An Aspen Ideas Festival panel on Sunday evening was charged with the task of predicting what America’s big cultural battle will be in 2014.
The four panelists provided a variety of answers, but throughout the hourlong discussion at the Hotel Jerome, a common issue kept coming up: the diminishing role of the male in the future, with regard to both workforce and family matters.
“The definition of masculinity,” was the answer given by Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation. “But it’s going to be faster than 10 years, it’s going to be five. It’s started already, but it’s going to continue.”
Slaughter said that women aren’t going to make more progress in the workplace and society until men’s roles are revolutionized. Men generally are filling the same roles they’ve held since the 1960s, but that’s about to change, she suggested.
“A man is still defined by how successful he is in his career,” she said. “Women used to be defined by how many children you had, how clean your house was, how good a caregiver you were. Now, women can be defined that way and as professionals. Most of us would like a little bit of both.”
But many men want change, she said. They want to have closer relationships with their children and to take time to help their parents, the way women traditionally have taken on those responsibilities.
“A lot of them want to have the caring side of their nature recognized and validated, just as we validate the competitive side,” Slaughter said. “The only place we really see this work now is in the military. If you’re carrying a gun, it is fine to cry for your buddy. It is fine to care and to let out all that side of you, because men have just as much of a caring side as women do, it’s just been suppressed, the same way the caring side of women used to be suppressed.”
Kay Hymowitz, an author of books on parenting, marriage and gender, agreed with Slaughter but for other reasons. She said the changing nature of the traditional male role has a lot to do with the evolution of the U.S. economy and the drastically shrinking number of blue-collar jobs.
“That may seem like an economic problem, and in large measure it is. Working-class men ... are now leaving the labor force in remarkable, record-level numbers. And they are clearly facing limited job prospects, low wages and stagnant wages,” Hymowitz said.
But it’s a cultural problem, as well, she continued, because men without jobs “don’t make very appealing husbands and fathers” for their female peers.
“Oddly enough ... they continue to have children (with their partners and girlfriends) even though they’re not considered marriageable,” Hymowitz said. “Unfortunately, those relationships tend to break up rather quickly. The children of these unions are at great disadvantage in the world today where it’s essential to have a lot of education to get ahead.”
Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human-rights lawyer and National Public Radio commentator, said he believes there won’t be as many entrenched cultural wars over issues like same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana 10 years from now. Instead, there will be “mini cultural wars fought over the Internet,” similar to the one waged on the web recently over the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“Remember, we live in the era of TMZ now,” Iftikhar said, referring to the celebrity-gossip website.
He added, however, that there will always be debate, on the Internet and elsewhere, over race and religion.
Dick Metcalf, a former technical editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, said he believes an increasingly divisive issue is animal rights versus human rights.
“It gets into, ‘How can you eat meat if you believe animals are people? My cat and my dog are people! They are members of my family!’ So, there go McDonald’s cheeseburgers,” he said.
With an increasing number of people becoming vegetarians or gluten-free, it’s likely that society will find new ways to produce food by 2014, with less emphasis on traditional cattle and chicken production, Slaughter and other panelists said.
Back to the subject of the plight of men, particularly “angry white men,” Slaughter pointed out that they have lost a great deal of power in America and are now venting through political movements such as the tea party.
“When I talk about the changing definitions of masculinity, I don’t think it’s going to divide racially. I don’t think it’s going to be black men versus white men at all,” she said. “But to go to (Hymowitz’s points), one of the reasons a lot of the men you’re looking at don’t have jobs; they will not take a lot of the jobs available. They won’t become nurses (because) they won’t (take) the caring jobs that are available.”
Hymowitz said she believes another factor is play. A lot of men without jobs aren’t going back to school to learn skills that will serve them in the workplace of the future.
“That is very different from what women are doing,” she said. “Low-income women who are often single mothers still see that not only do they have to work, but they want to get ahead (because of their kids).
“What’s happened as men have become less central to family life, is that they don’t really have much pressure to do much,” Hymowitz said. “You often hear that (women) are doing fine without the guy.”
An audience member suggested that the gun-control debate between “zealots” and “reformers” will grow to unprecedented levels in the next decade, but Metcalf pooh-poohed that notion.
“I think that one is already behind us,” Metcalf said, noting that since the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in December 2012 in which 20 elementary school students were killed, more laws have been adopted around the country to protect gun rights than to take them away.