There have been many articles, in the past few years, about the slippage men are experiencing. Fewer men are working; working men are earning less; men are more subject to discipline from the authorities, in school and in society; men are less likely to graduate. A number of articles on these phenomena have taken a hand-wringing tone: we can see this happening; it has to change; but we are not too sure how to make it change.
One possibility is that, actually, it doesn’t have to change – that it represents a permanent and growing shift in society. Consider the view that women have tended to be dominated by men. If that is true, then it is plausible that familiar concepts of male-female relations (e.g., couples, two-parent families) may be based on male rather than female preferences. Possibly, in the long run, many women will not be heavily invested in such concepts; and as women become increasingly able to arrange their lives as they choose, such concepts may become somewhat passé.
I would emphasize “somewhat.” There will always be women who want their own husband, home, and family. But which husband, and what kind of home and family? There is a strong tradition, among women, of preferring men who have superior wealth, power, social standing, or other advantages. Looking at it from the other side of the table, men seem more likely than women to philander and marry beneath their rank, as judged by such criteria.
Between that apparent mismatch of rank and the swelling numbers of independent women who prefer not to have a live-in man, there have been some indications that it may become more difficult for men of lower social strata to find wives. Women who might have married them in some other era may instead be chasing higher-ranked men, and so forth up the ladder, until we encounter multiple high-level women (in terms of looks or otherwise) being variously courted, elevated, manipulated, but in any event haremized by the richest and most powerful men. The underlying impression is that, for many women, it is more appealing to be one among the stable of liaisons available to a leader (or, perhaps, multiple leaders, serially or otherwise) than to be the spouse of a humbler male.
That impression does not have to be true of all or even most women to have an impact. If only a fraction of women entertain and pursue such ambitions — say, one out of four — the prospects for lower-ranked men will still be impaired accordingly. What happens, in the envisioned scenario, is that the increasing concentration of wealth, in men at the top, attracts numerous women, at and often below their rank; those women of lower rank are thus less available to men of their rank; and so forth down the ladder, ultimately leaving men at the bottom disproportionately unable to attract their own mates. In other words, this scenario suggests that the top 10% has not merely been grabbing workingmen’s wages and shredding their jobs, over the past 30 to 40 years; to some extent the top 10% may also have been stealing their women. Such an outcome would not be surprising; it is an established part of the behavior of men who seek dominance.
What is visualized here is an arrangement in which rich men and ambitious women agree, in effect, that less desirable men are somewhat bothersome, and thus may be deprived of significant elements of life, liberty, and happiness. Given the capabilities of the wealthy and powerful, one would expect such a scenario to result in legal, educational, psychological, media-based, and other schemes and institutions oriented toward the ridicule, accusation, suppression, injury, and often elimination of men – especially but not only those who are poorest, least educated, and least protected. People at the top are generally unconcerned about this oppression, not only because it does not seem to affect them personally, but to some extent because it serves their purposes.
Hence, when commentators wring their hands and ask what is to be done to help men become more willing and able to compete in today’s economy, they may be serving the agenda of the rich and famous. They seem to be advancing a narrative in which the problem is not with social arrangements but, rather, with men, particularly those who do not fit very well in a society structured to favor stereotypically female skills.
What are those skills? To take one example, a Forbes article (written by Glenn Llopis, dated August 22, 2011) identifies four traits that, it says, favor women in today’s society. (This and other accounts stereotype men and women, but that is OK for the moment; it goes without saying that we are talking on the level of gross generalities in order to get at certain ideas.) Summarized, those four traits are: women are more focused on the outcome and less likely to let their egos get in the way; women are better at networking and helping one another; women are better at cultivating long-term relationships; and women are less self-centered and more oriented toward social rather than personal benefit. While the Forbes article is brief and not entirely coherent, one does hear this sort of thing often nowadays.
And who could argue with such traits? It does seem, in such presentations, that women are simply better adapted for success into the foreseeable future. Yet caution seems appropriate. People of virtually any age and social arrangement can find it unquestionably better to do things their way. It was not too long ago that our society was broadly convinced of the superiority of men, for purposes of the working world. These things can change.
It would take too much space, here, to examine all of the female traits that Forbes purports to identify. But for purposes of illustration, consider an alternate perspective on the first one, regarding women’s superior focus on outcomes. Forbes uses the word “opportunity”: women are better at remaining focused on opportunities. If that is true, it would seem reasonable to infer that women are more opportunistic. Dictionaries define that word as indicating a tendency to take advantage of potentially beneficial circumstances, perhaps in an unethical way. It would be difficult to say that women are less ethical, if ethicality is defined differently by men and women. But it would not be difficult to say that men may feel that women, and institutions favorable to them, often elevate outcomes over principles. It would seem that women must do so, if they are to remain focused on outcomes as Forbes suggests.
There is an established belief that men have ego problems that women do not have. In Forbes’s words, women “don’t get their egos in the way.” An ego is apparently something that often gets in the way. Yet that seems odd, given dictionary definitions characterizing the ego as including one’s sense of self-esteem and self-image. One might rather contend that, in a dehumanizing world, the individual should get in the way. The little egos that would draw a line in the sand may be the ones that, if empowered, would contribute collectively to better neighborhoods and workplaces. On the grand scale, it should not be so terribly difficult for the little guy to oppose misbehavior by powerful people (and especially powerful men): to confront corporate irresponsibility, governmental corruption, and social injustice.
Often, it is best to go with the flow and to seek change from within. But sometimes it is not. Sometimes – whether involving protection of the home or insurrection against tyrants – peaceful options fail or do not exist. And in those cases, the people at the forefront tend to be male. It does appear glib for Forbes to suggest that women are more socially concerned when it is the men who predominate in suffering and dying to protect their own (or their family’s or society’s) turf. A less sexist perspective might urge, rather, that men and women are perhaps equally oriented toward the welfare of all, but may express that orientation differently and complementarily.
Behind the suggestion that men need to catch up, there is an assumption that a woman-friendly world is on the right track. In some ways, it may be. In other ways, it may not. The appropriate argument is not that men need to become more like women. It is, rather, that some parts of the world need to become more congenial to men, just as some parts have been becoming more congenial to women. One need not embrace the worst of male behavior (which is found not only at the bottom but also at the top ranks of society) to suggest that ordinary men need to be accepted for who they are and protected from predatory males, from their female admirers, and from the oppressive institutions and beliefs that such people have built up over the years. We should be permitted to live as something other than eunuchs.