Late last summer, late one night, I was midway through Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story, when I had to take a break. For all the book’s mordant conjuring of a not-too-future dystopic, declining America, I just needed to get away from the sweetly pathetic antihero, yet another man unmoored and afraid in a valueless age. As I used my iPad to paw through the shelves of the various e-book warehouses, I found myself retreating (instantly and for free! how can this be decline?) into the pages of Jane Austen. By the time, a couple of weeks later, we received Kate Bolick’s cover story for this month, I had passed from Persuasion to Pride and Prejudice and was once again watching Elizabeth Bennet rebuff the ridiculous Mr. Collins, who immediately shifts his sights to her friend Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte is also no fan of Mr. Collins, but she has a more conventional attitude than Elizabeth toward marriage:
Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and, however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.
As Charlotte later briskly informs Elizabeth, “I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home …” Bolick’s story is the latest installment in a running conversation among our writers and readers about the structural changes in the American economy, and their impact on men, women, and the family. This preoccupation of The Atlantic dates at least to February 1859, when we published an article titled “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” The answer was an emphatic yes, and the analysis prescient if a bit precious:
It is not merely true that the empire of the past has belonged to man, but that it has properly belonged to him; for it was an empire of the muscles, enlisting at best but the lower powers of the understanding. There can be no question that the present epoch is initiating an empire of the higher reason, of arts, affections, aspirations; and for that epoch the genius of woman has been reserved.
Some version of that new epoch may at last have arrived. As Hanna Rosin, Don Peck, and other Atlantic writers have shown, long-term economic shifts like the decline of manufacturing, exacerbated by the Great Recession, are undermining traditionally male careers and favoring female ones. Yes, for the most part, men remain in control of the institutions of American life; but the superior graduation rates and rising incomes of women suggest that that may prove a lagging indicator of underlying, inexorable social change, signs of which we barely remark upon anymore. Does it even merit comment these days that a woman is contending for the Republican presidential nomination?
As Bolick shows, there is a lot of good news here. But the impact on marriage appears to be grim. As she writes, the proportion of households in America led by a married couple dropped last year to a record low of 48 percent. Half the adult population is single, compared with 33 percent in 1950; and 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. Partly, this may be a result of women’s no longer feeling compelled to marry a Mr. Collins. But it also appears to signal that the rise of women is being matched by a decline, not just of male dominance, but of men. Their plight is serious; men have seen their median wages for full-time work fall over the past 40 years. Among other consequences of such deterioration is what Bolick calls a “new scarcity” that narrows women’s choices for marriageable men just as their other choices in life broaden. It seems, somehow, cosmically unfair that when the strong-minded women of Jane Austen are at last set free, they are being liberated into our Shteyngartian society. (I’m reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s observation that it was only once America was well and truly bankrupted that the presidency went to a black man.)
We are in a period of sorting out, in which old customs and conventions are being stripped away, and new ones have yet to be firmly established. Optimists have reason to bet on the historic, long-term adaptability of our economy and society to see us through. (A more Shteyngartian answer may lie in China’s one-child policy, which could result in a surplus of as many as 30 million men by 2020; it would not be the first time Chinese products rushed to the rescue of the American way of life.) The advice this magazine delivered to women in 1859, though, should perhaps today be recast for men: “The final adjustment lies mainly in the hands of women themselves,” we declared then. “More depends on determination than even on ability. Will, not talent, governs the world.”