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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

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Something interesting has happened with many of the couples I know. The wives have now become the major breadwinners. They have high-powered jobs in design, consulting, medicine, public affairs, HR, law and banking. Many of their husbands are underemployed or semi-retired, not always by choice. One works behind the counter in a retail store. Another keeps the books for a small business. One is a freelance writer whose market has nearly dried up, and another husband has gone back to school for a degree. A couple of others work for their wives' businesses. Several of these men also organize the household chores and do the cooking.

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Thirty years ago, most of these men handily out-earned their wives. But the situation has reversed.

Could this be the future? Very likely. At every age and income level, women are more likely than ever before to be the major or sole breadwinner in the family. The reason is not that more women are working, but that fewer men are. Three-quarters of the people who lost their jobs in the U.S. recession were men, and the hardest-hit sectors were the male worlds of construction, manufacturing and finance. Many of those jobs aren't coming back. In the city of Hamilton - once known as Steeltown - just 2 per cent of the population still works in steel. In Sudbury, the town that nickel built, Inco's unionized labour force has shrunk from 12,000 to around 3,300 souls, who are currently locked in a futile long-term strike with their foreign owner.

Back in 2007, something happened in Canada that got almost no attention. We became the first country in the Western world where women outnumbered men in the work force. At first the gap was small - just one half of 1 per cent - but by 2009, the gap had grown to 3.5 per cent. (Note: Statistics Canada's measure doesn't include the self-employed.) This January, the United States followed us across the threshold.

All evidence suggests the gender shift is permanent. It would be nice to report that the sons of the striking nickel workers have gone off to university to become metallurgical engineers. But they have not. Just 18 per cent of Canadian males between 18 and 21 are currently attending university. Their sisters, though, are doing fine. They outperform their brothers in school and are far more focused on getting the credentials that will land them jobs as dental hygienists, bank clerks, office managers and nurses.

It's now conventional wisdom that a BA is the new minimum requirement for a good job in the postindustrial economy. Today, 58 per cent of all BAs are earned by women. And nearly all the fields that will yield the most employment growth over the next couple of decades are ones already dominated by women. (An exception: janitors.)

A richly reported story in The Atlantic magazine (The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin) argues that these changes in the workplace amount to an unprecedented role reversal, whose cultural consequences will be vast. She notes that even something as fundamental as the sex preferences of parents has changed. Throughout human history, when muscle-power mattered and patriarchy reigned, sons were infinitely more valuable than daughters. But now - from urban America to urban Beijing - people's preferences have tilted toward girls. According to Ms. Rosin, one U.S. outfit that offers sperm selection says requests for girls are running at about 75 per cent.

At the heart of the Atlantic piece is one highly provocative question. What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?

It's hard not to answer yes. The modern, postindustrial economy rewards people with a high degree of emotional intelligence who can navigate complex social networks. It rewards people who are flexible, adaptable and co-operative, who have good verbal skills, and who can work diligently, sit still and focus long enough to get the credentials they need to land a job. Women tend to be better at these things than men. They're also good at all the gender-neutral stuff, such as sales and analytical skills. Meantime, as muscle jobs vanish, men are showing little or no interest in becoming dental hygienists, kindergarten teachers or anything else that requires a high degree of people skills and nurturing.

It seems that just as women have more aptitude for certain jobs than men, they also have more aptitude for schooling - especially the long years of schooling you've got to put in to finish university. As Torben Drewes, an economics professor at Trent University, discovered, it's no mystery why more girls get in to university than boys. They're more motivated and they work harder in high school. "Fewer males had aspirations for university education than females and this fact might account for the lower levels of effort among them," he wrote. "However, it is also true that males were not able to produce high school averages (and, therefore, the entry requirement for university) as efficiently as females."

Men and women also behave differently once they get there. Here's what guys typically do in first-year university: play video games, work out, watch TV, party. Here's what girls do: study.

"If men were operating rationally in an economic sense, they should be flooding into higher education," says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington. But people don't always operate rationally. And so we have that most modern of stereotypes - the aimless, slacker man-boy who isn't really qualified for anything and can't quite latch on to the job market.

As women bring home more and more of the bacon - and sometimes the whole hog - what will men do? How will relationships between the sexes be renegotiated? How will men figure out new ways to be a man? I have no idea. But for the first time since women relied on men to chase away the lions and bring home a tasty side of mastodon, it's all up for grabs.

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