I just now caught up with the August offering from Cato Unbound which addresses an Underbelly fave: the decline of men. The presenntation is a bit of a disappointment. Kay Hymowitz' centerpiece essay offers up an array of interesting factoids but little by way of new analysis. The comments are mostly same-old same-old, 1970s stuff.
Hymowitz does offer an interesting venture on what she calls the "existential explanation" of male decline: men have pretty much lost their role as responsible providers for wives and children. In the past, Hymowitz rightly said, men undertook the "dangerous, boring, dirty, exhausting jobs." And they did it "because people were depending on them." That demand is gone, and we don't know quite what to do about it.
In a way, I can relate. In my day, I knew that if I married--more generally, if I got somebody pregnant--I'd have to support the dependents or go to jail. The current lot doesn't seem to face so stark a choice. But the interesting thing is we kind of liked it. "Marriage made man out of me," guys my age would have said--I said it myself. Not so much any more.
So far so good, but I think the exact workings of this mechanism remain poorly understood, in a number of respects. One, as to the nature of male responsibility. Granted, marriage relates (or related) to shaping up. But men like responsibility generally, and and they find it in many places outside marriage. The military. Sports teams. If they are really lucky, an interesting and challenging job. The decline of challenge in marriage may be related to the decline of challenge in employment. It might--I am more tentative here--relate to the folkloric habit of men to lie around all day watching ESPN: even as passive observers, sports present them with a challenge and a set of responsibilities that they desire.
Another difficulty involves correlation/causation in marriage. We talk as if it is marriage that shapes men up. But it may be that the ones who choose to marry are the ones who have shaped up, or are ready to shape up. Marriage may be just an incident of a more general pattern. If this is so, then if and insofar as men find challenges and responsibilities elsewhere, marriage itself may just not be that big of a deal. Sex, of course, will no doubt continue to being a big deal. But if, in general, getting laid is just not as much of a problem as it used to be, we might morph into a pattern in which the linkage between marriage and responsibility simply unwinds.