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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Men 2020

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Change for women over the last decade is in the books. Roles have transformed. Opportunities have exploded. And a future of choice and empowerment is locked in.

For men, that future is a lot less certain.

A time of female transformation has been a time of male accommodation. The adjustment to a massive transfer of power remains a work in progress and, judging by surveys and headlines, the progress is painfully uneven.

Where is the accommodation and adjustment taking the world of men? If the old model of masculinity has outlived its shelf life, what will the new one look like?

The husband of a long-time friend is groping for an answer. Like a lot of others, he recently found himself out of a job he assumed he would have as long as he wanted it. He's bitter. But more than that, he's confused. "it's not just being out of a job," he said. "That happens. You move on, and you find another one." But -- in a burst of self examination unusual for a hard-nosed former rugby player -- he said: "I feel like I'm competing in a whole different place. Some of the very best parts of who I am don't seem to fit."

Knowing him for the effective sometimes abrasive take-charge guy that he is, I thought to myself: "You might be on to something."

Until the last recent sliver of recorded history: Men were men, women were women, and biology was destiny.

But the strength that it took to build walls, forge steel and fight wars has lost its power to define possibility. The division between men's work and women's work is now simply a matter of choice. In all but a very few precincts of work and life, there is no intrinsic value in being male.

As men wander through this often painful period of reassessment of who and what they are in the world, the future holds some possible choices.

One argument is that gender difference is so genetically ingrained that we will, over time, revert to a semblance of traditional roles. This period of adjustment will end, and men will be men -- perhaps with some excess of testosterone bled from the tank. (There is also hope in some quarters that lower feminist-liberal birth rates and higher traditional-conservative birth rates will one day restore men to the throne.)

Another, recently popular, take is that men are old news. Their role -- their very usefulness in a developed society -- has been usurped to the point they will never again be men as we know them. They will be androgynous followers of a new and superior model of female leadership. As James Wolcott put it in a Vanity Fair article: American men are " in a prolonged batting slump."

Somewhere in between is the hope that we will grow into a society where gender expectation is fluid and multidimensional. A sense of place and roles will be as diverse as the humans who measure their worth against them. We might even revert to an earlier-times gender community, where it took both men and women working together to bring in the crops.

If we want a peek at men by the end of the decade, we might start with those who will about then, be hitting their prime -- the 80 million or so Millennials.

Some of the signs bode well.

In the same way they are called the first generation of digital natives, they are also the first generation of gender natives. Gender equality was taught early and reinforced continuously in all aspects of their lives.

For them working with -- and for women -- is no more remarkable than getting an email.They are also much more likely to take a greater share of household responsibility. They support the ambitions of working wives and are -- generally -- comfortable with those wives earning as much or more than they do.

Research also indicates Millennial men are more family-oriented than earlier generations of fathers who prowled the perimeters of family life -- not to be bothered when he's reading the paper.

An Oxford University study found Millennial males spend ten times more time with their children than men of a generation ago. Sociologist Suzanne Bianchi, in an extensive study of how parents use their time, found that men's involvement has increased across the board -- not just trips to the zoo, but also trips to the pediatrician.

Then, there is the increase in stay-at-home dads. They only number 176,000, or about 3.4 percent of all stay-at-home parents, but the numbers have doubled in a decade.

Like all Millennials, they are more accepting of difference, reflected in the generation's nearly 70 percent support for marriage equality. They grew up in the most diverse households in our history -- one in four was raised by a single parent. Large numbers of others grew up with working mothers and blended families following divorce.

If we stopped there it would indicate that we are headed toward a new improved model of males -- kinder, gentler, more accepting and more attached to home and family then men of the past.

But there is more that indicates the new model may have some mismatched parts.

A recent Pew study found that Millennial women have passed men in their career expectations.
Two-thirds put career success high on their list of priorities. For men, it was just under 60 percent. Is it a refreshing lack of materialism or a relative lack of ambition?

It also appears younger men are shying away from relationships.

Pew research says that the desire to marry among young women is rising -- with high importance increasing from 28 to 37 percent since 1997. For young men, it dropped from 35 to 29 percent. Theories abound. One (which drew angry rebukes and one invitation to commit suicide for blogger Suzanne Venker for her article "Let's call a truce in the war on men") is that men are avoiding marriage because women have lost touch with their feminine side.

According to one marketing study, Millennial men are less likely to get romance going in the first place. Men and women were asked if "men should be the ones to lead and initiate in romance." Almost 45 percent of women agreed. Only 33 percent of men did.

Another finding in the same study: Both men and women were asked to list their greatest fears. For women, being alone ranked second behind being sick. For men being alone near the bottom, just above being bored.

For women the fall of gender boundaries has meant freedom, choice and opportunity. For men it has meant confusion. The expectations and assumptions that formed the superstructure for manhood for generations has fallen away, with nothing yet emerging to take their place.

The statistics of apparent male decline however do not signal XY Armageddon. They are a natural reaction to an unprecedented shift in power. Most are adjusting nicely to the withdrawal of past entitlements. They will form the core of 2020 men who compete and win without privilege.

Others will struggle: some to the point that they simply choose to opt out of the competition -- in education, careers, even relationships.

Men and women are swept up in the same revolution. as history teaches, revolutions don't go backwards. The world of men and women has changed forever. Accept it or reject it.

Either way as archetype manly man John Wayne said in Stagecoach: "Well, there's some things a man just can't run away from."