Say goodbye to your manhood

September 7, 2012, 3:15 PM UTC

FORTUNE — With a cocktail in hand at a Yale Business School party, Sabrina chats about her likes (red wine, Lady Gaga, and Angela Merkel) and her dislikes (short men, FDBs — financial douche bags — and immature texts from scorned exes). The green-eyed beauty could easily roll with Carrie Bradshaw’s posse. She’s single, poised, successful, and attractive — “one of a kind” is how an old flame describes her.

Sabrina, 31, spent years working at various banks; she’s been in and out of love and feels no real urgency to settle down: “What do I need a man for? I don’t need him financially. I don’t need him to do activities. I have lots of friends here. So fuck it.”

A thousand miles away, unemployed Calvin attempts to navigate the post-manufacturing age. His ex, Bethenny, 29, runs her own daycare business and doesn’t seem to rely on him for anything. The two have a daughter together, though Calvin isn’t an important part of the equation. While grocery shopping, Bethenny muses that having him around would just mean “one less granola bar for the both of us.” It seems Calvin is nothing more than a financial hassle — one that Bethenny chooses to keep out of her life.

And so begins Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, an exploration of the modern career woman and her effect on the economy, gender norms, and masculine self-worth. In 2010, Rosin published an essay of the same name in The Atlantic, hoping to answer her own question: What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?

Her research uncovered that something “seismic had shifted the economy and culture, not only for men but for women, and that both sexes were going to have to adjust to an entirely new way of working and living and even falling in love.” In her book, she works to explain how we got to where we are — and what it may mean for life as we know it. Equal parts anecdote and sociological analysis (with a dash of statistics), Rosin serves a dish that may be hard for American men to digest. Though the title suggests it’s a “girls rule, boys drool” tale, that’s untrue. Rosin covers a wide range of subjects, all relating to gender, money, and love. Her motto? “There is no ‘natural’ order, only the way things are.”

Rosin’s most interesting reporting occurs in Alexander City, Alabama, the former home of athletic gear manufacturer Russell Corporation. As part of a restructuring, it moved its plants outside of the United States and in 2006, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) acquired the company. Thousands of Russell employees living in Alexander City (the majority of them men) were suddenly jobless.

Industrial towns across America are experiencing similar trauma, Rosin writes. As the men pine for the golden days, the women push nostalgia aside and take on the provider role. “When men start to flame out, women by necessity have to become self-sufficient, to take care of the kids,” says MIT economist David Autor. “They don’t marry the men, who are just another mouth to feed.”

We’ve seen this movie before. Starting in the 1970s, Rosin reminds us, African-American men began leaving the manufacturing sector. By 1987, only 20% of black men worked in factories. “Over time, nuclear families fell apart, drug addiction shot up, and social institutions began to disintegrate,” she writes. Women stepped up, and over the past 20 years, the black community has embraced matriarchy. (Rosin notes that African-American boys whose fathers are in jail graduate at higher rates than those whose dads are around, suggesting that “fathers have become a negative influence.”)

Today, many black women seem to have trouble finding a suitable man. Rosin believes economic woes in cities like Alexander City will cause a similar trend among college-educated white women, who may “join their black counterparts in a new kind of middle class, where marriage is increasingly rare.”

Rosin’s theory isn’t far-fetched. Women graduate from college in larger numbers than men. They dominate 20 of the 30 professions projected to add the most jobs in the next 10 years. And men, especially in places like Alexander City, are stuck between the way things were and the way things are progressively moving. “The modern economy is becoming a place where women are making the rules and men are playing catch up,” she writes.

It’s a shame Rosin doesn’t dedicate the entire book to studying places like Alexander City, where “the end of men” seems to be a real and troubling phenomenon. She pays as much attention to the descriptions of setting and her interviewees as she does to the factual meat of each chapter. The book is an enjoyable read, but her entire portrait, no matter how beautifully painted, is unconvincing.

At one point, Rosin refers to Marissa Mayer as the “highest-ranking woman at Google.” That’s not true. Mayer was certainly the most visible female Googler (GOOG) during her tenure at the firm (she now runs Yahoo (YHOO)), but senior VP Susan Wojcicki always ranked higher. Though a minor point, Wojcicki’s position is well known, and Rosin’s careless error made me question the reporting behind many of her sweeping statements.

Rosin also notes that women aged 25-39 are crowding out men in fields of study related to science and engineering. While that’s true, the numbers feel manipulated to further her overall thesis that better-educated women are feminizing the workforce. The reality is that women are doing well after graduation in medicine, law, and business. But science, technology, engineering, and math?
Not so much

Another pause-worthy moment: “Maybe we are approaching the moment when men stop looking back, fretting that all the ‘real men’ are dead, and allow themselves to be molded by the culture in new if uncomfortable ways.” I read that passage to a friend — we’re both 23 and spent the past four years at Georgetown University with the new generation of men Rosin believes will be ‘flexible’ in a women’s world. My friend laughed out loud. “Wish that were true — but yeah right.”

Rosin is better at close-ups than landscapes. Her attempt to cover gender at large — with fleeting focus on race, socioeconomics, religion, and generational shifts — detracts from the fascinating personal stories each chapter contains, and also makes Rosin’s argument about the obsolescence of men hard to follow. Analyses of the college hook-up culture, marriage as a luxury good, and powerful women executives (particularly those in Silicon Valley) feel trivial next to those that discuss a rise in female violence and single mothers working long hours to make ends meet.

A sole chapter about South Korea, representing a global economy becoming “dependent on women’s success … despite resistance from local versions of macho culture,” is interesting but feels out of place — especially as it comes just before the book’s conclusion. Is Rosin suggesting that men are doomed everywhere, regardless of varying regimes, religious cultures, familial structures, and economic statuses? Like a 3 a.m. nightcap, this brief excursion on Asian women is tasty but will probably leave readers dizzy and confused.

Women’s newfound economic freedom is the thread that keeps the slew of random subjects from falling in very different directions, but that thread isn’t strong enough to support Rosin’s sweeping conclusions about the future of men, women, and marriage in America.

No doubt the American Dream has gotten a makeover — with an extra coat of mascara. But Rosin doesn’t demonstrate that women’s educational dominance and financial independence spells the death of manhood. Claire Gordon, a Yale alumna whom Rosin interviewed, believes that college women “need a little time, to figure out what they want and how to ask for it.” Amid shocking economic and cultural change, maybe that’s all the guys need, too.

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