Women on Top, Men at the Bottom

Story Stream
recent articles

Sit on a bench on the Thompson Hall lawn -- the "green" at the University of New Hampshire -- and watch the students walk past. Scattered among legions of women you may sight the occasional male. Observe his attire, and you will likely see a discordant trifecta: Timberland work boots, sweatpants and a backpack. Is he headed to the field and manual labor, to his dorm room for a Donkey Kong marathon, or is he shooting towards a professional career? We're told to dress for the job we want. If their dress is any indication, these young men reply firmly, "I don't know."

It's not this way just in college. When male students graduate -- if they do -- uncertainty is often what they tenaciously hold to. Glancing off jobs and relationships, they remain undecided about what to do and whom to love for the better part of a decade. This is the thesis Kay Hymowitz explores in her new book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women is Turning Men into Boys. Well, not boys exactly, but rather "preadults," a term Hymowitz coins and uses frequently. Either way, the implication is an unflattering metamorphosis.

Preadulthood -- most common among men in their twenties, though it can easily extend to one's thirties and beyond -- is a consequence of two related economic trends that are reshaping the coming-of-age experience for young Americans, both men and women. The first trend is the extended period of training -- college and beyond -- deemed necessary to succeed in the modern economy. The second trend is women's participation and flourishing in the new economy. Breaking news? Not exactly. But developments that are here to stay make Hymowitz's book all the more timely.

Hymowitz rejects the popular idea that preadulthood is a limbo state, an extended frat party for dudes unwilling to grow up. Preadult males may play video games (the average gamer is 35) and "ride their bikes in traffic," but preadulthood is "not even remotely a college after-party." Its roots, Hymowitz says, are a "predictable, perhaps even necessary, response to massive changes in the way Americans earn a living."

Economic changes drive cultural ones. This underlies Hymowitz's narrative, and it represents a noteworthy change in the author's outlook. In her previous book, Marriage and Caste in America (2006), Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argued that the erosion of their "life script" -- school, career, marriage and family -- accounted for the floundering lives of young men in their twenties. Young men sank into joblessness and poverty, crime and addiction when marriage and fatherhood broke down or were not contemplated. "There is no way to attack these worrisome economic trends without tackling culture," Hymowitz wrote. What results is a "destructive pattern of drift, of a tendency for men to stumble through life rather than try to tame it."


The thrust of Manning Up is different. In her new book, Hymowitz puts economic conditions first -- along with the increasing professional accomplishments of women. Preadulthood, she says, is "an adjustment to huge shifts in the economy, one that makes a college education essential to achieving or maintaining a middle-class life." Hymowitz points to the lifetime earnings gap separating college graduates from those who have only a high school diploma. But as a changing economy becomes more friendly to the educated, it also becomes "very, very female friendly," offering women more career choices. Last year, women became a majority of the workforce: "At the heart of preadulthood is women's determination to achieve financial independence before marriage."

Indeed, the "second sex" so dominates higher education from attendance data to graduation statistics that the College of William and Mary has a compensatory male-friendly admissions policy. As one administrator explained to writer Andrew Ferguson, "We are the College of William and Mary, not Mary and Mary." After graduation, young single women out-earn men in nearly every U.S. city, and they are more than twice as likely to own real estate. More education typically means delaying marriage. The average college-educated woman now waits until she is 28 to tie the knot. And what goes for the goose goes for the gander. Forty years ago, 80 percent of men aged 25-29 were married. Today it's 40 percent.

If women have adapted well to the new economy, the same cannot be said for many men. Why not? It easy to paint the rise of working women as the reason why working men are losing ground, but that's an oversimplification. In Boys Adrift (2007), psychologist Leonard Sax argues that men aren't getting the training they need and blames the education system. The school curriculum is all wrong for boys. They're taught reading and writing at too young an age. Competitive activities and hands-on learning are discouraged. Boys are reprimanded when they show an interest in war and violence. Taken together, these changes lead to the "widespread belief among the children themselves that school isn't welcoming to real boys." Restless and bored, boys are diagnosed as ADHD and medicated accordingly. If Tom Sawyer were a boy today, says Sax, he would be on Adderall.

Sax makes his case well, but I don't believe the challenges facing men can be pinned solely on a female-centric education. Schools by themselves can't affect a child's life trajectory as much as we sometimes imagine. Overlapping political, economic and cultural factors are far more significant.


Government social programs are the culprit for the libertarian scholar Charles Murray. In a 2010 address to the American Enterprise Institute Murray relates the story of the janitor:

When the government takes the trouble out of being a spouse and parent (through a range of government social programs like welfare, healthcare and daycare), it doesn't affect the sources of deep satisfaction for the CEO. Rather, it makes life difficult for the janitor. A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: "He is a man who pulls his own weight." "He's a good provider." If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn't.

Murray's poignant description of the impact of welfare state programs is on the mark; it has been played out to devastating effect in many inner-city communities. However, the moral hazard created by government overreach is overstated for those men in working class and middle income communities whose lives have been dislocated by the recession and long-term economic changes.

Journalist Hanna Rosin describes a group of men in Kansas City who could be Murray's janitors. In her essay "The End of Men" (Atlantic, June 2010) she calls them "casualties of the end of the manufacturing era."

The 30 men sitting in the classroom aren't there by choice: Having failed to pay their child support, they were given the choice by a judge to go to jail or attend a weekly class on fathering, which to them seemed the better deal. Like them, he [the social worker running the class] explains, he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical "white picket fence" -- one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. "Well, that check bounced a long time ago," he says..."All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain't even that...What is our role? Everyone's telling us we're supposed to be the 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?" A murmur rises. "That's right. She's the man."

The recession has been a defining event in the working lives of many men my father's age. When the housing market tanked, taking the construction industry with it, my former boss watched as a year's worth of anticipated work evaporated almost overnight. He laid off his five-man crew, myself included, who counted on siding to houses and remodeling kitchens. Twenty-six years old and single, I lost a job. My coworkers, in their forties with mortgages and families and working at the only jobs they knew, lost far more.


Rosin's arresting line -- She's the man. What does it mean to be a man?

In his 2006 book Manliness, Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield combs through events in history and works of literature to offer an answer. To become a man is to develop a sense of duty, he writes, which means responding productively to life's challenges. An ad for the U.S. Navy shows men jumping from helicopters into the ocean on a rescue mission. The subliminal message: "Answer the call."

Mansfield notes that most expressions of manliness are hidden beneath the clutter of everyday life. Only emergencies bring it to the surface, as when a family man jerry-rigs a pull cord to fire up the generator and restore power to his house after a winter ice storm. Ah! Where would his home and family be without heat, without him. This is manliness employed.

Today, however, men are unemployed, and the cause, Mansfield believes, is modernity, which relies on technology more than duty to satisfy our needs and protect us from trouble. The economy's productivity and the government's programs provide the baseline level of safety and security. Security, says Mansfield, is the "very antithesis of manliness." There's the rub. Today's rescue mission is not men jumping from helicopters. It's the Allstate man, or woman, handling your insurance claim. "The entire enterprise of modernity could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed."

Mansfield, like Murray and Rosin, locates men at the intersection of work and family. All three suggest that growing numbers of men are unemployed, not only in the job market but within the family. It's small wonder, then, that a rising generation of young guys is unsure why, or how, to enter manhood. "My mother says to get a job, But she don't like the one she's got," sings the rock band Green Day in "Longview," an anthem to the squandered potential and ennui of young American men who are Hymowitz's preadults. "In a house with unlocked doors, And I'm fucking lazy."


Hymowitz argues that economic trends are making the transition to manhood more complicated. Can men figure out a way to beat the trends?

Conventional wisdom suggests that if men want better jobs, they should seek more schooling to overcome the widening earnings gap between those with a college education and those without. The "knowledge economy," as it's called, shouts, "You earn what you learn." But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? Peter Theil, the billionaire founder of PayPal, is skeptical about the benefits of college: "Parents see kids moving back home after college and they're thinking, 'Something is not working. This was not part of the deal.'"

What's happening is that two constraints are weakening the conventional wisdom.

One reason why the "knowledge economy" is misfiring is that many jobs in the modern economy require no advanced training. Writer Matthew Crawford contends that a modern economy is cognitively stratified. Truly intellectual and creative tasks fall to a shrinking pool of elites, who codify their work into efficient and uniform systems of rules and processes that govern what most other people do for a living. In the introduction to his recent translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Professor Mansfield underscores what that French visitor noted more than a century and a half ago:

The most efficient production of consumer goods requires both concentration of capital -- large corporations -- and specialization of labor -- small, repetitive tasks. This kind of production gives rise to inequalities not just in the incomes but eventually in the very abilities of workers and managers. Repetition of small tasks narrows one's mental faculties, whereas the challenge of managing a large corporation may enhance them. Tocqueville forsees the possibility of an industrial aristocracy based almost exclusively on intellectual ability, the new sort of aristocracy we now call meritocracy... Democracies will either have to swallow the new kind of inequality for the sake of maximizing material prosperity, or else accept diminished economic productivity for the sake of equality.

If Mansfield is right, then we can better understand the findings of a report that Thiel commissioned in 2009. It argued that the increasing earnings gap was caused not by a rise in wages for the college educated, but by the falling wages of those with only high school diplomas. According to government data, the median annual earning for a man aged 25-34 with a high school diploma fell dramatically from $44,200 in 1980 to $32,000 in 2008 (in constant 2008 dollars). Median annual earnings for men with a bachelor's degree crept up only slightly $52,300 to $55,000. The earnings of women without a college degree fell just a bit to $25,000, while women with a college degree experienced an earnings jump from $38,800 to $45,000. "Relative to the past," the report states, "students who go to college do better than their peers who do not, but this is simply a mathematical result of their peers doing worse than in the 1970s." That's particularly the case for men.

The second constraint on the conventional wisdom that "you earn what you learn" is that what you earn increasingly depends on what others learn. College becomes a zero sum game to the extent that employers use the acquisition of a college degree as a device to screen out prospective employees. Any benefit depends on someone else not going to college. A corollary is that as more workers complete college, the wage premium for a degree shrinks. British economist Fred Hirsch predicted this in his 1977 book Social Limits to Growth: "More education for all leaves everyone in the same place...it is a case of everyone in the crowd standing on tiptoe and no one getting a better view."

Many students attend college primarily to pass the employers' initial screening. Consider the subjects they choose as majors. By far the single largest field of study is business, which accounts for more than one in five undergraduate degrees. I was a business economics major, and I think my fellow students and I thought our degrees sent a signal that we could think. They were not markers for what we had learned.

Most Americans agree. According to a recent Pew Poll, 57 percent say higher education fails to provide good value for money. However, they recognize that there is no other option: nearly every parent surveyed (94%) expects their child to attend college. Young people are forced to take on potentially crippling debt in order to earn a credential whose value diminishes with each additional new college graduate. The alternative is to opt out of the college pool, be overlooked by employers and thrust into intense competition for low-wage employment. My cousin's ten-year-old son recently told me his solution: "I'm going to college. Then I will work construction with my dad."


Hymowitz's book does an excellent job chronicling the rise of preadults, and her case that economic changes are driving cultural ones is compelling. As another writer, Jonathan Rauch, agrees, shifting economic norms are reshaping the American family. Rauch says the new model is delayed marriage and delayed family formation, as men and women pursue their education. This ushers in new gender roles. Fatherhood is redefined to include providing for children's emotional well-being. Motherhood is redefined to include bringing home a paycheck.

The new model is effective for some, but Rauch warns that, "for many Americans, the new rules are not a perfect or complete or sometimes even adequate substitute for the old." Most Americans don't delay family formation into their thirties because they're finishing up their MBAs, and for them the path to successful adulthood is increasingly hard to locate. Helen Fisher, one of the brains behind Match.com, the world's largest dating website, told a writer for the New Yorker: "Our social and sexual patterns have changed more in the last fifty years than in the last ten thousand...and we don't know what to do."

Next year Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart will provide the data to back up Fisher's point. Murray notes that American behavior in the core areas of marriage and family is dividing along class lines to an unprecedented extent. For the educated upper middle class, the new rules work fine. But in the working class, intact families are an endangered species.

Murray compares the extent of marriage in the upper-middle class relative to the working class for those in the prime of life (ages 30-49). In the 1960s, 88 percent of those considered upper-middle class and 83 percent of those considered working class were married. In 2010, the figures were 83 percent and 48 percent. That 35 percent gap "amounts to a revolution in the separation of classes in this country...Marriage has collapsed in the working class." And the rate of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed. In 1960 only six percent of children of working class parents were born out-of-wedlock. Today the number is nearly 50 percent. (Murray looks only at data for white Americans to underscore his argument that class, not race, is the issue that divides us.)

Hymowitz's book doesn't address this issue, and it's an important shortcoming. Instead she focuses on college-educated guys like me who are successfully drifting, not fighting to survive. My name is Philip, and I am a preadult. That sounds right.

Hymowitz's advice to preadults is to "man up." I respond: We want to, and we will, we are just figuring out how.

Show comments Hide Comments