Revisiting The End of Men: Similar Problems, Different Conclusions

The first time I publicly said “I worry about men in today’s economy,” my statement was greeted with astonished laughter. It was more than two years ago and I was giving a speech to a group of corporate human resource leaders. In their world, men continue to retain the top positions and they rightly worry about the “glass ceiling” that remains impenetrable to significant numbers of women or the “sticky floor,” where far too many women remain stuck.

Now, the July/August Atlantic article on The End of Men by Hanna Rosin has made the important concerns about men the talk of the town. The article quotes some of the facts that led me to my 2008 statement, especially findings from the U.S. Department of Education that women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men since 1982 and more master’s degrees since 1981; in 2005-2006, women earned 58% of bachelor’s degrees and 60% of master’s degrees.  Then I also had findings from my organization’s ongoing nationally representative study, the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, showing that men’s desire for jobs with more responsibility had dropped more steeply than that of women’s so that now young men and young women are equally ambitious; that fathers are now experiencing more work-life conflict than mothers; and that men’s health is declining.

In the End of Men, Rosin speculates that the transition to the modern, postindustrial society may be responsible for what is happening to men: “the postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength.”  I certainly agree with her on this point.

Rosin says, “the attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are at a minimum, not predominately male. In fact, the opposite may be true.” She continues to say, “a white-collar economy values intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also values communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge.”

Having spent eight years studying the research on children’s development and learning for my book Mind in the Making, it is clear to me that the life skills required for the 21st Century are different life skills than those necessary for the 20th Century. I agree with Rosin, for example, that the skills of focus and self control are essential, but disagree that one gender has an inherent advantage over another.  This skill emerges in children in the early years of their lives and its use must be promoted. Parents and teachers are so busy focusing on the content that children need to learn (which, of course, is essential), that we may be neglecting to promote the life skills that are equally essential. So if women have an advantage, women and girls may have received more experiences that promote this skill than men do. Studies also make it clear that more advantaged children received more experiences promoting this skill and other life skills than less advantaged children and that this is contributing to the achievement gap.

Furthermore, self control should not mean sitting at a desk passively waiting for teachers to pour in knowledge. That image of learning is a relic of the 20th Century too. All children learn actively, not passively, as the research on what children’s memories and their ability to use knowledge reveals. All children need opportunities to move around, to have recess, to be physical. Furthermore, self control is the ability to not go on automatic but to do what is necessary to pursue a goal and both boys and girls can learn this.

Or take the skill that Rosin calls “social intelligence.” I call it “perspective taking” because it involves the ability to understand that others may have different thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes than oneself.  Based on child development “theory of mind research,” this is not just a social skill, but involves the intellectual capacity to read and interpret the behavior of others. Furthermore, a number of intervention studies, such as those by Larry Aber of New York University and his colleagues, show that this skill can be promoted in boys and girls in ways that improve their classroom performance and reduce aggression.

I sincerely hope that Rosin’s article, The End of Men, becomes a call to action rather an opportunity to than lapse into typical men versus women debates, arousing all of the pent up resentments of the past and the present. I also hope we can see that new life skills are necessary for a new era.  There is strong research that shows us which skills help girls and boys thrive as children and later as adults. Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence that provides guidance on how we can promote these skills.  Let’s throw out the old debates and move into the 21st Century to help our sons and daughters. We can do this!


Photo/image by: j_mills / Flickr