Reihan Salam has a great take on the future of the traditional family:
the changing shape of family pluralism in the U.S. is cause for concern. Family forms have always been diverse, Ozzie-and-Harriet was always an imperfect portrait of family life for many if not most Americans. Yet the fact that the balance is shifting even further away from two-parent households is going to stretch public resources to the limit.
Reihan explains that even “neo-traditionalist” or “hedonic” families — that is, families in which breadwinning and nurturing are increasingly shared so as to maximize the number of things spouses enjoy experiencing together — will prove superior to families without husbands and fathers in them. Unfortunately, households headed by men are on a powerful decline, especially in the lower class. Reihan warns rightly that
increasing transfers to increase financial stability and thus promote hedonic marriage among the less affluent isn’t a terribly effective strategy. Robust economic growth and job growth would be vastly preferable, though that prospect has arguably dimmed — not just because of the downturn, but because of structural shifts that could lead to further reductions in overall labor force participation among prime age males, a phenomenon that long predates the downturn.
Scary, right? Men without jobs find it especially hard to summon the power — and, more importantly, the authority — to lead households. Nowadays, the problem is compounded. Increasingly, we look down on menial jobs in both the labor economy and the ‘knowledge’ economy — both outside the cubicle and within it — as “jobs American’s won’t do” in the first case and as simply emasculating in the second. In poor enough economic times, that view will change. But as Reihan recognizes, the downturn isn’t the decisive issue.
I’d argue the decisive issue is cultural. If our culture or its elites instruct us that there’s nothing particularly honorable about being a father and a husband, many men will take an attitude toward work profoundly different from the one they’d take in a culture where families led by fathers and husbands are singled out for particular honors. Indeed, even in culture indifferent or hostile to bestowing that kind of special honor, men often take it upon themselves to view work differently when they work as a father and a husband, and not just as a guy.
But when theirs is a work environment hostile to the idea that the work of fathers and husbands has a special, privileged character, the cultural problem deepens. Today, many Human Resources departments — in theory and practice — strive to eliminate any rank order of honor among employees. If anything, the honored employee is the working mother. The identity of the working father and husband, by contrast, becomes something of an obstacle to the whole Human Resources program — which, by now, with its corporate retreats and group confessionals and team-building trust exercises, the whole toolkit of therapeutic maternalism, is the subject of resentful but sadly resigned ridicule.
The key to keeping families intact and keeping men at work is simple: make jobs manly again. The irony is that the key to making jobs manly again is simple, too: restore fatherhood and husbandhood to the place of cultural privilege it needs.