I come from what will be called, if it is not already, the "crossover" generation. My father went to college, my mother did not. That was also true of my grandparents. While my mother worked on and off between children until my father was disabled, she was considered the "keeper" of the home and my father the breadwinner. Their roles were highly defined and never fully reversed.
I married a college grad. The first male in the family to do so. It was a few years after the publication of Friedan's Feminine Mystique at the height of the women's movement. While most of my wife's friends kept their maiden names, she did not, but only because she didn't like the sound of her families name and was estranged from them.
I got used to addressing letters to Ms. I was among those males who had to be "re-trained" from the ways of our fathers and accepted it, knowing injustice when I saw it and not being willing to participate in it. When our daughter was born, it was a mutual "choice" I embraced wholeheartedly. We shared childcare, household duties, and breadwinning.
We didn't know at the time, nor did anyone, I suspect that feminism would become the dominate and certainly the most successful ideology to emerge from our generation--reaching into every quarter of the land and segment of the population. Those parts that resisted where either backward in our view, or not yet established members of the culture.
We also became aware of the "backlash" that followed. Not all our friends were able to adjust to the new ethos. Divorce among them became rampant. In fact, more divorced than not--exceeding the national average of 50-60 per cent compared to the roughly ten per cent of our parents and less the generation before. It wasn't so much because our friends couldn't make ends meet, in fact, a case can be made for the opposite: the more affluent were the more likely to divorce because they could afford it.
It got nasty for awhile, as many of the children of those marriages will attest--a civil war that didn't take prisoners. The pretense was that it was amicable but that was rarely the case. A massive game of musical partners ensued with disillusionment, cynicism and bitterness often the end result. Now, the children of many of those marriages have reached the age to marry, or when we married--if not exceeding it--and my observation is they're having a hard time.
After a childhood in New York City, our daughter went to an Eastern "Seven Sister" college, taught in Japan for three years, travelled for a year and became a member of the art scene in San Francisco for almost ten. I see the new generation mostly through her eyes and it looks like scorched earth. If the word "committment" wasn't needed in my parent's and grandparent's generation, came into vogue in mine, it is past due in hers.
The best explaination I can find is that young men today are scared, and perhaps rightly so. It's a well known fact that the children of divorce are 50 per cent more likely to divorce themselves. "Marriage," my daughter says "is a dirty word. Only the gays really want it."
In addition the forecast of their opportunities is not good. While I'm sure every other 18 to 35 year old intends to become the next Steve Jobs or Facebook founder they are not so naive to believe that can be true for all of them. A college education, as they also know, is not enough--it's more a matter of what college was attended and more than ever before connections are what make the difference. Even the farmboys have to have farms to bring their brides back to and chances are those farms still belong to dad. If the middle class has been on shaky ground, its now fallen into the crevasse.
Recently, the son of a good friend, a young man I've known all his life, was kicked out of the house by his wife after five years with a two year old child. His fault wasn't that he drank, or was abusive, or didn't do his share--just the opposite--he's a doting father and was a devoted husband--his "problem" was that he couldn't find work--and it wasn't that he wasn't working--only that he wasn't making enough money to suit his wife despite all his best efforts.
I fear the reality for the new generation has changed, but the expectations have remained the same--or in many cases have gotten worse. It's no longer enough to start out small and work together toward a mutual goal. The result, according to one analysis that strikes me as accurate is that the next generation may be perpetually stuck in adolescence. It has always been a problem in America "keeping up with the Jones," but now it's endemic. Is there any wonder young men don't want to marry? Where are the adults?
The job market of the future, if there is to be one, is much more likely to favor the natural skills and abilities of women rather than men. No heavy objects need to be lifted. Relationship skills, operating computers and managerial ability give woman an advantage of becoming the breadwinner--yet the old roles may be more deeply ingrained than was assumed by both sexes. I don't hear anybody arguing convincingly that isn't true.
It would be inept and inaccurate to place the blame at the foot of "feminism" or at least the feminism that was spawned in the 60's. Clearly, a cultural evolution of this magnitude can't be defined by any one creed. So don't get me wrong. But if it isn't clear by now that a re-examination of those attitudes is necessary, it never will be, especially by those effected by them.
Not surprisingly, the person who knew this best is the person who started it all. My wife and I met Betty Friedan one day in a parking lot in the Hamptons, N.Y. It was after her split from NOW and many of her colleagues in the movement, while she was writing her last book (the one nobody read) that basically said the movement had gone too far and confirmed her belief in the traditional roles--in the home--not in the workplace. She had a grandchild's hand in each of her own.
My wife, who had become a success in business by this time, said to her: "I appreciate the contribution you made to my life and so many of the women in my generation."
Friedan had a wonderful warm and elfin grin. "I hope my ideas didn't cause you too much trouble."
"No," my wife said. "Not really."
But I wonder, if my wife was alive today, and knew what our daughter and so many of her friends are going through, if she'd still agree--not about women's equality of course, that is not in contention--but over what the roles of men and women are today and what "committment" now means.