Friday, October 21, 2011

Kate Bolick on the decline of marriage - and men

One of the most depressing pieces I have read recently was Kate Bolick's All the Single Ladies in The Atlantic. The synopsis reads this way:

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.

I don't know if it was more depressing for me as a male (and it was depressing) or as the father of two girls.

One part of Ms Bolik's message can be summarised this way: as women storm the last career bastions and men in general become increasingly marginalised, the ability of women to find a suitable male is reduced. The reducing number of younger alpha males, those in top positions, can get all the sex they want and aren't interested in marriage. The rest of the male population with their diminishing career prospects aren't worth considering. The solution for ambitious career minded women is to do away with men and focus on female relationships. The last paragraph of the article reads:

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

I have written a little on this blog about changing gender roles and the problems created for men. The highest unemployment rates in Australia are among younger and older men. As Kate Bolick notes, the economic structural changes that have taken place in the US (and in Australia) have greatly disadvantaged men as compared to women. 

I have also written about the problems faced by those men who, like me, choose to take on the primary child care role, an important precondition if ambitious women are to both have children and pursue their career objectives. My advice has been by all means do this, but if you do then be aware of the costs. I was not.

As I read Ms Bolick's piece, I wondered where the concept of family fitted in. I accept that families can take many forms. I accept that the type of female relationship she talked about towards the end of her piece can be classified as a form of family. But to my mind the concept of generations is central to family.

Human beings have always had a need to see themselves in an intergenerational context. This holds regardless of married state or the presence of children. Penny Wong and partner Sophie Allouache

The decision of the Australian Finance Minster and her partner Sophie Allouache for that partner to successfully seek pregnancy through IVF is a practical illustration of the power of the concept of the intergenerational family.

The type of issues that Ms Bolick opines about seem to be topical in a US context.

In another piece in The Atlantic from last year, Hanna Rosin writes on The End of Men:

Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.

The message in Sandra Tsing Loh's article is summarised in the heading and subtitle: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?

A significant long term social change, and the shifts in education and roles between men and women is one such change, often involves painful adjustments. Futurologists and that sub-group science fiction writers can take the trends, extrapolate and create new worlds. One such world involved a protected world dominated by women defending itself from feral men roaming the streets. In another, men have disappeared.

I have no especially profound wisdom on all this. At a personal level, I struggle a little with the nature of the changes that have taken place.

When I look at the younger age group that I know best, my daughters and their friends, they do not seem to have the same views as Ms Bolick and some of the other writers on The Atlantic.

This is a middle class group, better educated than the majority of the Australian population and largely drawn from one area within a major city. I make this point because their views may not be representative

They are more individualistic, less gender oriented than in the past with a span of views about marriage and relationships. Yet there is still the same desire for long term relationships, for children, for family.

Looking at the various articles that triggered this post, one common subtext appears to be growing apart. This makes sense in a world of two careers and varying interests. A second is disappointment in a world of choices. The writers I read were educated middle class women with options.

Concluding, one of the difficulties I have in considering some of these questions lies in my inability to properly distinguish the issues involved.

I wonder, for example, whether the continued obsession with gender roles is not blinding us to other important factors.

One is simply the nature of choices in long term relationships. This hold equally for same sex couples as it does for others. A second is the impact of uncertainty on relationships, including economic uncertainty as well as the question of survivability of the relationship itself. This affects men as well as women and can become increasingly important with age. 

Both laws and ways of thought are still conditioned by a now past world in which the male was the major income earner. Many of the legal changes that have taken place over the last one hundred years were designed to protect women and children in relationships where at least economic power was asymmetrical. Increasingly, relative economic power is becoming gender neutral and may vary with time. The number of dependent males is rising and we haven't worked out how to manage this.

These are just examples for further thought.    


On 28 October 2011, Ruth Rosen had a piece on TPM Cafe, Are Male Baby Boomers Doomed To Become Lonely Seniors? Here she is talking about the difference between men and women in social terms. Because men are not so good at maintaining relationships in a proactive way, they risk greater loneliness and isolation once work is withdrawn.

I think that's true. It has implications for some of the discussion in this post.

Postscript 2

On 6 November 2011, Sarah Whyte's Mothers, divorce and the HSC itch (Sydney Morning Herald) began

IT IS called the ''post-HSC'' divorce. Women in their 40s and 50s keep the family together for the youngest child's exams, then start hatching their own plans for freedom.

The phenomenon, observed by relationship experts, is one reason why divorce rates for Australian women in this age group are climbing faster than any other.....

Marriage exit strategies or ''five-year plans'' were increasingly common for older women who were not satisfied and had delayed separation for the sake of their children's upbringing or education, said the director of clinical services at Relationships Australia, Pam Lewis.

This phenomenon is actually similar in some ways to that Ms Bolick writes about.


Evan said...

I think Germane got it right: Women started out demanding liberation and settled for equality. Ie. women now get to work long hours and not see their family too!

The values have remained the same - jobs before family, money before compassion.

It is very sad.

Jim Belshaw said...

It's difficult, Evan. The initial effects widened women's job opportunities, created an expectation that women would work, but left them with the majority of home duties. so that required another adjustment process.

Both men and women live and work in a broader context. As you say, women now get to work long hours and see their family less. It is jobs before family in some cases, although I would not accept money before compassion.

Evan said...

To clarify. I wasn't meaning the individual women or men. But how many workplaces allow time off to accommodate a family crisis - that's what I was thinking about when I said money over compassion.

Jim Belshaw said...

I wonder if this isn't an area of actual progress, Evan?

As a manager, I came across this first a very long time ago when one of my staff, a single male father, was struggling. I worked around the rules to help him, but it would have been seen as unusual then.

It's not all progress, mind you. Many organisations have rules now that are intended to help. The problem with rules is that they make you less flexible. It's actually easier if you have the intent to do things without rules! That's good as well as bad.

Nicholas Gruen said...

Thanks - interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Well Jim, yes Ms Bolick's essay is interesting and carries some sense of society, as currently perceived through her eyes.

But I say that as 1/7 billionth of the world's population, and in the uncomfortable knowledge that an American same-sex (female) couple recently applied to the courts to allow their (male) AI-begotten son to undergo chemical therapy, so that his observed female tendencies might be given time to play out; the prospect: perhaps physical reorientation.

Perhaps a consequence of environment, perhaps a consequence of his genetic heredity - who knows? I certainly have no answers.


Rummuser said...

My son and his lovely then wife decided that marriage was not for them after having been married for five years. They parted amicably and continue to be friends. Both have decided against getting married again and I see many other young people of both sexes, in similar single condition in India too. To a large extent, this is due to the economic independence now available to them and a tolerant society, at least in urban India. While I find this rather sad, if that is the way they want it, I am willing to accept their choice. On the other hand, I also know of desperate youngsters who do want to get married but are unable to find suitable matches from within their cast/religion etc, and this is more frustrating for them. Some kind of churning is taking place and this is part of many other societal churnings that are taking place all over the world. I enjoy being a spectator.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Nicholas.

That's a bit frightening,kvd. That might well be one confused boy!

Interesting comment, Ramana. Those who can don't want to, those who want to can't.