Magdalena Hinojosa, a striking-looking single woman, is a senior associate vice-president at the University of Texas. She’s learned that her job makes men uneasy. So when they ask her what she does, she simply tells them she works at the university, in the admissions office. “You have to hide who you are, at the beginning, until that person is comfortable with you,” she says.
Liza Mundy, author of the just-published book The Richer Sex, met Ms. Hinojosa and a lot of other women like her. There’s Sami, the software engineer who tells men she’s a music teacher. There’s the young lawyer and her colleagues who tell men they work as hairstylists when they go out on the town. They have a lot more fun that way.
These are just some of the intricate sexual politics of a world in which women are rapidly becoming the major breadwinners. The statistics are arresting. Women in America now earn almost half the family income, and more than half in lower-income families. Forty per cent of wives now outearn their husbands. And the gender gap is closing fast. The median income of young, unmarried urban women in their 20s is now higher than the men’s.
Education is a major reason why. Women, especially minority women, are pursuing higher education at much greater rates than men. They’re primed for work in the knowledge economy, which is where most of the new jobs will be. “College is built for the female brain,” anthropologist Helen Fisher told Ms. Mundy. “What do you do in college? You sit. You read. You write and you talk.” Over the past 30 years, women’s earnings have been growing while men’s earnings have stagnated.
Meantime, as women’s attachment to the work force grows, men’s attachment has been shrinking. By 2006, even before the job losses of the Great Recession, just 66 per cent of men of prime working age (25 to 64) were employed full-time, down from 80 per cent in 1970.
Where did all those working men go? It’s not that the jobs dried up – their desire to work did. Older blue-collar men who’ve been laid off are often reluctant to take jobs they think are beneath them. Even men with higher education are less interested in work. Researchers have found that many non-working men spend much of their free time in “leisure activities and sleep.” Non-working women, by contrast, spend much of their free time in child care and housework.
Today, a lot of younger women simply don’t need guys any more. Guys can even be a liability. The New York Times reported last month that, in the U.S., having children outside of marriage is the new normal. More than half of births to American women under 30 now occur outside marriage. One mother, Amber Strader, 27, told the Times she was in an on-and-off relationship when she got pregnant. Marrying her boyfriend, a clerk at Sears, never entered her mind. “It was like living with another kid.”
If illegitimacy has lost its stigma, so has being out of work. Men who failed to provide for their families used to be known as “bums” and “deadbeats.” Now they’re just slackers.
The Richer Sex assembles plenty of evidence that, as women’s ambition is on the rise, men’s ambition is shrinking. Younger women are more focused and achievement-oriented than younger men. They have realistic career goals. Many younger men have no idea what they want to do or be. Younger women in the work force are eager for more responsibility. Younger men aren’t; they’re happy just to get by.
Women are flourishing in this new world. But many men aren’t. Men have always defined themselves as providers – it’s the main source of their identity. What happens when they aren’t needed as providers any more? What happens when their sense of purpose is lost? The answer is, they become unmoored. They stop being adults. “I’m kind of losing hope in men,” one high-achieving woman told Ms. Mundy. “My husband and his friends, they just love being bachelors – they love to hang around and smoke pot.”
As usual, men and women at the top of the socio-economic ladder have it easier. Their education levels are more equal, and it’s they who’ve benefited the most from the big incomes that wives can earn. But even the most affluent, educated people have fairly traditional hopes about their future mates. Women still want someone to look up to, someone who can pull his weight. Men are thrilled to marry women they regard as equals. But women who are far more successful than they are can make them feel demoralized and inadequate.
Has women’s success come at the expense of men? I’m not about to argue that. Society is better off because women have far more opportunity and can make more contributions to the world. Millions of men are proud of their accomplished wives, and proud to be devoted fathers. Gender roles are far more flexible than we ever thought, and people are capable of creative arrangements that benefit everyone. But the world has shifted beneath our feet, in ways we don’t yet fully understand. It’s going to take some time to work things out. Meantime, women such as Magdalena Hinojosa still find it hard to get a date.