Are Alpha Males in Danger of Extinction?
As male drive seems to be slowing down, women are becoming increasingly ambitious. Will the alpha female take over and how will that affect us? An investigation yields some startling consequences.
Having a penis used to mean something. From the time our species got its start until very recently, being a guy came with a codified set of behaviors and responsibilities: hunting large, dangerous mammals, charging into battle, subjugating would-be usurpers. Men who displayed prowess in these areas quickly rose in status within the group and increased their popularity with the ladies.
One reason for their success: For heterosexual women, sexual attraction is sparked by a collection of encrypted biological signals that offer vital clues about whether a man can protect and provide for a prospective family. And on a gut level, neuroscientists say, women respond favorably to Alpha Males—men who exhibit the right genetic stuff in their looks, intelligence, resources, and leadership. In fact, a 2007 study published in Nature Neuroscience demonstrated that when females (well, female mice) were exposed to the pheromones of dominant male mice, their tiny girl-rodent brains actually grew new cells that guided them to choose the Alpha Males as mates.
But it looks like among us humans, the behavioral Alpha signals men can emit—machismo, cockiness, the aggressive protection of their place at the front of the pack—are getting progressively weaker and less common as women’s roles in relationships, jobs, and the economy become stronger and more central. With their traditional dominant, moneymaking position eroding, where does that leave men? Consider what might happen if the peacock didn’t bother to fan his spectacular plumage, if the ram could no longer muster the will to clash horns, if the mighty lion neglected his patrolling duties. Can humankind handle the diminishment of the Alpha Male and accept the changing gender roles?
An uneven playing field
Right now, a woman’s chances of finding a man who is as educated and financially secure as she is are small and, according to recent studies, dwindling. Women earn a greater share of high school diplomas as well as associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Significantly fewer men enroll in college than women, and an even smaller percentage graduate.
Those statistics suggest that men are both lazy and quitters, bringing to mind recent pop-culture depictions of dudes enjoying a prolonged adolescence of beer and PlayStation3 marathons—think Knocked Up and numerous other Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan films—and freeloading off Mom and Dad (even before this recession, twice as many men as women ages 24 to 34 were living with their parents).
In his book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, Leonard Sax, M. D., Ph. D., identifies a maelstrom of factors heralding an era of arrested male development, including video games, environmental toxins, and what he describes as “our culture’s neglect of the transition to manhood.” Sax notes that this phenomenon is not solely confined to Western cultures, and he disagrees that it’s a consequence of women’s achievements. “Think of Qatar, where women are still oppressed— yet a growing proportion of boys and men there are unmotivated.”
Whatever the causes of men’s waning drive, the women outperforming them in academia will surely have an impact on the future job market. But that market is already shifting radically along gender lines. While women working full-time still earn only 77.8 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, the recent economic downturn has highlighted the diametrically opposed trajectories of our work lives: The male-dominated construction and manufacturing sectors have taken a huge hit, whereas the overwhelmingly female-staffed professions of education and health care have been relatively insulated. From November 2008 through last April, employment among men declined by 2.5 million, while among women it was down by fewer than 700,000 jobs. And some economics experts think that women are better suited to the new “knowledge economy,” in which such traits as sensitivity, intuition, and collaboration are valued over typically Alpha jockeying-for-power games.
This new female-centric model may in fact signal a return to gender equilibrium rather than a break from tradition. For much of human history, being a skilled provider wasn’t tied so closely to earning money—it also meant hunting; farming; gathering materials for food, clothing, and shelter; and protecting one’s goodies from covetous neighbors. “During most of our ancestral past, individuals in a family had to produce all the material and social goods,” says Elizabeth Pillsworth, Ph. D., an evolutionary anthropologist at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. “This created an interdependence between men and women.”
Once our society became centered on a wage economy, she continues, “if you had cash, you simply purchased all the goods you needed. As men became wage earners, they assumed the role of sole provider. Now that women also earn money”—in many cases, more money than guys—”men may feel that their role is diminishing.”
Are sugar mamas getting the shaft?
If guys are entering a never before imagined era of expendability, what happens to the male-female dynamic? How do you decide whom to marry and have kids with? In her book Are Men Necessary?, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asserts, “Men moving up still tend to marry down. The two sexes going in opposite directions has led to an epidemic of professional women missing out on husbands and kids.”
That’s an alarming notion for women like Marie,* 26, an advertising executive from St. Louis. “I’m definitely not sifting through gobs of amazing prospects,” she says. “My previous boyfriend and I were absolutely on unequal footing. I was better educated; he had to drop out of school. That translated to me earning more and supporting him. This was a big contributing factor to our breakup, mostly because I was on a career track and he really cared about the inequality between us.”
Though Marie has earned more than most of the guys she’s dated, she had never entertained the idea that she might be the chief breadwinner in a relationship.
“I grew up with a single mom who worked a lot,” she says, “but I always thought I’d have the option to be a stay-at-home mom. I probably expect less now that I see the reality. I don’t expect to be supported.”
But some experts say that this apparent scarcity of strong male prospects has as much to do with women’s changing perspectives as men’s declining earnings.
“Traditionally, when evaluating attractiveness, particularly for long-term relationships, women place importance on men’s status,” says Gary Brase, Ph. D., a psychology professor at Kansas State University. But how people perceive higher status, he adds, is relative to their own—in other words, “it’s about finding someone you think is higher up than you are.” A trend of women’s status rising faster than men’s will lead more women to perceive that the number of suitable partners is shrinking—and, of necessity, more of them will begin to rethink what they want from a relationship.
“A man’s earning power certainly plays a role in my thoughts about a long-term partner,” says Alexis, a 29-year old endodontist from San Francisco who makes significantly more than her recording-artist boyfriend. “At some point having children might come into the picture, and if I take maternity leave, there’s no income from my end, since I have my own practice. In other respects, as long as the guy isn’t a mooch and can hold his own, it doesn’t really matter to me if I make more or not.”
“I don’t much enjoy the thought of supporting a husband for the rest of my life,” says Sarah, 32, a financial advisor from New York City who’s currently single. “Unless my career suddenly took off and I made good money, and he was a great house-husband and grocery shopped, cooked, and took care of the kids. But if I ran into career problems, I’d also want him to be able to contribute financially. I’d want him to be hirable.”
Adjusting to the New World Order
Though it seems that men are no longer expected to show greater ambition and drive than women, it’ll take time to give up such a deeply ingrained social construct. But Michael Kimmel, Ph. D., author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, says that any residual role confusion will fade. “A popular question among men in my father’s generation was ‘Will you let your wife work?'” he says. “To which the answer was often a resounding no. A change in our economy between my father’s generation and mine muted any real opposition to the idea of women working, and what we’re seeing today is just a continuation of that trend.”
While some women are thrown by the societal shift, others have quickly adjusted. “Right from the outset, my wife made it clear that she had no problem getting married to a man who made significantly less than she did,” says Paul, a 37-year-old composer from Brooklyn whose wife is a high-level executive at a major credit card company. “Some guys I know have a neurosis about this. Well, I think our setup is fantastic. Being hung up on who ought to do what is such an outdated mode of thinking. Furthermore, if she didn’t make double what I make, frankly, we’d be screwed.”
Gender experts are quick to add that it’s not so unusual for women to provide a majority of a family’s needs when you consider the thousands of years of human history.
“We suspect that even in hunter- gatherer times, most of the day-to-day sustenance and shelter came from the women gathering food and creating the homes, not the men’s hunting prowess,” says Christine B. Whelan, Ph. D., author of Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to True Love. “And for the vast majority of families in the U. S. during the early to mid-20th century, the male-breadwinner model might just have been a media-invented ideal. There were only one or two years in the 1950s when the breadwinner-homemaker model described more than 50 percent of American families; otherwise, this has never been the dominant family pattern.”
UCLA’s Pillsworth adds that while data show that many women still place great emphasis on men’s ability to provide, the scope of what they expect a man to bring to a partnership is broad and getting broader: “It’s often less about absolute earning power and more about personality variables such as reliability, generosity, social status, and kindness.” As women have greater access to resources, Pillsworth says, they have more freedom to choose what they want in a life mate. (This means that in the near future we may see fewer beautiful women partnered with short, tubby, bald men driving Porsches.)
Most experts seem to agree that we won’t see a dystopian future inhabited by beer-swilling, channel-surfing male spongers headed for a lifetime of temp jobs; instead, they say, men will improve their all-around game and become versatile enough to function in a lead or a supporting role as circumstances require.
“We’ll see even more fathers as primary caregivers and more couples switching on and off in terms of whose career takes center stage,” Whelan predicts. “High-achieving women should be looking for a complementary match: It’s not about comparing resumes; it’s about finding someone for an equal and loving partnership.”
Kimmel says, “Young men today embrace being part of an egalitarian relationship infinitely more than the men of previous generations did.” And, he adds, empirical evidence has shown that men who are more involved in the home have not only better-adjusted children but also lower rates of depression.
Indeed, should the trend toward the female-centric society continue—and all indicators point in that direction—many more women, as an unintended consequence of their success, may need to recalibrate their expectations of their long-term partners. And as we all jettison our 20th-century role baggage, that just might mean happier, healthier lives across the board.
*Names and some identifying details have been changed.
Women don’t want to have kids anymore
Marriage and Sex