“A Good Man Is Getting Even Harder To Find,” read an October Wall Street Journal headline. Evidently, the marriage market is in crisis due to a shortage of straight men with stable jobs and income relative to the number of straight women looking to marry.
The study wasn’t commissioned by religious conservatives advancing a traditional-values agenda but by researchers at Cornell University, who published their work in the respected, 70-year-old Journal Of Marriage and Family. And so generations after Ms. magazine first hit newsstands and deep into the fourth wave of feminism, academics still seem as wedded to rigid notions of gender roles as we were when Gloria Steinem slapped on a cottontail to expose the rank objectification of women at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in the 1960s.
It’s likely that there aren’t enough men earning breadwinner wages to match the number of women looking for husbands. But that’s not the point. As a culture we need to interrogate the assumption that men have to be the breadwinners in the first place—and, additionally, to identify the real obstacles in forming economically viable families.
Longstanding trends point towards a society that should have a large proportion of married households with children whose primary earners are female. Women began graduating college at higher rates than men in the early 1980s and the higher education gender gap has widened over the decades. Women earn more postgraduate degrees than men overall and now earn half of all degrees awarded in professions like medicine and law. This year, for the first time, women outnumber men in the college-educated workforce. Meanwhile, study after study has shown education levels correlates with income.
These trends, coupled with the crash in male-dominated blue-collar jobs like factory work and mining, help fuel the “end of men” narrative. But what if it’s not the death of men but the re-purposing of men? What if we finally abandon stale conceptions of “men’s work” and “women’s work” for good?
After all, if women can perform any job a man can do, the reverse holds as well. That includes taking care of the kids and running the house, which is becoming the norm for more and more families anyway. Good data is hard to come by, but the number of stay-at-home dads in the U.S. is increasing, with as many as 7 million fathers acting as primary caregivers to their children, according to the National At-Home Dad Network.
Patriarchal gender roles will die hard, of course. The husband’s failure to perform an equal share of the housework is still a major stressor in many marriages. For those men, the fulfilling yet wearying grind of keeping up with babies and toddlers is a big ask. And many women feel guilty or heartbroken if they miss out on milestones like junior’s first word while they’re at the job. Moreover, there’s still a significant disparity between men’s and women’s earnings in favor of men.
Overarching economic factors affect virtually all workers, men and women alike. For decades the purchasing power of the typical paycheck has remained largely flat even as everything from the cost of a house to college tuition has spiked dramatically. It’s not just husbands who often find it a challenge to single-handedly support the household; it’s wives too. The real crisis isn’t a lack of “marriage-worthy” men, but profound economic inequality.