“A lot of women tell me they take the cover off the book,” Hanna Rosin tells me, and that’s not hard to get. Carrying a bright yellow hardcover that screams The End of Men in big pink caps can get looks. Suspicious looks. Unhappy looks. I considered going bare myself, but the small thrill of defiance I felt won out.
Rosin’s incendiary title is hardly the way her investigation into the state of both sexes in the new economy plays out, and she’s sorry for going there. At least, she apologized in the dedication to her nine-year-old son. He thinks the title is mean; she says that the world she describes within it will be a better place for him.
“My idea for Jacob is that if his wife were to make more money than he does, he can stay at home four days a week and on the fifth day, go fly a plane—or whatever—and nobody will blink an eye. He won’t have to have any self-consciousness about staying home.
“That’s the positive result. The best possible outcome is that we loosen the requirements of what men have to do. It’s not so much about men becoming feminized but being released from some of the restrictions still on them.”
As the book describes, men in some sectors of society are being freed more easily than in others, and for those who are struggling to move from a traditional definition of masculinity into the heretofore undefined reality of women on top face depression, addiction, and general angst.
It’s not all Oxycontin and malaise: “Since the book came out, I have talked to a lot of progressive men who say, ‘This is great. I don’t see why men are complaining so much.’”
Probably because “the old order dies hard,” as Rosin puts it. For women, a new economy that barely relies on physical strength and depends mightily on skills that traditionally have been defined as feminine means an awakening of opportunity. So while the book shows women to be more generally adaptable, that may not be a tertiary sex characteristic but an effect of having been marginalized: “When you’re at the bottom, you tend to hustle upward.
“Of course is harder for men to adjust, because why would they want to?” Rosin asked. “Even some of the progressive men in the book have a notion of things being different than they’ve been that is really threatening to them.”
Not that any of the women in the book seem particularly satisfied with the new order. They work crazy hours—especially in South Korea, where workdays last roughly 8,000 hours—and then come home to do most of the household stuff they always did (partly because they’re having their own hard time letting go of the old order), and sometimes to men who resent them.
The overwhelming sense the book left me with was that nobody can go on like this. The women are exhausted and the men depleted in all the ways they used to be sustained.
“I’m hoping this is just a transition period where our notions of what’s manliness and what’s acceptable are still pretty rigid,” Rosin said. “Not that women don’t have problems, too—I was really struck by how little wiggle room they feel they have.”
Let’s hope. Because the world in the book is no kind of victory for anyone.
“Many people see this as a feminist triumphal story,” Rosin said. “I don’t know—maybe it’s the yellow and pink—but I think there’s a lot of heartbreak in this book.”
So much heartbreak, and who has time for it?