The Book Club

Bring On the New Order

Hello, Richard:

Interesting thoughts indeed.

Susan Faludi says the old order is breaking down. I agree. She says, “Oh, Dear,” and I say “Hooray!!” The only problem I have is that it’s not breaking down nearly fast enough, due to vested interests, institutional inertia, and lots of uncertainty about the new models of wealth creation that will replace the industrial leviathan. Gender has a role to play here too. Men have dominated the old order. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that a certain interpretation of masculinity based on dominance has imbued the old order. Many men feel comfortable with what they know, and it’s not clear that they will be able to enjoy the same kinds of perks from their masculinity as wealth creation evolves toward new models in the next century. Fifty years of social science have decried what that old order did to human beings. A quick glance at my bookshelf tells that story: Alienation and Freedom, Class and Conformity, The Hidden Injuries of Class (brilliant, still), The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd … if we believe what we’ve been saying, then we should all be celebrating.

Why is this order breaking down? If you read Faludi the answer seems to be something like–fickle and inept commercial interests suddenly turned on to the financial benefits of treating employees like paper clips. This is simply wrong. U.S. employers have always been arrayed in something of a normal distribution, with some being quite progressive and humane, offering great benefits and employment security, and some being right bastards. Most were somewhere in the middle, treating employees like paper clips when their balance sheet required them to do so. This situation has not changed. Today, the really cool companies that make the Fortune cover with their great family policies, benefits, and security, employ at most about 3 percent of the workforce. The normal distribution still holds for the rest. Despite all the hype about the end of loyalty, most of the studies conducted by labor economists show that the length of time that people spend with an organization and the number of changes they make during their careers has not varied dramatically over the last quarter-century. There was an increase in the churn rate for younger, less experienced managers in the early 1990s, during the recession, but even that appears to have moderated.

So in what way are things changing? The short answer here, I think, is “choice.” The very success of the old order has created new choices as well as–educated, informed– people interested in new choices. The electronic infrastructure–networks, PCs, the Internet, wireless communications, satellites, etc.–is increasingly making it possible to de-center from the old “epicenters,” whether those are the cities like Los Angeles and London and New York or the old organizations themselves in their skyscrapers and industrial parks. This means new choices for employment and new choices for consumption. People vote with their feet–and will increasingly. They don’t want to depend upon the old-style institutions for their employment or their consumption. They are seeking ways to exert more control over their own lives and in the process to enhance the quality of their lives.

For all the narcissism of those who are busy ringing around the anthills of Los Angeles and New York in order to be “winners” in those loony hierarchies, the new boomtowns in the United States are in places recently regarded as pastureland: places like Douglas, Colo., and Fayette, Georgia, and yes, even Camden, Maine. Here the old definitions of what’s global and what’s local no longer accurately describe the scene. In these new worlds, people are participating in the global economy while their lives remain centered in their families and their local communities. Nineteen ninety-seven was the first year in which there was a net migration away from the cities and suburbs to so-called rural areas. The United States now has 36.9 million home-office households, which is 36.5 percent of the total 101.1 million households. More than two-thirds of those home offices are income-generating.

In the 18th century, most commercial activity was based at home. Craftsmen had their shops out back. Merchants met clients in their formal parlors. But in the 19th century, men were plucked out of their homes to go to work in factories and offices. Perhaps as a way to displace their collective grief, they decided that the workplace was really important and what went on at home … well, that newly feminine world was at best a distant second. The only guy who was allowed to work from home without being regarded suspiciously was the president, who still conducted business in his White House. Places like Maine reunite the 18th century with the 21st. You’re right, it’s not like living in New York or Los Angeles. That’s the whole point! And there are vast numbers of educated people who can now free themselves from the hegemony of the old “epicenters” to live the life they want without sacrificing their participation in the global economy.

So where does this leave the “masculinity crisis”? It brings us right back to “choice.” The people making these new choices are the ones forcing the breakdown of the old order. Yes, it’s doing plenty to make itself vulnerable, but organizations based on the old industrial model are simply not the first choice of an increasing number of people who work and consume. The new path they are forging is still in its infancy, but unlike the edges of the stream that Susan Faludi chose to shine her lights on, these are the trends on which I place my bets for the future. For the men who are making these new choices, I don’t believe there is a masculinity crisis but rather a liberation from an identity constrained by the “I am what I do” and the “I am my status on the totem pole” mentality that dominated the emotional lives of most men in the 20th century. These men are excited about carving out a wider individuality in which they can develop and enjoy a more spacious and multifaceted sense of self. For those who continue to pursue the more traditional masculine identity, there is no crisis, but rather denial. They will work to keep those identities intact until something happens in their personal or professional lives that profoundly challenges their sense of meaning. Only then will they choose to change. (I loved the way Faludi showed Mr. Stallone teetering on this choice. Unfortunately, he didn’t know very much about choosing friends capable of a commitment to the person he could become, rather than the man he had been.) You called the men Faludi interviewed “losers.” It’s a hard word, but there is truth there. They are losers because the old identity is foreclosed to them while the new choices don’t appear to be accessible. And it is precisely for this reason that, however important their stories may be, they do not provide a basis for generalizing about the state of masculinity today.

More tomorrow,

Shoshana Zuboff