Why Househusbands Are the Future

Gail Collins: David, when I was reading your column about the plight of male workers in our current hard times, I recalled a conversation I had with a friend about the TV series “Cougar Town.” I'm sure people say that to you all the time.

David Brooks: Usually my columns remind people of “Jersey Shore,” and not in a good way. Which reminds me, why do older women get a call name like “cougars” while older men are just lecherous old coots?

Gail Collins: You were writing about the fact that American men have not adapted as well to the changing economy as women, who now have a much higher rate of college graduation and a much lower rate of layoffs during the recession.

That sent me back to the “Cougar Town” discussion. This is the show about middle-aged women who have sex with much younger men. It's been criticized for suggesting that middle-aged, single American women are so desperate for love they're robbing the cradle.

“They're missing the whole point,” my friend said. “This isn't about desperate middle-aged American women. It's about desperate young American men who are latching onto an older woman who's a good earner.”

David Brooks: This cuts against all sorts of genetic imperatives, by the way. According to evolutionary psychologists, in all human societies, males generally mate with younger women and women generally look for higher status men. A study of online dating found that a guy who is 5 feet 6 inches tall can attract as much interest as a 6-foot-tall man — if he makes at least $125,000 more a year. Don't ask me why I know that.

Gail Collins: Do you think it's becoming true the other way, too? Would a less attractive woman get more online dates if the guys knew she made a lot of money? Young American men, particularly young working-class men, really do seem to be in a pickle. Your solution was to encourage them to stay in school and pursue jobs in the reliable service sector instead of manufacturing or construction.

I think they should also be encouraged to stay home with the kids. In fact, we should celebrate it. In the grand sweep of American lifestyle choices, stay-at-home fatherhood is possibly the only one that doesn't get eulogized in our popular culture. I want to see the Bachelorette questioning her suitors on how many years they'd be willing to set aside for full-time childraising. I want a movie in which Matt Damon stays home while Beyoncé goes out to work. He can capture an escaped terrorist during the hours when the kids are in preschool.

David Brooks: In theory, I agree with you. Men should be staying home more. But I do think for many working-class men, we will find ourselves running into some pretty stiff headwinds. I come back to evolutionary psychology, which suggests that women are just more nurturing. Let me cite an experiment I suspect will linger in your memory. Scientists took a bunch of research subjects and taped pads to their underarms and asked them to watch a funny or scary movie. Then they got another group of subjects to sniff the pads and predict whether the pads were from the scary movie group or the funny movie group. Both men and women could give the right answer most of the time, but women were much, much more accurate. The empathy thing.

So I wonder how many former construction workers are really going to be willing to stay home, even if I suspect they would find it surprisingly rewarding. By the way, in the column I gave a brief nod to evangelical churches. They've done a fantastic job of making emotional expressiveness acceptable to American men, but there's still a long way to go and the biological constraints being what they are, we may never get there.

Gail Collins: You come up with the most fascinating information. But I'm sorry, I can't deal with the pad-sniffing thing.

We both agree that we're moving into uncharted waters on the family front. Maybe it'll turn out that working- class young men can adapt to the changing economy, which no longer values their physical strength, and learn to become secretaries.

But I'm seeing a long road ahead in which women are more and more likely to be the primary wage-earner in a family. Already, nearly a quarter of wives make more money than their husbands. And husbands are certainly taking more responsibility for chores and childcare than they did back in the day. But men who are the primary caregivers — out of choice or because they're unemployed — are often looked upon as losers.

It would seem to me that a country that spent so many generations celebrating the stay-at-home housewife could work up a little enthusiasm for the full-time dad. Just saying.

In The Conversation, David Brooks and Gail Collins talk between columns every Wednesday.

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