It wasn't so long ago that American women did all the child-rearing while men worked outside the home, and that was just the way things were. But times -- and the economy -- have changed.
These days, 57 percent of college students are women. Single and childless women are out-earning men in the same situation. And even though men continue to dominate the highest-paying jobs, women now hold their own in a wide variety of lucrative careers. They make up a third of physicians, 54 percent of accountants, 45 percent of law associates, and they have about a half of all banking and insurance jobs.
Those statistics, many of which appeared in The Atlantic in Hanna Rosin's article the "The End of Men" have received a lot of attention -- not just because of their nod to the rise of women, but to the possibility that men are losing their dominance. But the trends also raised a number of provocative questions.
Are women, with their strong communication skills and social savviness, more equipped to thrive in our modern digital age? Are men becoming unnecessary? Or are we just working our way to a new normal, where men and women develop a different set of expectations for themselves and each other? And do we need to start looking for ways to help the groups of men that are struggling to keep up?
Tonight, Rosin and others will duke out those questions in an Intelligence Squared debate, which will air later on television and radio stations around the world.
Debaters will argue on one side or the other, but many experts say the issues are far from black and white.
"I don't see this as, 'Oh, men are finished and women are not,'" said Kay Hymowitz, a Manhattan Institute scholar and author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. "This probably has to do with the mismatch between men and women right now. The change in women's status and the response from men has created all sorts of problems between the sexes that we haven't figured out how to negotiate yet."
Rosin, who is currently writing a book based on The Atlantic article, offered plenty of facts for thought in her original article. For the first time in history, she wrote, women took over the majority of jobs in the U.S. last year. For every two men that earn a B.A. degree from American colleges, she added, three women do. And women dominate 13 of the 15 job categories that are projected to grow the most in the next decade.
Movies and prime-time television shows, Rosin has also argued, reflect our culture's emerging image of the battered male. There are, for instance, more stay-at-home TV dads than ever in shows like Parenthood and the new Up All Night. Rosin also pointed to the film Up in the Air, in which George Clooney, the "sexiest man alive," gets his ego shattered by a married women and a younger colleague.
"Women are more than 50 percent of the workforce, and they're more than 50 percent of managers," Rosin said in an interview with Slate. "It's just extraordinary that that's happened in basically one generation. It seems like whatever it is that this economy is demanding, whatever special ingredients, women just have them more than men do."
Dan Abrams, Rosin's debate partner and chief legal analyst for ABC News and Good Morning America, makes the case for female superiority in his book Man Down: Proof Beyond A Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else, and on the book's website.
Among his examples are studies showing that, compared to women drivers, men are 77 percent more likely to die in a car accident. Women invest their money with more self-control: Just 35 percent of them hold onto investments for too long compared to 47 percent of men. Women have a more intuitive understanding of new technology, found one study. Another found that as politicians, women are less likely to get caught up in sex scandals. As soldiers, they are less likely to report pain.
One major reason for the rise of women, Hymowitz said, is that our country has shifted from a brawn-based manufacturing economy to what economists call a "knowledge economy" that feeds off of traditionally "feminine" strength. The last 20 or 30 years has seen a rise in jobs that appeal to women in fields like communications, design and management.
At the same time, there has been a decline in the expectation that women marry and have children along with a rise in the value that college degrees impart on people that have them. Women, who tend to excel in school, have seized the opportunity to surge forward.
Given the statistics, it is generally indisputable that girls and women are flourishing, while boys and men -- especially those in lower socioeconomic classes -- are struggling to keep up in school and in the labor market. Far less predictable is what the future holds.
Boys and men may continue to decline if society doesn't make a conscious effort to help them, as Rosin and Abrams argue. On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that women are on track to replace men, said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Along with Men's Health Magazine's editor-in-chief David Zinczenko, she will defend men in tonight's debate.
The recession has taken a terrible toll on men with minimal education who tend to work blue-collar jobs, she conceded. And boys bear the brunt of autism and learning disorders.
But men in the upper and middle classes who go to college are showing no signs of demoralization or imminent demise. In fact, she said, men all over the world are dominating the ranks of the most successful, just as they are struggle on the opposite end of the scale.
"They fail and succeed dramatically," Sommers said. "It's just the way men are."
"I think the fallacy is to think that Women's Liberation meant that men and women would become interchangeable," she added. "That has not happened, and most men and women would not want it to happen."
Meanwhile, men remain essential to society, argue some experts. Men still apply for 90 percent of patents, for example. And they continue to earn more money during childbearing years and beyond. In one recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of working moms said they'd prefer a part-time schedule compared to 21 percent of dads. That is unlikely to change, Hymowitz said.
To re-equalize the playing field, Sommers argued, elementary schools need to bring back recess and allow boys to read book about heroes again. Colleges need to stop telling young men that women are, by default, afraid of them and their harassing ways. And academic programs that focus on girl power need to be rivaled by programs for boys.
As a culture, she said, we also need to reassess the double standard that makes it OK to celebrate women but taboo to argue that men have their own virtues and may actually be better at certain things.
Regardless of whether a winner emerges from tonight's debate, Sommers added, the important thing is that people are talking about the subject.
"It's good to raise awareness that men and boys are struggling, at least many of them are," she said. "But why say men are finished? It's too harsh, too sweeping, and it happens to not be true."