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The death of macho
Reihan Salam is a Fellow of the New America Foundation,
The following article first appeared in Foreign Policy on 22 June 2009.
The death of macho
The era of male dominance is coming to an end.
For years, the world has been witnessing a quiet but monumental shift of power from men to women. Today, the Great Recession has turned what was an evolutionary shift into a revolutionary one. The consequence will be not only a mortal blow to the macho men’s club called finance capitalism that got the world into the current economic catastrophe; it will be a collective crisis for millions and millions of working men around the globe.
The death throes of macho are easy to find if you know where to look. Consider, to start, the almost unbelievably disproportionate impact that the current crisis is having on men—so much so that the recession is now known to some economists and the more plugged-in corners of the blogosphere as the “he-cession.” More than 80 percent of job losses in the
Things will only get worse for men as the recession adds to the pain globalization was already causing. Between 28 and 42 million more jobs in the
Of course, macho is a state of mind, not just a question of employment status. And as men get hit harder in the he-cession, they’re even less well-equipped to deal with the profound and long-term psychic costs of job loss. According to the American Journal of Public Health, “the financial strain of unemployment” has significantly more consequences on the mental health of men than on that of women. In other words, be prepared for a lot of unhappy guys out there—with all the negative consequences that implies.
As the crisis unfolds, it will increasingly play out in the realm of power politics. Consider the electoral responses to this global catastrophe that are starting to take shape. When
Although not all countries will respond by throwing the male bums out, the backlash is real—and it is global. The great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated by the economic crisis, as more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power—the cult of macho—has now proven destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.
Indeed, it’s now fair to say that the most enduring legacy of the Great Recession will not be the death of Wall Street. It will not be the death of finance. And it will not be the death of capitalism. These ideas and institutions will live on. What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.
For several years now it has been an established fact that, as behavioral finance economists Brad Barber and Terrance Odean memorably demonstrated in 2001, of all the factors that might correlate with overconfident investment in financial markets—age, marital status, and the like—the most obvious culprit was having a Y chromosome. And now it turns out that not only did the macho men of the heavily male-dominated global finance sector create the conditions for global economic collapse, but they were aided and abetted by their mostly male counterparts in government whose policies, whether consciously or not, acted to artificially prop up macho.
One such example is the housing bubble, which has now exploded most violently in the West. That bubble actually represented an economic policy that disguised the declining prospects of blue-collar men. In the
And yet, the housing bubble is just the latest in a long string of efforts to prop up macho, the most powerful of which was the New Deal, as historian Gwendolyn Mink has argued. At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, 15 million Americans were unemployed out of a workforce that was roughly 75 percent male. This undermined the male breadwinner model of the family, and there was tremendous pressure to bring it back. The New Deal did just that by focusing on job creation for men. Insulating women from the market by keeping them in the home became a mark of status for men—a goal most fully realized in the postwar nuclear family (Rosie the Riveter was a blip). In this way, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, the Great Depression and the New Deal reinforced traditional gender roles: Women were promised economic security in exchange for the state’s entrenchment of male economic power.
Today, this old bargain has come undone, and no state intervention will restore it. Indeed, the
What this all means is that the problem of macho run amok and excessively compensated is now giving way to macho unemployed and undirected—a different but possibly just as destructive phenomenon. Long periods of unemployment are a strong predictor of heavy drinking, especially for men ages 27 to 35, a study in Social Science & Medicine found last year. And the macho losers of globalization can forget about marrying: “Among the workers who disproportionately see their jobs moving overseas or disappearing into computer chips,” says sociologist Andrew Cherlin, “we’ll see fewer young adults who think they can marry.” So the disciplining effects of marriage for young men will continue to fade.
Surly, lonely, and hard-drinking men, who feel as though they have been rendered historically obsolete, and who long for lost identities of macho, are already common in ravaged post-industrial landscapes across the world, from
How will this shift to the post-macho world unfold? That depends on the choices men make, and they only have two.
The first is adaptation: men embracing women as equal partners and assimilating to the new cultural sensibilities, institutions, and egalitarian arrangements that entails. That’s not to say that all the men in the West will turn into metrosexuals while football ratings and beer sales plummet. But amid the death of macho, a new model of manhood may be emerging, especially among some educated men living in the affluent West.
Economist Betsey Stevenson has described the decline of an older kind of marriage, in which men specialized in market labor while women cared for children, in favor of “consumption” marriage, “where both people are equally contributing to production in the marketplace, but they are matching more on shared desires on how to consume and how to live their lives.” These marriages tend to last longer, and they tend to involve a more even split when it comes to household duties.
Not coincidentally, the greater adaptability of educated men in family life extends to economic life, too. Economist Eric D. Gould found in 2004 that marriage tends to make men (particularly lower-wage earners) more serious about their careers—more likely to study more, work more, and desire white-collar rather than blue-collar jobs. This adaptation of men may be the optimistic scenario, but it’s not entirely far-fetched.
Then, however, there’s the other choice: resistance. Men may decide to fight the death of macho, sacrificing their own prospects in an effort to disrupt and delay a powerful historical trend. There are plenty of precedents for this. Indeed, men who have no constructive ways of venting their anger may become a source of nasty extremism; think of the kgb nostalgists in Russia or the jihadi recruits in search of lost honor, to name just a couple. And there are still plenty of men in the West who want to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” These guys notwithstanding, however, Western developed countries are not for the most part trying to preserve the old gender imbalances of the macho order this time around.
Instead, the choice between adaptation and resistance may play out along a geopolitical divide: While North American and Western European men broadly—if not always happily—adapt to the new egalitarian order, their counterparts in the emerging giants of East and South Asia, not to mention in Russia, all places where women often still face brutal domestic oppression, may be headed for even more exaggerated gender inequality. In those societies, state power will be used not to advance the interests of women, but to keep macho on life support.
If this represents a nightmare scenario for how the death of macho could play out, another kind of threatening situation is unfolding in
This frenzy of spending is designed to contain the catastrophic damage caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs in
Just as the housing bubble in the
Today, however, it’s hard to see how Chinese leaders can safely unravel this bargain. Matters are made worse by China’s skewed population—there are 119 male births for every 100 female—and the country has already seen violent protests from its increasingly alienated young men. Of course, it’s possible that
It might be tempting to think that the death of macho is just a cyclical correction and that the alpha males of the financial world will all be back to work soon. Tempting, but wrong. The “penis competition” made possible by limitless leverage, arcane financial instruments, and pure unadulterated capitalism will now be domesticated in lasting ways.
The he-cession is creating points of agreement among people not typically thought of as kindred spirits, from behavioral economists to feminist historians. But while many blame men for the current economic mess, much of the talk thus far has focused on the recession’s effects on women. And they are real. Women had a higher global unemployment rate before the current recession, and they still do. This leads many to agree with a U.N. report from earlier this year: “The economic and financial crisis puts a disproportionate burden on women, who are often concentrated in vulnerable employment É and tend to have lower unemployment and social security benefits, and have unequal access to and control over economic and financial resources.”
This is a valid concern, and not incompatible with the fact that billions of men worldwide, not just a few discredited bankers, will increasingly lose out in the new world taking shape from the current economic wreckage. As women start to gain more of the social, economic, and political power they have long been denied, it will be nothing less than a full-scale revolution the likes of which human civilization has never experienced.
This is not to say that women and men will fight each other across armed barricades. The conflict will take a subtler form, and the main battlefield will be hearts and minds. But make no mistake: The axis of global conflict in this century will not be warring ideologies, or competing geopolitics, or clashing civilizations. It won’t be race or ethnicity. It will be gender. We have no precedent for a world after the death of macho. But we can expect the transition to be wrenching, uneven, and possibly very violent.