Untimely Observations

Something Worth Doing (Part I)

Part I: On “The End of Men”

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin wonders, “what if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”

With women surpassing men in employment, college admissions and the attainment of advanced degrees, this is becoming a popular question. The America we’ve created and the progressive vision of its future does seem to herald the end of men, or at least as Lionel Tiger predicted several years ago in The Decline of Males, the end of their social and political dominance. Tiger forecasted a transition from traditional nuclear families to socialist bureaugamy, defined as “a family pattern involving a mother, a child, and a bureaucrat.” Public healthcare is clearly a step in that direction. Rosin suggests that our future could look a lot like the present does for lower-class blacks. The fathers seldom make anything of themselves, but the mothers eventually take advantage of the myriad of public assistance programs available to them, find decent jobs and become the matriarchs of new middle class families.

Although Rosin seems to believe that something should be done, she is short on suggestions. This is striking in that if the same things were being said about women -- that maybe women aren’t suited to the world we’ve created -- we’d be reading regular calls for a national red alert and think tanks would be dreaming up new affirmative action programs for women by the dozens. Because we’re talking about men, only a handful of writers seem to be able to manage even so much as a shoulder shrug. For men, this probably has something to do with vanity and ego. For women, the idea that men will ever be at a cultural disadvantage seems preposterous. And yet…the  numbers are the numbers. If current trends continue, women are as likely to become the economically and politically dominant sex in the next 30-40 years as Latinos are to eclipse whites as the most populous demographic group. Take California.

Is the environment that makes female dominance possible truly sustainable? Is this “postindustrial society" inevitable? Many seem to think it is, though it seems almost childishly naïve to imagine a whole world run by female “knowledge workers” who conduct polite meetings in air conditioned offices.

Who will build the offices, manufacture the air conditioners, install the ventilation systems? Who will slaughter the animals that supply the leather for those fashionable new designer heels? Who will run and unload the ships that bring the gourmet coffee? The whole world cannot become a “postindustrial” suburban shopping mall. The reason it seems so in America is because we outsource so much of the dirty work to other nations. Our manufacturing jobs aren’t just disappearing into thin air, they’re going somewhere. American shoppers rely on an industrial economy that exists somewhere.

We haven’t quite reached that Jetsons future where robots make robots who make and do everything for us. And if it were just around the corner, would we really want that future?

But for the moment, let’s put aside the economic, practical and technological questions.

Is the postindustrial, globalist economy something that just happens to us? Is it our fate, or is it something we have the power to control? And if we can control it -- humans did create it, after all -- do we all really want it? It is really "progress," in the positive sense?

Early feminists must have imagined how exciting and fulfilling a “career” would be for women, compared to the seemingly mundane work of running a household and rearing children. For a minority of professionals and members of the hip, jet-setting “creative class,” that may be the case. But how exciting and fulfilling is having a career, really, when you’re an accounts payable clerk or a middle manager or a customer service representative? How rewarding is your work when it entails navigating through a series of policies and scripts at some bank, or cell phone company, or retail chain?

A healthcare recruiter I worked for once kvetched, “My generation of women all wanted careers! They all thought it would be great to go out and work! They didn’t know how good they had it! What’s so great about working?! This is boring the hell out of me and I’ve got 10 years till I retire. I’d rather be home by the pool!”

Women may well be more content to come into work every day, gossip a little and shuffle through their inboxes until quitting time in exchange for a sense of security and enough money to do a little shopping. They’re probably a little better at navigating office politics and keeping things on an even keel.

But I suspect that the problem with men these days is not so much an aptitude gap as a general lack of direction and motivation. Rosin cites a gossipy conversation between two sorority sisters about a boyfriend who has changed majors “like, 16 times.” The girls seem to know that they want things and kids, and they settle on the most appealing career path that can deliver those things. Men used to assume they would marry have a family, and do likewise, but now women really only need their sperm, some validation and, if possible, a second paycheck. Unburdened of filial responsibility or any real expectation that they will become providers, protectors or heads of their households, many men seem to  find themselves at a loss for what to do.

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact.

-- Fight Club (1999)

What’s worth doing? What’s out there? Why bother? What’s the point?

Is "stay male and die" really all men have left to do?

This discussion dovetails nicely with Shop Class As Soulcraft, a book by Matthew B. Crawford that I recently finished reading. It’s an unfortunate, New-Agey title for a thoughtful and at times incisive book about what happened to work in the West, the satisfaction of gaining tacit knowledge versus being a “knowledge worker,” holistic craftsmanship and stochastic work compared to the execution of micromanaged “processes,” and the difference between a tradesman’s crew and a corporate “team.” Crawford sidesteps the gender issue wisely but unconvincingly, because what happened to work -- as Rosin suggests -- can tell us a lot about what is happening to men.

Crawford’s thoughts on satisfying work will be discussed in Part II of this essay, to follow soon.