It’s been much noted that over the past decade, most of our big institutions, private and public, have not exactly covered themselves in glory: Wall Street, Congress, the Supreme Court, the press, the Federal Reserve, Tiger Woods Inc., the CIA, the auto industry, Major League Baseball, and so forth. The Catholic Church has failed miserably and, in very different ways, so have major institutions of Sunni and Shiite Islam. All these institutional breakdowns have also been, overwhelmingly, failures by men. You don’t have to buy into a like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle view of the sexes to suspect a pattern here of testosterone (or injected steroids) fueling hubris and just plain bad judgment.
Maybe women haven’t failed quite so spectacularly simply because they have been largely denied the opportunity to do so. But as Hanna Rosin argues in her story in this issue, that is changing now, at a speed that may be creating new hope for the world but is also inducing whiplash in men. Women now hold the majority of the jobs in the United States, and of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next 10 years, men dominate only two (janitor and computer engineer—take your pick, boys). As usual, our politics and corporate boardrooms are lagging indicators of what is happening in the society, where women already hold most positions in middle management and would be overwhelming our universities were it not for stealthy affirmative action on behalf of overmatched young men. Small wonder the Tea Party is mostly male, as well as white.
The signs, once you start noticing them, are everywhere in the popular culture. Rosin points to the rise of the “alpha female”—cougars are suddenly cool—and the loser-male leads of our most popular romantic comedies, the lovable slackers who ultimately land stunning and successful professional women by admitting that they just can’t live without them. Which of course they can’t. Who else would pay for their World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King? The other day, in suburban Washington, D.C., I walked past a 20-something man wearing a T-shirt that read, in large letters, I HAVE A PH.D., under which, in parentheses, the shirt explained that this meant he had “pretty huge” genitals. Are we men really becoming so pathetic? Are there no dignified male role models left? Where, indeed, have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our PH.D.s turn their lonely eyes to you (while, easily distracted, also musing that Mrs. Robinson was one fine cougar). The ascent of women, as Rosin argues, may portend steadier, more responsible leadership. It should certainly mean a more productive society, one that can unlock the talents of all its citizens, without prejudice. But for that to happen, men will have to react to the new competition with something more than an understandable anxiety.
Rosin’s piece anchors our Ideas List, our annual effort to distill the ideas that most define the year. This exercise involves serial arguments among our editors and writers about what ideas are truly consequential, what has really shaped conventional wisdom, and whether that wisdom was right or wrong. It’s a lot of fun. This year we brought Walter Isaacson and his team at the Aspen Institute into the debate, and arrived at a list that ranges from American declinism to the rise of drones in warfare, from the boredom- (and tranquility-) dispelling triumph of connectivity to the new common sense about marijuana laws. (Regular readers will note that to make room for the list, we have dispensed for this issue with our columns—Business, Moving Pictures, and Media—and deployed our columnists elsewhere in the magazine.) No doubt we got some things wrong, or left out some important ideas. Please let us know what you think. You can submit your own idea or comment on the list on our Web site, theatlantic.com, or you can send us a letter. We will print the best suggestions for alternative ideas in our September issue.