Men, eh? One minute they are throwing flour-filled condoms at the Prime Minister; the next, they are being appointed equal opportunities commissioners. One day they are ascendant, dominating the commanding heights of society; on the next, they are redundant, with withering skills and withered chromosomes. They spend time with their children - but then more time helping to fuel a boom in lap-dancing clubs.
It is time to ask Freud's question again but, this time, of the less fair sex: "What does a man want?" The ambiguities, uncertainties and contradictions of the modern man occur because men are in a critical time of transition, one similar in depth and significance to the changes wrought and experienced by women in the latter half of the 20th century. The direction of society now rests, more than anything, on how men respond to the threats and opportunities presented by the changes in women's lives.
Women are now reasonably clear about what they want. They want to lead lives of their own choosing, rather than according to gendered assumptions. Women want choice, autonomy, intimacy and equality in their personal relationships. They want, essentially, one of the main rallying cries of the women's movement writ large: the right to choose: to wear lipstick or not, work or not, marry or not, drink or not. This is what the writer Natasha Walter has dubbed "the new feminism".
Yet what about the lads? In theory, their choices are even greater: however, to many, it doesn't feel like that. In the face of women's rising affluence, confidence and eloquence, men can seem uncertain and threatened. At the extreme, men's very survival seems in doubt, with regular headlines about spermless birth and evidence that women live better without men.
In a chilling analysis, the geneticist Bryan Sykes argues that the Y chromosome is being progressively destroyed and that, within a few thousand generations, men will disappear altogether. "The human Y chromosome is crumbling before our very eyes," he warns in his book Adam's Curse. "The decay of the Y chromosome is . . . happening right now inside every testis in the land. Look at the nearest man, or think of your own testicles if you have them, and imagine the genetic damage going on in your trousers right now." It's enough to put a chap off his pint.
Not that men are going down without a fight: indeed, almost all violent crime and warfare is male-initiated. The principal characteristic of the speeding driver, or bearer of an antisocial behaviour order, or murderer, alcoholic and rapist, is that he is a he. And yet it is also true that men spend three times as many hours caring for their children as their fathers did, and that they match women in the grooming stakes.
Most important of all, the future of gender equality lies in the hands of men. Women have changed their lives almost beyond their grandmothers' recognition: the question is whether men will change, too. Women have fuelled the engine of social progress for the past half-century. Now it is the turn of men.
Men, however, are an under-studied and underpoliticised sex. We have ministers for women, professors and university departments of women's studies, pages of newspapers devoted to women, not to mention papal encyclicals - but, on men, mostly a resounding silence. The reason usually given is that all study - of politics, history, philosophy or art - is of men. This misses the point. A study of political history may be populated by men, but that is not the same as a study of them as men. Female politicians are wearily used to explaining how their gender has influenced their politics. For men, the question simply never arises. This is why the departure of Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, caused confusion. The first British politician who, when he said he was leaving to "spend more time with his family", actually did plan to spend more time with his family, Milburn disturbed the equilibrium of a political world built on the model of a man with a wife raising the children.
The Jurassic nature of Westminster life may explain why our political classes are responding so slowly to the new gender politics. The Tories have made an implausible grab for the "fathers' rights" agenda, and some (mostly female) Labour ministers are aware of the significance of changes in men's lives. By and large, however, the emerging, messy politics of masculinity is not to be found in SW1. This is a great pity, because the principal domains in which conventional masculine models are starting to be challenged have profound social and economic implications: for the way we work, and the way we raise our children.
The labour market is built on the assumption that the paid worker has a wife who will carry out domestic and child-rearing work - on a "buy one, get one free" model. This is why trade unions used to fight for a "family wage", a pay packet big enough to house, clothe and feed not only worker, but also wife and family.
"[T]here used to be millions of invisible employees," writes the US economist Shirley Burggraf. "Employers who once got two (an employee with a back-up spouse at home) are now most often getting just one." The entry of women into the labour force broke this mould. There are 13 million British women in paid work, compared with 16 million men. Fifty-nine per cent of married or cohabiting women with pre-school-age children are in a job.
So men no longer have wives who keep the home fires burning; they, too, are in the labour market. Yet organisational culture and job design remain stuck in the past; not least because most organisations are run by middle-aged men, whose lives did follow the conventional pattern.
Men are increasingly complaining about their "work-life balance". This is hardly surprising, given that the amount of time fathers spend with their children has tripled in the past few decades even as working hours have remained stable or - for many men - have increased. The government has introduced a statutory right to a fortnight of paternity leave, but ministers know that so long as it is only "paid" at statutory rates of maternity pay - £100 a week - very few fathers will be able to afford to take it. A test of Labour's willingness to support men will be whether it raises paternity-leave pay to the 90 per cent of salary currently paid during the first six weeks of maternity leave.
What men most need, however, is flexibility in working hours - compressed weeks, variable start times and the opportunity to work from home. These can come about only if men push for them. As Michael Kimmel, a writer on gender, puts it: "We're trying to do what women want of us, what children want of us, but we're not willing to transform the workplace."
Given that men have much of the power in the labour market, it is easy to be scornful of their stated desires. If they don't like the way the organisations which they run are built, what is stopping them from changing them? There are two answers. The first is that, despite the increase in women's employment and the narrowing of the pay gap, men remain the principal breadwinner in three-quarters of even those families where the mother is in full-time employment. Clearly, the male breadwinner is a long way from passing into mythology.
The second obstacle to workplace reform is the close relationship between paid work, occupational status and male identity. It is not just that most breadwinners are men, it is that, to be a man, you have to be a breadwinner. Again, it is difficult for some to muster sympathy. If the world teaches boys that they must become successful at work, whose fault is that?
"For men to say they feel boxed in is regarded not as laudable political protest but as childish and indecent whining. How dare the kings complain about their castles?" writes Susan Faludi in Stiffed: the betrayal of the modern man. But men, Faludi notes, are just as much prey to cultural forces as women: "Women see men as guarding the fort so they don't see how the culture of the fort shapes men. Men don't see how they are influenced by the culture either: in fact, they prefer not to. If they did, they would have to give up their illusion of control."
None the less, the baton of driving change in the workplace has now passed to men. Unless men embrace new ways of working, existing inequalities will remain as women continue to "juggle" children with work. Younger women, with less feminist fire in their bellies than their elders, may look at the lifestyle required of working mothers and decide not to bother, joining the ranks of PhDs raising babies at home.
The twin assumptions that breadwinning is for men and child-rearing is for women are deeply entrenched in our culture, and there should be no illusions that the nirvana of Michael Young's "symmetrical family" can be reached overnight.
Allison Pearson's successful novel I Don't Know How She Does It, which tells the tale of a high-flying woman working in the City and her struggle to keep her marriage and relationships with her children alive, is based on the profoundly conservative assumption that the choice of Kate, the heroine, is between working and caring for her children. At the end of the story, she gladdens the heart of family-values campaigners everywhere by giving up her job and moving out of London. The dangerous idea that her husband, whose earnings as an architect barely cover the cost of the nanny, might give up his job appears nowhere in the tale.
The care of children is the second area in which a new politics of masculinity is being played out. Most obviously, Fathers 4 Justice has grabbed the headlines with a variety of stunts designed to highlight the plight of fathers denied access to their children after divorce or separation. And there are certainly injustices; in the UK, the approach of the state to separated fathers in recent decades has been based around the pursuit of cash, largely through the Child Support Agency, with little attention paid to the division of care. The recent reform of family law to give dads more weight in custody decisions is therefore long overdue.
There is an argument for asking British courts to assume the granting of equal custody, as in Australia and some other countries. However, there is a danger here of describing the world as we would wish it to be, rather than as it actually is. The interests of children are best served by the greatest weight being attached to the person who has undertaken the bulk of their care, which in most cases will be their mother. The courts should begin treating men as equal carers when they are, in fact, equal carers.
There is little mileage in hoping for a decline in British divorce rates. The miracle of our age is not that some couples decide they cannot spend the rest of their long lives together, but that some do. The late historian Lawrence Stone estimated that the median duration of marriage today is exactly the same as it was a hundred years ago, when mortality was very much higher: "Divorce, in short, now acts as a functional substitute for death."
Yet care of children in "intact" families is a political hot potato, too. A battle is raging on the editorial floor of the Guardian and spilling out into the homes of thousands of progressive women. Madeleine Bunting wrote a long article arguing that nursery provision was not good for very young children, and that women and feminists needed to face up to the consequences of signing up to a male work ethic. Polly Toynbee replied angrily that such arguments were anti-feminist. A number of women have piled in on either side, with the political types mostly backing Toynbee and researchers mostly backing Bunting.
A couple of points are worth noting about this debate, which might otherwise be seen as a mere storm in a liberal feminist teacup. The first is that it demonstrates how explosive the politics of childcare can be. The second is the complete absence of men from the debate, whether as protagonists or subjects.
Given the heat of the argument, the absence of men offering opinions is perhaps not surprising. But here goes: the social, psychological and biochemical evidence suggesting that paid childcare for young children is detrimental, and especially so to those under the age of one, has come to acquire compelling weight. This may be inconvenient, but inconvenience is not sufficient reason to dismiss the possibility that our social and economic arrangements are damaging our children. To paraphrase Keynes, when the facts change, we should change our minds.
In any case, men cannot in good faith argue for more rights as fathers and then stand aside from a debate about how children should be best raised. One of the reasons the Bunting-Toynbee spat is so heated is that the options presented are so narrow: either women have to stay in the labour market in order to secure material and status equality with men, at some risk to their children, or they have to stay at home in order to secure the well-being of the next generation, but at the price of equality.
Yet there is another - perhaps even a third - way. If the debate were couched in terms of parents, rather than just mothers, caring for their children, then it would be perfectly possible to achieve both equality at work and quality childcare at home.
The government is currently considering paying for the second six months of maternity leave. How much better if this six months were converted to parental leave, available to dads as well as mums? Imagine a world in which women spent the first six months at home after childbirth, and then returned to work while their partners stayed with baby for the next six months. Result: a full year of devoted, quality parental care and complete equality in the workplace.
Once again, we should not imagine for a moment that such a utopia is imminent. But we should be clear that unless Labour at least makes such a set of choices possible by altering its policy on the balance between maternity and parental leave, the government will have lost all rights to talk about gender equality.
Women have fought for and secured a wider range of choices about the way they lead their lives. Men, meanwhile, remain stuck in cages of their own creation. This makes the necessary transformation more complex, and in some ways more painful. None the less, the social changes of the 21st century must be led by men, otherwise both men and women will lose out. As the New York writer Floyd Dell wrote in a prescient essay in 1917: "Half a life - cooking, clothes and children: half a life - business, politics and baseball. It doesn't make much difference which is the poorer half. Any half, when it comes to life, is very near to none at all."