Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Don't Write Men Off Just Yet

The redefinition of masculinity is a work in progress.

For many years, I faithfully drank eight glasses of water a day. I was told it was good for me. I never really knew who first said that, or why. Now I find out that it's just a rough guideline from a 1945 government report; which also pointed out that we get most of the water we need from just eating food.

I'm beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening in that turbulent new arena of gender handicapping: that women are rising and men are toast -- their masculine roles as fire starter and bear killer usurped by a new age of female power.

Like the water rule, it's been repeated so often, we've come to accept it as fact. But also like the water rule, conventional wisdom about the decline of men ignores an important qualifier.

We're still working things out. The struggle to settle into new roles is less of a reversal than it is a rebalancing. And the rebalancing is far from over.

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Hanna Rosin fired a shot that has echoed through the media and blogosphere in her 2010 Atlantic article, "The End of Men." She argues statistically and persuasively that men are carbon paper in a digital world -- important in their time, but that time is gone. As a result, while women are conquering the world; men are conquering PlayStation zombies.

Others say; "Not so fast."

In a recent New York Times article, Stephanie Coontz asks: if men are in decline, why do they control the most important industries, dominate the list of richest Americans, make more money than women of similar backgrounds and skills, and make up 83 percent of Congress? She goes on to build her case with evidence that over the last 15 years, "in many arenas the progress of women has actually stalled."

What we're seeing, she argues, is not female ascendance, but "a convergence of economic fortunes." And that can be good for men and women, alike.

For a clue to the future, look to the Millennials. They are the first generation of men that has not had to recalibrate themselves to a generation of independent women rich in life options. Able and empowered women are no more remarkable to this generation than smart phones.

Studies confirm that younger men are less likely to get degrees than their female counterparts, and are more likely to live with their parents -- even into their 30s. But it's just as true that they are entering the world of adulthood without the linear certainties that took their fathers from school to job to family to retirement. And they are taking their place as the world works its way out of a recession so severe that the only benchmark is the Great Depression.

Women, of course, wake up every morning and go out into in the same world, but with the advantage of a culture that is loudly applauding -- and supporting -- their every step. Pick a large company, and try to find a support group for young male managers.

Studies also show that Millennial men are coming into this world with decidedly different attitudes about the importance of family, the division of household work and the working relationships with women. They are more tolerant and accepting than male generations past.

Another study found that men are actually better (faster and more accurate) diaper changers than women. It was part of a promotion, and far from peer-reviewed research. But what's interesting is how widely the media picked it up.

And that living at home issue? A University of Pennsylvania study found that young men who reside under mom and dad's roof out-earn those out on their own because, secure in the parental safety net, they can hold out for the right job.

To say that men are in irreversible decline based on snapshots is to say that those of us who grew up in the sixties would never tolerate another unnecessary war -- or come to realize that In A Gadda Da Vida was a really bad song.

True, men may have been knocked back on their heels by a society that has redefined their place. But that redefinition is a work in progress.

My bet: men will emerge different, and better -- freer to live lives unchained from masculine expectations. But it may take some time. We're all searching for balance, and we're still very new at this.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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