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I know a fiftysomething woman who went back to school last year. She needed a credential in order to get steady work, so she invested eight months and several thousand dollars to qualify as a personal care assistant. She cleaned toilets to help pay the tuition. The pay is low, but she'll always be in demand. Her former husband (he's the same age), meanwhile, has more or less dropped out of the economy. History seems to be repeating itself with their kids. Their focused daughter is a top university student with an eye on a good career. Their son dropped out of university in his first semester. Since then, he's had a string of low-paying jobs. He has no plan.

Men of all ages are dropping out these days. Another friend, a woman in her 40s, has a soon-to-be-ex-husband who drove them into bankruptcy. He lost his job and can't find more work and is about to move back in with his mother. My friend, who stayed home to raise their four kids, is now working double shifts to put herself through nursing school. In between work and school, she shops for food, feeds the kids and drives them to their lessons. The last time I saw her, she fell asleep sitting up.

As for thirtysomething women, many of them are building impressive careers while their men just coast along. They pay the mortgage, and the guys pay the utilities. Nothing wrong with that, if only the guys would pitch in more on the home front. But a lot of the guys turn out to be incredibly passive – like oversized knick-knacks parked in front of the TV.

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The patriarchy is dead. The new world order is a matriarchy. And the guys can't figure out where they fit in. As one university-educated urban male told writer Hanna Rosin, "All the things we need to be good at to thrive in the world we imagine existing 10 or 20 or even 50 years from now are things that my female friends and competitors are better at than me. Than us."

Ms. Rosin's new book, The End of Men, is a strikingly revealing tour of the ways in which the postindustrial economy is reshaping our culture. Today, the things that women excel at – human contact, interpersonal skills, verbal skills, creativity – are more valuable than brawn and muscle. These skills can't easily be outsourced. Women are good at interpreting feelings and ideas. They're smart, diligent and reliable, and they mostly stay out of trouble. On top of that, they're extraordinarily adaptable. Women have taken on new roles and colonized male realms (pharmacy, veterinary medicine) with astonishing speed, and held on to their old roles and realms as well.

But the men are stuck. It's much harder for them to adapt, and a lot don't even want to try. Few men of any age are willing to go back to school, especially if they have to clean toilets for the privilege. Even fewer are interested in "women's" roles, even though those fields are where most of the employment growth will be. Of the 30 professions projected to add the most jobs over the next decade, women dominate 20. Many of these jobs (home care, child care, food preparation) replace things women used to do at home for free.

What happens when women start entering a male trade? That job becomes devalued (at least in men's eyes), and men flee – a phenomenon that Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls "pollution." For example, few men go into pharmacy any more, even though it offers a big salary, secure future and reasonable hours. "All my really top performers have been heavily women," one female dean told Ms. Rosin. She called the men a "lost generation."

As Ms. Rosin puts it, women are plastic – malleable, fluid shape-shifters. Men are cardboard – they can't bend.

Everyone knows how women are outpacing men at university. But the new shocker is the decline of men in the labour force. The ratio of men who work has plummeted to a record low. Today, just 69.8 per cent of all U.S. men are working or looking for work, compared with a long-term average of 78.3 per cent since 1948. The aging population is only a minor factor. Work is in decline even among men of prime working age, 25 to 54. In the 1950s, nearly 98 per cent of all non-institutionalized men that age worked; today, only 88 per cent do.

What happened? "Male" jobs disappeared and, when men couldn't find other "male" jobs, they gave up. Millions of men also went on disability, which has become a runaway welfare program for the American middle and working class. (In some months recently, more U.S. men have gone on disability than found work.) And the decline of men has closely tracked the rise of women. If more women are willing to support their families, then fewer men have to. Which would be all right if men were able to take on new roles and identities as easily as women do.

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I've no idea how the new world order will play out. Ms. Rosin thinks more men will eventually catch on and find their places in it. Meantime, there's one scene I can't get out of my mind. It's a village in the hills of Thailand that my husband and I visited a few years ago. The women did all the work – the child rearing, the farming, the cooking, the wood and water gathering, the long trek to town to sell their vegetables. The men sat around discussing politics and smoking opium. They didn't seem terribly miserable; I guess they'd gotten used to it.

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