Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at the Atlantic, a co-founder of Slate's Double X and the author of "The End of Men," which came out this month. Rosin's new book argues that it's the beginning of the end of the patriarchy, as women are pulling ahead at school, at work and in society while men are falling behind. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
SUZY KHIMM: Could you talk a little about what inspired you to write the book? In the opening chapter, you describe how the men literally started disappearing from the streets of the Virginia vacation town you go to, and then you meet Calvin, an unemployed young father. But I was wondering whether there were other sources of inspiration for the book as well.
HANNA ROSIN: It had to do with me essentially being a nosy reporter. I had been reading Susan Faludi's book "Stiffed," about men and the sense of manliness in last couple of recessions, and I was looking for a way to write a narrative story. The phrase is so insulting to men — "he's just another mouth to feed" — but I heard it so many times in subsequent times in reporting. Over the phone with Calvin, I was in this "Can this marriage be saved?" mode until the light bulb goes off — I realized that he was not going to his place at the seat of the table. She was going to be the provider and protector of the child. If he was going to go back, it wasn't to be in the old traditional way.
I had started Double X, and that was the year, in 2009, when a lot of really important milestones had happened — in one year, women had become the majority of the workforce. There was a big Pew study about breadwinner wives. As I was digesting all this information for the Double X blog, I was tracking this [story about men in the recession] for this Atlantic — these parallel tracks overlapped in my head. It was not another story about men laid low by the recession. It's more about what's happened between men and women, especially in a particular class.
KHIMM: In the book, you make a central distinction between Plastic Women and Cardboard Men — women who've managed to be flexible enough to adapt to the new Brave New World that is the U.S. economy, and men who've been more reluctant, more unwilling or unable to do so. But women who are working more, without ceding many of their domestic responsibilities — is this freedom and empowerment, or is it more of a burden?
ROSIN: Both is the answer. One thing that I realize, that is confusing, is that the tone of the book is quite ambiguous. Because of the title and the packaging, it's is often read as triumphantly feminist manifesto. But every single one of these changes has some amount of freedom and a large amount of heartbreak. For college-educated women, the answer is in the happiness statistic: Women do not measure happier now than in 1970s, when they had fewer choices, largely because they're doing too much.
There are women out there earning millions more than men, who are really high-end real-estate lawyers, with husbands doing a lot less, who are still not letting go of the domestic sphere. I suppose this is the Anne-Marie Slaughter's "women can't have it all." It's not like the Plastic Woman is the superheroine who wins at the end of the day. Even in Silicon Valley, [where companies have been more flexible about work-life scheduling], their lives are really, really exhausting. I am really reluctant to tell people that the answer to problem is to work more. I really wish we had become more like France, Denmark, Germany, with seven weeks of vacation, and it's all ratcheted back.
KHIMM: Your book is more about laying out the issues and forces shaping people lives than public policy recommendations. But what kind of social, economic policies would help men to regain a foothold in the workplace, to encourage them to take on more of a role in domestic life?
ROSIN: So, the men first — I do not think the solution for men is that they should all go to college. The problem with the book is thinking they just need to feminize and everything will be great.
When I go visit towns like the town in Alabama [described in the book], my emotional response — not speaking from the head — is to bring the factory back. I understand this is globally, economically unsophisticated, but we've traded men's sense of identity and purpose so we could have toilet paper that's 20 cents cheaper? Is that worth it? My genuine, emotional response is that it's not worth it.
The solution is in thinking of creative ways the manufacturing economy can meet the new economy halfway. Green jobs — those are jobs that feel like new economy jobs, they do require some training. High-tech manufacturing is another one: In Alabama, it's aeronautical engineering. It requires some amount of training, you have to go to community college. Factories not what they used to be — they're all extremely high-tech. You have to go to school a little bit, but [for men], it doesn't have to feel like they're becoming all the girls.
Artisan manufacturing — there's a bunch of stories about that recently. I don't know enough about artisan manufacturing to know if you can scale that, to know if it's a reasonable national solution. But we should lament the fact that every job [right now] requires a college degree — the economy should come with solutions for people who don't want a BA.
KHIMM: And what changes would help ease some of the burden on women?
ROSIN: For the women, most of the solutions are cultural. One policy solution I'm interested in, but I've not clarified in my head about, is that many forms of social welfare and Census counting do not count people who are not married as a family in any way. Housing vouchers go to mothers and children. We give no help in gluing together people who are sort of thinly attached, which other countries do — who live under same roof, but don't [officially] count as a family. Whatever we ways we can think of to cement that. We're so marriage-obsessed, we think that only married people are families.
For women, I have nothing beyond the obvious: We have a country where half the workforce is women, but we still don't have mandatory maternity leave — we operate like a 1960s workforce, where we assume one person is always at home. That seems patently barbaric.
There are two cultural areas where I feel like we are working out how we feel about masculinity and feminism. Dominant, aggressive women — how much can we handle women in power? I think pop culture has been throwing that at us for the last year — you have Katniss Everdeen [in "The Hunger Games"] — aggressive, dominant, serving the traditional male role. Pop culture is like our subconscious.
Then, how much we can accept a domesticated man who's not emasculated? In most TV sitcom history, the dad at home is a moron, the dad at home not just incompetent, but not sexy. I think tons of dads are going to be stay-at-home, when my son grows up.
KHIMM: Going back to men, it's interesting that the questions you raise about "the future of men" in the workplace are essentially the same questions we're asking about the future of the entire U.S. economy: What happens to a post-manufacturing, post-industrial economy? Where does the U.S. go from here? I was wondering if you could explain the connection between these gendered issues and the broader debate about the future of our economy.
ROSIN: I was reading this morning Brooks and Krugman's columns, and there's this Republican sense of manliness that has to do with risk, entrepreneurs. There is this criticism that Republicans never talk about "workers. While Democrats embody the 1940s sense of "the worker," Republicans are appealing to an old-fashioned alternative, the risk-taker, Wall Street. They're slightly different views of manliness. In Paul Ryan's terms, when he talks about the factory town [closing down] in his convention speech, in policy terms, it doesn't make sense — it's a victim of large forces of globalization, and there's no way Republicans could put a halt to that.
Manufacturing is not that large a part of the economy. The reason [it's discussed so much] is the same that farming is: It's a huge part of psyche, of American history. Manufacturing has this ever-resonant life in political speech — the working-class man who embodies manhood. That's what they're debating.
As I've gone along on this tour, I've been made to feel self-conscious about the idea that everyone should just jump into feminized economy and accept it. I've met men and thought, can they really do that? One out is technological jobs — that does not have the taint of femininity to become an IT person, a tech person, a network analyst. That's an out that's very different. But it takes quite a bit of education.
I often think, why are we talking so much about manufacturing? I go to a small town, and the community development people talk about manufacturing, instead of saying, let's talk about jobs at the university. It's not like there haven't been training programs to get guys to do this, that, or the other thing. But they fail, says my friend Amy Goldstein. Maybe they just don't want to do it.
KHIMM: One of the major points in the book is that women outearn men when they're in their 20s. But some sociologists have pointed out that this only holds true for unmarried workers in their 20s, who don't have children and live in large cities. Whereas among those in their 20s who've completed college, who are working full time, but who don't fit this demographic, women make only 80.7 percent of what men earn. Do you think your findings still apply to the overall group?
ROSIN: Generally, men earn more than women — that is largely still true. But there are pockets and windows where it's not true. One thing I think when I watch some of the women I write about, the trope I think about is immigrants. That's because of the combination of open opportunities and lots of education, the sense they have to work twice as hard, with one foot behind, feeling like outsiders in the workplace and the establishment.
That's part of what's pushing them. There have been other times when men [have been in this role]: After World War II, the GI bill is passed; men coming back from war, and they were the hustlers in American culture. They were feeling displaced, the women had their jobs, and men were incredibly energetic, they went to college. There needs to be some of that underdog fuel.
KHIMM: You mention that there's been a precedent for this — when women take more responsibility and men fall behind — and that's in African-American communities. I was hoping you could talk about some of the parallels and differences between this phenomenon and the broader changes you talk about.
ROSIN: This is what the sociologists worry about most — William Julius Wilson's "When Work Disappears." I describe in Alabama when the factory disappears, the next generation has all this social integration. I think there are a ton of parallels, and I don't think you have that many differences. You get these milestones all the time — how more than 50 percent of children are now born to single mothers; today's Sabrina Tavernise's story about how the non-high-school-educated have shorter life spans than their parents, men especially. You're started to get all the markers, and see this among whites and Latinos, rather than African-Americans. When I write about "the middle-class matriarchy," it's not an unambiguously good thing.
KHIMM: Do you think that portraying women as victims is damaging, politically speaking, culturally speaking, in terms of making progress on some of the inequities that still are in place, like the wage gap?
ROSIN: I think it's a cultural habit. I think that cultural habit has elements of truth in it for sure. Materinity leave — it's genuinely shocking. There is no other industrialized culture with no paid maternity leave. I think there are genuine discomfort with having women at the top of the hierarchy.
But we should check this as our knee-jerk response to every situation. We have to acknowledge that women have a huge amount of economic power — as bosses, workers, consumers. Education is one perfect example. There isn't any question that there is affirmative action for men [at universities]. But it's weird and contrary to political dialogue. Women have the upper hand in education — why can't we say it? It shows an inability to have an honest conversation. Why do state schools have so many more women than men?
The wage gap — to constantly repeat this statistic, women earn 70 cents on the dollar, prevents us from talking about what actual issues are: Women work fewer hours, and they have more of the burden for child care. It's still the 1970s discussion, when it's what happens both within women, and in the workforce. [The victimization explanation] doesn't allow her to fully express what's happening.
KHIMM: What about gay women and gay men? Were there any differences that you saw, in your reporting and research?
ROSIN: I've looked at patterns of gay marriage for Slate — they follow patterns for upper-class marriages, and they're generally pretty stable. But I was so, "the men, the women," I actually didn't [look at the dynamics of gay couples]. I feel like I have to. I have to think how about this plays out there. I think it's important.