The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Despite the title of Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men is clearly written from the standpoint of women. Men as a sex are languishing: they do not complete college, are not working full-time jobs, and, with the economic downturn of the past four years, their prospects look bleak. By contrast, women are flourishing. The modern economy was made for them. By exploring how women came to dominate in this economy and society, Rosin hopes to show men how they, too, can succeed.
At the heart of Rosin’s analysis is the distinction between “plastic woman” and “cardboard man.” Plastic woman is succeeding; cardboard man, failing. Plastic woman’s chief virtue is flexibility. Over the last century, she has gone from “barely working at all to working only until she got married to working while married and then working with children, even babies.” Cardboard man is utterly inflexible. He clings to the old ways: “A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same.” He is still looking for that manufacturing job, even though the factory closed down years ago. He desires to work and hopes to demonstrate his manliness as provider and protector, but women have all the money and power.
The End of Men is a tour through the new life of the plastic woman, how she succeeds, and what cardboard man should learn from her. Plastic woman pursues opportunities and is not limited to any antiquated notions of womanliness: “If a space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. If she is no longer required by ladylike standards to restrain her temper, she starts a brawl at the bar. If she can get away with staying unmarried and living as she pleases deep into her thirties, she will do that too. And if the era calls for sexual adventurousness, she is game.” But first, she pursues sex.
“To put it crudely,” Rosin insists, “feminist progress is largely dependent on the hook-up culture.” Hook-ups enable women to have all the fun of sex, without allowing these trysts to devolve into full-blown relationships, which would “steal time away from studying.” It is not that they are uninterested in marriage, Rosin reveals. Hooking up is “an island they visit mostly during college years, and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don’t know any better.” The long-term goal is still marriage, but it’s a priority that comes after good grades, internships, a secure job, and financial stability. “I want to get secure in a city and a job,” explains one young woman. “I’m not in a hurry at all. As long as I’m married by thirty, I’m good.” Rosin believes that throwing common sense (not to mention morality) to the wind and having sex with strangers “enables” women to gain that security.
Women are indeed getting secure jobs. Plastic women are everywhere and in every socio-economic class. Rosin meets them on Wall Street and behind the counter of the local drug stores. They are high-powered executives in Silicon Valley, not to mention the teachers and administrators that form the bedrock of the middle class. No longer is a unionized factory job the ticket to the middle class—that ticket comes from the nursing degree and a stable job at the local hospital. Women have those jobs. In addition, women dominate 20 of the 30 occupations projected to add the most jobs to the economy, including “nursing, accounting, home health care assistance, child care, and food preparation.”
Plastic women are beginning to earn higher incomes than men and become the family breadwinners. What women most value in a career, however, is flexibility—the ability to work from home, to work part-time, and to have meaningful work (rather than just collecting a paycheck).
Despite plastic woman’s success, obstacles remain. The fault, according to Rosin, is mostly men’s. Finding a husband is tricky these days. For Americans without a college degree, marriage rates are declining. Plastic women in this demographic choose “to stay single rather than marry men who can’t step up and provide.” These plastic women bend the most: they are single mothers, attending school full-time, working nights, and falling asleep on the elevator between floors two and five.
For women in the upper middle class, finding a mate depends on matching his ambition to hers. A man with too much ambition may be dangerous, because “the surest way for a man to exhibit his social status . . . is to find the most highly paid woman [he] can, working in a highprofile job, and shut her down.” Though not explicitly stated, a man with too little ambition could make a good househusband or simply be dead weight. The trick is to “marry the middle manager,” someone who can contribute without threatening or being threatened by plastic woman’s success.
Rosin identifies a new form of marriage, the “seesaw marriage.” Roles are “fluid.” Anyone can be the breadwinner: “A husband can work to support his wife through school and then she can take over and be the hotshot lawyer.” The roles change not because of some theoretical notion of what an equal marriage looks like (e.g., men do 50% of the laundry and dishes no matter what). Instead, self-expression trumps duty, and roles teeter and totter so that “each partner can have a shot” at “individual self-fulfillment.”
Figuring out who is up or down at any given moment requires a lot of planning. Husbands and wives begin to act like “corporate stock partners at a work retreat,” constantly evaluating their status and updating the to-do list. Rosin leaves readers guessing about the long-term success of these arrangements. And, curiously, she never addresses the fact that despite deliberate planning, these marriages lack a common end or purpose. The family is not treated as a unit. Instead, each spouse has individual goals, and everything else (including children) is a bargaining tool. Ultimately seesaw marriage is about meeting each partner’s own goals and not serving each other’s needs.
Even with bargaining and lists, one duty is not transferrable: housework. Men simply will not do it, or at least much of it. Women may refuse to cede the domestic space, but Rosin blames male intransigence.
This brings us to cardboard man, who clings to his old ways. Rosin’s prescription: recognize that the old ways are over and look for new opportunities. “Theoretically, they can be anything these days: secretary, seamstress, PTA President,” she argues. “But moving into new roles, and a new phase, requires certain traits: flexibility, hustle, and a very expansive sense of identity.”
This suggestion is practically driven. Rosin’s advice for cardboard man is rooted in plastic woman’s needs. She works long hours, earns good money, but is still doing most of the housework. Men are dropping out of the workforce, so should they not pick up the slack at home? But at the same time—and this is Rosin’s central flaw—her solution is demeaning to men. The working-class men she interviews want jobs. They are concerned about time out of the labor market, and Rosin suggests they settle for housework. Besides, is the life of a homemaker not a “comfortable concentration camp,” as Betty Freidan infamously described it? Was spending time at home not the reason women wanted and needed to conquer the workforce? That seems to be the point: “In the future—perhaps after his own long spell as underdog and chief caretaker for the children—cardboard man may become more plastic, too,” Rosin concludes.
Are men really as bad as Rosin makes out? Most men already have a desire to work, and the instinct to provide still lingers. Absent from the book are ways to channel that impulse toward becoming men worthy of providing for their wives. Rosin peppers The End of Men with glimpses of successful men: the “cute entrepreneur” husband of one Google employee; Harold Evans, Tina Brown’s respected husband; the anonymous but driven husbands in South Korea; and even Rosin’s own husband, Slate editor and author of The Genius Factory, David Plotz. Couldn’t cardboard man take a cue from these men? Get a degree, start a business, write a book, get out there and do something?
This is not to say plastic woman has nothing to teach. Plastic woman is admirable but in many ways leads an undesirable life. Perhaps the difficulty of finding the right husband who will be a true partner will cause women to rethink spending their twenties selecting mates on sexual prowess alone. By reading The End of Men, women may learn how to ask for a raise with confidence and how to navigate the delicate balance between being an assertive manager and coming across as a wench. Perhaps seeing the high importance successful women place on spending time with their children will lead young women to think more strategically about what they want out of life. Maybe it is not cardboard man who needs to learn from plastic woman—maybe it is future generations of plastic women.
Julia Shaw is a research associate and program manager for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles & Politics at The Heritage Foundation.