There goes the ‘manly’ man – and maybe all the rest, too?

I read a lot of articles about persistent gender bias in corporate leadership, in academic science, in elementary school classrooms. But I’m also reading more and more stories about the tables truly turning, in some cases not from imploding stereotypes but from persistent ones that backfire.

For instance, the New York Times Magazine preview for this weekend contains a fascinating feature, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” about how the recession is combining with gender stereotypes about acceptable jobs for men and women and pressing disproportionately more men into unemployment.

Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious — those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making — but he said there was another. “We’re in the South,” he told me. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.” I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed. It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.

The author, Hanna Rosin, points out a terrible irony. In Alexander City, Alabama, manly men are providers, but manly-man-jobs are now in short supply. Some of these men have begun to reconfigure their notion of masculinity and identity to reconcile it with the fact that they’ve become house husbands or nurses to make ends meet. Some have not. What happens to these men, who refuse to contribute to society on its new terms?

(Full disclosure: Rosin wrote a book called The End of Men. She’s naturally inclined to weave a story that supports the central idea of the book that she’s currently hanging her career off of. But the demographic evidence to support the idea of a “mancession” and the longer-term trend toward women dominating higher education is independent of her perspective and quite sound.)

I’m thinking these men who refuse to work because there is no manly work available might dwindle in their usefulness to human society until they become the equivalents of bee drones – utter mooches who exist solely to eat, have sex once and die immediately afterward. Keeping these freeloaders around is expensive, and bee colonies produce males only when the hive has the resources to support them and only because they need the genetic material.

But humans don’t actually need drones to deliver the genetic material. A few days before Rosin’s mag feature went live, Greg Hampikian, and biologist and criminal justice professor at the University of Idaho, made just that point in an op-ed called “Men, Who Needs Them?“:

I don’t dismiss the years I put in as a doting father, or my year at home as a house husband with two young kids. And I credit my own father as the more influential parent in my life. Fathers are of great benefit. But that is a far cry from “necessary and sufficient” for reproduction.

If a woman wants to have a baby without a man, she just needs to secure sperm (fresh or frozen) from a donor (living or dead). The only technology the self-impregnating woman needs is a straw or turkey baster, and the basic technique hasn’t changed much since Talmudic scholars debated the religious implications of insemination without sex in the fifth century. If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappear, it’s extinction.

Ultimately the question is, does “mankind” really need men? With human cloning technology just around the corner and enough frozen sperm in the world to already populate many generations, perhaps we should perform a cost-benefit analysis.

Persistently macho men are driving themselves to irrelevance, maybe even extinction. Many other men have shucked gender stereotypes and are adapting beautifully to blurring gender roles. That’s not just progressive; that’s a good survival strategy. If men didn’t adapt by making themselves really really helpful and useful to women, technological advances might soon put us at a point where we can no longer justify the very existence of men.

Men – are you worried about this at all?