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December 21, 2012: Stay at home dad Yariv Wolfe out shoveling the drive way after a storm with his children Ma'ayan 8, Tzipi 6, Ari 3 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
December 21, 2012: Stay at home dad Yariv Wolfe out shoveling the drive way after a storm with his children Ma'ayan 8, Tzipi 6, Ari 3 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

The decline of men? Actually, it’s a release Add to ...

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

This year, men took it in the teeth. Young men were chastised for not using their brains to get themselves off to university, making them poor marriage pickings for their savvy, ambitious female peers. Older men were getting pink slips, from their employers, and from their self-sufficient, fed-up boomer wives, marking a rise in the “silver-haired” divorce rate. Women were trying to “have it all,” while men settled with the leftovers, or tried to keep up. Doom and gloom was the dominate storyline. The prevailing message: For one gender to rise, the other must fall.

That’s a one-dimensional script, however, for a 3-D-world. For starters, predicting the end of men is premature when on average they still earn more than women and dominate the boardrooms of North America. As that changes, men can’t lay claim, unchallenged, to the corner office. But they also won’t get squeezed out of bedtime stories. In many homes, especially among those of middle-class men faring so poorly in the public eye, and the young men seen to be dithering their lives away, a quiet accommodation is well on its way.

“Younger men assume greater equality at work and at home than any other generation of men in history,” argues sociologist Michael Kimmel, founder and editor of the journal Men and Masculinities, and the author of Guyland: the Perilous World Where Boys become Men. And, as he writes in a recent commentary on the current “men-ending” rhetoric, it’s both inaccurate – and grossly unfair – to cast men as “antediluvian dinosaurs, unwilling or unable to adapt, slouching towards extinction.”

The men Kimmel studies expect their wives to work, assume they will be involved fathers, are comfortable with women as colleagues, and open to gay marriage – a value which itself upends the traditional gender roles of straight partnership. That’s an attitudinal turnaround Betty Friedan couldn’t have imagined when she described housewife ennui in The Feminine Mystique. The book, credited with launching the second-wave of feminism, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. In Friedan’s world, men were the villains, or at least the willfully blind; a half-century later, that us-against-them posture is counterproductive. “Gender equality is not a zero sum game,” says Kimmel. “The rise of women is not the end of men, it’s the beginning.”

Consider these statistics: According to a 2012 national study on work-balance and caregiving by Carleton University’s Linda Duxbury and Christopher Higgins at Western University, which surveyed more than 24,000 Canadians, women were either primary earners or equal breadwinners in just over half of participating families. One in three women said their partner had primary responsibility for child care. And in dual-income families, men and women reported that they were equally likely to miss work for child and elder care.

In Quebec, where provisions for parental leave are the highest in the country, 84 per cent of men took time off for the birth or adoption of a child in 2010 – an increase from 22 per cent in 2004. Over the last decade, men have steadily increased the hours spent on housework (though, yes, even working wives do more) and child care – responsibilities that balance out even more among younger men. And while stay-at-home dads are still in the minority, their numbers are also up: 12 per cent in 2011, from 7 per cent in 1996.

For Yariv Wolfe, a 44-year-old stay-at-home dad in Ottawa with four kids, the decision was a no-brainer: He worked long hours, with no guaranteed benefits. His wife, Georgette, earned more, and she didn’t want to stay home, but they agreed that one of them should. It’s important, he says, that they made the choice together; “If one person, man or woman, feels forced to stay at home, or, hell, forced into working in a coal mine, then it will be a negative experience.” So Wolfe juggles the kids, cooks and cleans. “We look at our family as a team; we are racing with each other, not against each other.”

The ‘male provider’ bill of goods

The decline of the male advantage, observes Stephanie Coontz, research director at the Council of Contemporary Families Evergreen State College in Washington State, means, “men are released from the burden of doing all the providing. They are no longer denied the satisfaction of being involved parents and partners at home. Both men and women are free to be more well-rounded human beings.” In writing her latest book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz says she interviewed men who raised families in that time period, and who, “actually cried when they talked about how they had been sold a bill of goods by the ‘male provider’ model of masculinity.” Their sons – and mostly their grandsons – have paid attention.

Masculinity is still a complex and conflicted cultural creation (which hardly sets it apart from feminine identity), and there’s a pragmatic financial incentive to all this equal thinking: These days, families need two incomes to get by. But men too want a better work-life balance, happy, equal relationships, and stronger role as fathers. In more egalitarian households, studies have shown, the kids get better grades, wives are happier, and men themselves have lower rates of smoking, higher rates of marital satisfaction and are less likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Those modern values are clearly articulated by men under the age of 35. Dr. Kimmel, who believes the post-secondary education woes facing young men is just a temporary societal adjustment, likes to tell this story: in 1989, when When Harry Met Sally came out, he would ask his students who had friends (without benefits) among the opposite sex. A few hands might go up. Now when he asks that question, everyone puts their hand up. While that might not be surprising, it’s significant: it’s hard not see a friend as an equal, at home and at work.

A different work-life conflict

Workplace data also suggests that it’s unfair, and unproductive, to exclude a male perspective from the “have-it-all” discussion. Canadian men and women now report the same level of work-life conflict, not because women are necessarily more stressed, but because more male workers say they are struggling to find a balance. Even as workplaces develop a culture where time off for family (or dashing out early for the kids) becomes more acceptable for women, it remains less so for men. “If everyone sees the vice-president of marketing has a baby and doesn’t take time off, that sends a message.” says Jeremy Smith, the author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are transforming the American Family. (Indeed, while there was great tut-tutting when Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, Inc., took just two weeks off after having a baby, where are the stories about male executives using their paternity leave to help change diapers?)

“When my wife and I married, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and one of us was that natural caregiver,” says Smith. “Now Plan A for a young couple is that both are going to work and both are going to share everything. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, but plan A is what they are shooting for. The important shift is that a lot of men see this in their best interest.”

For Kyle Margenau, a 35-year-old father of three, his wife Lindsay’s job with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs take precedence. Right now, they live in Hawaii, where Lindsay is staying home with their new baby and Kyle is working as a teacher – but another posting is in their future. “I have always been comfortable with it being that way,” says Margenau. “Without a doubt the relationship that I get to have with my kids makes any loss of career potential not matter.” Looking back, he says, a time-consuming career did not “fit into my idea of how I wanted to be as husband and father … I am not a father figure. I am a daddy.”

If balance is the goal, then it’s absurd to frame work and family issues as women’s conversation. Gender bias is a two-way game: as survey data reveals, all those keenly educated women aren’t exactly rushing to the altar to grab Mr. Mom aspirants.

Perhaps, Smith argues, that’s because women are also conflicted about men’s roles. He cites surveys that show, for instance, that wives aren’t superkeen on stay-at-home husbands. “If you want to know why progress seems frozen,” observes Smith, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “look no farther than that statistic.”

At the same, men who stay home with the kids or earn less than their wives have become less conflicted about it (just as women have become more conflicted about those traditional female roles). In a qualitative study, Noelle Chesley, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin interviewed men in those marriages who “felt very liberated about giving up employment, especially a lot of the pressures.” When many of those men returned to work, she says, they found their priorities had shifted: “Some of the men turned down promotions because they didn’t want to lose time with their families.”

The one hold-out on a half-century of progress: Working women still do more laundry. But will that domestic debate ever die? Last week, while my husband made his regular trip to Costco with the kids in tow, my bored 7-year-old son announced at the meat section, “When I get married, I am going to make my wife do the groceries.” A female shopper, old enough to have read an early edition of The Feminine Mystique, laughed knowingly. As Kimmel would tell him, and, as my husband said, “Good luck with that.”

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