This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient. -- Simone de Beauvoir, "The Second Sex"
In 2009, in a beach town in Virginia where my family had been vacationing for several years, I noticed something curious. Every time I ventured away from the houses rented by the vacationers -- to the supermarket, say, or the ice cream store -- I almost never saw any men. Hardly any showed up at the fairgrounds Saturday evenings, nor did many climb out of the cars in the church parking lots on Sunday mornings, as they had in previous years. This was a prosperous working-class town, and one of its main businesses had always been construction. I recalled in earlier years seeing groups of men riding in pickup trucks down the main streets, even on Saturdays. But this time, there weren't all that many pickup trucks; mostly Chevys and Toyotas filled with women and children going about their weekend business.
On a food run one afternoon, I accidentally slammed my cart into another woman's and knocked out of it some granola bars that had been balanced on a giant box of Cheerios. I apologized and she was forgiving, and in fact she turned out to be the kind of stranger who is open to conversation. Her name was Bethenny, she told me. She was twenty-nine and ran a day care out of her house (hence, the Cheerios). She was also studying to get a nursing degree and raising her daughter, who was ten. Because she was so forthcoming I thought I'd edge closer to the heart of the matter. Was she married? I asked. No. Did she want to be? Kind of, she said, and spun me a semiironic fantasy of a Ryan Reynolds look-alike swooping in on a white horse, or maybe a white Chevy. Was there any mortal male who might qualify for the role? I asked. "Well, there's Calvin," she said, meaning her daughter's father. She looked over at her daughter and tossed her a granola bar and they both laughed. "But Calvin would just mean one less granola bar for the two of us."
Bethenny seemed to be struggling in the obvious ways. Later I saw her at checkout, haggling over coupons. But she did not exactly read as the pitiable single mother type. There was genuine pleasure in that laugh, a hint of happy collusion in hoarding those granola bars for herself and her daughter. Without saying as much, she communicated to me what her daughter seemed already to understand and accept: By keeping Calvin at arm's length, Bethenny could remain queen of her castle, and with one less mouth to feed, they might both be better off.
How is it that the father of her only child had so little hold on her? How could his worth be measured against the value of a snack? I got up the courage to ask her if I could contact Calvin, and she readily gave me his phone number. Over the next few months Calvin and I talked every few weeks, me always trying to figure out how he had become so invisible. He was a gentle, earnest type and hard not to like. He talked about all the jobs he'd held and hated and I gave him advice, about work and other important matters (such as how to operate the microwave at the 7-Eleven, a source of constant frustration during his midafternoon food runs). I had an idea that I might write a story about what was happening to guys like Calvin in the post-manufacturing age, that Calvin might help me solve the mystery of those missing men.
The terms "mancession" and "he-cession" featured prominently in headlines that year, their efforts at cuteness meant to soften the painful reality that the primary victims of our latest economic disaster had been men like Calvin, the ordained breadwinners. If these men had already been laid low by the recession of the 1990s, I wondered, where were they now, nearly twenty years later, after this last series of blows? And how would they find their way back? My hope was to stay in touch with Calvin long enough that he would start earning enough money to pick up the grocery bill again, that he would find his way home. Part of me kept imagining some distant point in the future when, like in the old Ladies' Home Journal "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" series, Calvin and Bethenny would get back together and forge a happy trio, and in the dramatic crescendo of any imaginary reality series, the streets of the town would once again become peopled with men.
But as I spent time with Calvin and dug into the research, I discovered that I had started with the wrong questions. Calvin and his friends were not really trying to get back the lives they'd once had, because those lives were no longer there to get back. I began to understand that something seismic had shifted the economy and the culture, not only for men but for women, and that both sexes were going to have to adjust to an entirely new way of working and living and even falling in love. Calvin was not going to drive up in a Chevy and take his rightful place at the head of the table one day soon, because Bethenny was already occupying that space, not to mention making the monthly payments on the mortgage, the kitchen renovation, and her own used car. Bethenny was doing too much but she was making it work, and she had her freedom. Why would she want to give all that up?
The story was no longer about the depths men had sunk to; that dynamic had been playing out for several decades and was more or less played out. The new story was that women, for the first time in history, had in many ways surpassed them. The Calvins and Bethennys -- all of us -- had reached the end of two hundred thousand years of human history and the beginning of a new era, and there was no going back. Once I opened my eyes to that possibility, I realized that the evidence was everywhere, and it was only centuries of habit and history that prevented everyone from seeing it. With a lot more reporting and research, I was able to put a clear story together.
From "The End of Men: And the Rise of Women" by Hanna Rosin. Copyright (c) 2012 by Hanna Rosin. Published by Riverhead Books, a division of The Penguin Group. All rights reserved.