neither the perspective of the book or the argument that it is making. Hanna Rosin has said that she’s had second thoughts about the title since the book was published, and I think that shows good, if belated, sense. I’m sure it’s helped to sell a few books and get her on talk shows, but it makes the book sound like something it’s not.

The fundamental argument Rosin is making here is that the relative economic power of men and women is shifting, and that this is having, and will have, social and cultural consequences. There are many reasons for the economic changes, but the one she pays the most specific attention to is the decline of American manufacturing, which has resulted in far fewer jobs available that pay enough to support a household by themselves— especially for people without much education.  Since most of the people who had those jobs were men, men have lost a significant amount of earning power as a result. Women have, out of necessity, responded by moving into the labor market—a majority of all workers in the U.S. are now women— and so have significantly more earning power than they used to.

Of course, women have been working forever, and there was a significant increase in women working outside the home beginning in the 1960s; what’s different now is the fact that men are earning so much less. Rosin points out that while women’s wages have increased steadily since the early 1970s, men’s have basically been stagnant; she also notes that today one in five men of “prime working age” is not employed at all. The economic change she describing, therefore, is less a simple leveling out than a reversal.

That has a number of consequences, some purely pragmatic, some less so. Until fairly recently, if a married heterosexual couple decided to have children, and decided that one of the couple should stay home, it generally made the most economic sense for that to be the woman, because the odds were good that she earned less money than her husband. That is increasingly not true, and today it might very well make more sense financially for the man to be the one staying home with the kids.

Not surprisingly, for some men, that idea really messes with their sense of masculine identity. One of the most striking and, for me, frustrating things about the book was the repeated inability (or unwillingness) of the men Rosin wrote about to adapt themselves to their new situation.   Part of what I’m talking about is the famous Second Shift, whereby women continue to do more of the housework and childcare even after they start working outside the home; apparently some men refuse to do more of this even when they don’t have a job. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the resistance to the idea of getting more education or training to find new kinds of jobs— and, especially, to move into jobs generally dominated by women. One of her chapters focuses on the town of Alexander City, Alabama, which used to be the manufacturing center for Russell athletic wear; the town lost most of its jobs when the company moved most of its manufacturing overseas. Alexander City will pay for two years of community college for any student who wants them; 65% of the students that take advantage of this offer are women, and most of them men who do don’t finish the full two years (meaning, in most cases, that they do not get any kind of degree or certificate). Similarly, while many jobs that used to be dominated by men are now much less so (or, as in the case of pharmacy—to which Rosin dedicates another chapter— have are now majority women), there has been much less movement in the other direction; some jobs, like elementary school teachers and social workers, have a larger female majority than they did in 1980. That’s especially a problem for men, given that much of the job growth that is expected to come in the next decade will be in fields dominated by women.

The most interesting observations— and the best analysis— in the book center on these kind of economic phenomena; when Rosin moves too far away from them, the book loses some of its focus. The first main chapter is actually about hookup culture on college campuses, and the gist is that as women’s economic power increases they are less focused on finding a husband and, so, tend toward short-term, mostly physical relationships, which require a smaller investment both emotionally and in in terms of time. There’s also a chapter about the increase in violent crime committed by women, and the argument there is similar; as they become more economically independent, women begin to act more aggressively— i.e., more traditionally “masculine.” Those two chapters— neither of which is uninteresting in itself— surround the sections on Alexander City and the rise of women in pharmacy, and both seemed to me to pull attention away from what Rosin is really on to. Less problematic but somewhat redundant is the chapter on the growing economic clout of women in Asia (and Korea in particular), which is mostly just a cultural variation on the economic theme; and the chapter on women executives at major companies was the least insightful in the book, arguing, basically, that more flexible workplaces help women and that resistance to women at the top will decrease as their numbers increase and they become more familiar.

There’s a lot that is of interest in this book, but in many ways what Rosin has really done is simply to assemble a large amount of data (both statistical and anecdotal) and present it in a coherent and engaging way. It’s when she tries to go beyond this to make broader cultural arguments that the book loses its way a bit. I’d recommend approaching it as a series of long-form pieces of journalism than a unified story, and then the somewhat underdeveloped connections will not stand out as much; taken like that, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to think about, and it’s more than worth the time it will take you to read it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.