If we’re to put a headline on what’s going on with men right now, I think it would be 'Coming to Terms.'

Jon Berry, who has studied consumer and societal trends for GfK for the past two decades, talked to us about the company’s research on men as we wrote our recent report “The State of Men.” Berry drew on findings from GfK’s Roper Reports surveys, as well as custom research conducted for Men’s Health magazine and the Private Label Manufacturers Association. Co-author of the 2008 book The Influentials, which examines word-of-mouth and consumer influencers, Berry sees today’s men as somewhat “adrift” as they come to terms with the rise of women and seek new models of manhood. He discussed some of the shifts in male behavior, attitude and mindset that his research has picked up on, as well as some thoughts on marketing to men.

As women take on much more outside the house, we’re seeing men assume a bigger role in the household. What has your research found in this regard?

We definitely see shifts. Men are spending more hours per week cooking, cleaning and doing other household chores than in the past. But it’s still very imbalanced, with women handling the bulk of responsibilities. Women in the U.S. report spending seven hours cooking and seven hours a week cleaning and doing other chores around the house. Both are about double the rate for men. So in terms of easing the stress of women, it’s still very much a work in progress.

So household equality feels like it’s still a long way off?

If we’re to put a headline on what’s going on with men right now, I think it would be “Coming to Terms.” And like a lot of times with coming to terms with change, it’s a process. One of the deficits we’re seeing in the culture is a lack of good role models and mentoring. There’s lamenting over the loss of what men used to do in the past, the decline of craftsmanship and masculinity and heroes. But there’s not so much discussion about what men should be changing toward. Look at the culture—there’s sort of a male escapism genre that runs through video games, through sports, through movies and television right now.

What are some of the ways in which you see men changing with the times?

Men are definitely becoming savvier shoppers. They may not have caught up with women, but they are savvier than a lot of marketers give them credit for. A study we did for the Private Label Manufacturers Association found that two in three men who do grocery shopping regularly compare prices when they’re in the store. More than 6 in 10 make shopping lists before going to the store. About half look for deals when they’re in the store, and 4 in 10 bring coupons when they go shopping.

Some of the most interesting shifts, though, are interior shifts in attitudes. A study we did for Men’s Health, for example, found that 70 percent of men are OK to completely happy with their wife or partner earning more than they do, while 68 percent of men are OK to happy with their wife or partner being more educated than they are. Those are really significant numbers. It suggests men are increasingly willing to flex with the changes going on in the culture.

The Men’s Health study also found that majorities of men felt OK to happy with sharing responsibilities like food shopping, house cleaning and child care with their wife or partner. Some of this is no doubt the economy. The last couple of years, it’s been all hands on deck. If a spouse has a well-paying job, it benefits everybody. But I think we’re seeing a deeper, more long-lasting shift. It’s no longer unusual for men to take off time when a child is born or to be the one who takes a day off when a child is sick.

Is this a Millennial characteristic, for the most part?

Interestingly, the biggest marker of openness to sharing responsibility isn’t generational so much as life stage. The major driver seems to be marital status. Once a man is married or living together with a partner, things shift. They see the benefits up close. And they see the costs of not being flexible.

What kind of change are you seeing in terms of men’s aspirations?

One of the themes in the Men’s Health study was the rise of “the adaptable man.” There’s a well-roundedness that men aspire to today. When we talked with men about the traits they most aspire to, it was a really interesting list that came to the top. In order they were: being happy, confident, easygoing, self-reliant, hardworking, practical, fun-loving, well-informed, disciplined, open to new ideas and well-rounded. What it suggests is that men are moving towards an expression of self that’s not mutually exclusive; it’s not either/or, black or white. You can be hardworking and easygoing; fun-loving and disciplined; practical and happy.

Masculinity is not unimportant. But it’s not at the top of what men aspire to. In ranking, it was No. 17 of 32 items; 63 percent said it was something they aspired to. In a follow-up question, about the same percentage, 59 percent, said they believed they are masculine. That 4-point gap was one of the smallest of the 32 traits we asked about. It suggests men are, in fact, pretty comfortable in their masculinity.

Do you see this type of easygoing quality in today’s role models for men?

Definitely. I think there is a sense of being “comfortable in your own skin,” to borrow from the Dove Men+Care campaign, in terms of the men who resonate as role models today. People like George Clooney, Derek Jeter, Mark Zuckerberg—in fact, the whole class of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs now who became billionaires but still wear hoodies. They all have that easygoing ethic. It’s in the soccer players who bring their kids onto the field at the beginning and end of the games. It’s in the Dove ad with Dwayne Wade’s kids hanging off his arms. It’s in the priority men place on their role as fathers.

Is this a change from the past?

In 2003, when Men’s Health did its survey, it talked a lot about men’s priority on control and certainty. “Work hard, play hard” was the mantra. Men aspired to get the best and had no patience for disappointment. One of the quotes from that analysis was “No do-overs.” Companies had to get it right now, the first time.

Men today are still ambitious. But they also aspire to more intangible, “EQ” types of qualities like being a good father, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying life. There’s an old Italian term, sprezzatura, that means being able to do something that’s hard but making it look easy, being nonchalant. That’s another way of expressing what we find coming through with men today and also in that casual but ambitious culture in Silicon Valley—working hard but being easygoing, “no sweat.”

This is not to say that everything’s resolved. We’re living through a time of dramatic shifts in gender roles. We see this in our research on how Americans define “the good life.” In the 1970s, men pretty much set the agenda in aspirations. This was reflected in the fact that they were more likely than women to affirm that various things were part of their vision of the good life, by an average of 4 percentage points.

It’s the exact opposite today: Women, increasingly, point the way. Women are more likely to cite the items on the “good life” list by about the same difference as men in the past, by four points compared with men. We see the same pattern when we ask about the American Dream. The gap is particularly strong on aspirations associated with education: Women are 13 points more likely than men to say that being able to send a child to college is part of the American Dream. They are 17 points more likely than men to say that being able to get a college education themselves is part of the American Dream to them.

But it’s not just education where women are pointing the way. Women are 10 points more likely to say that they see owning a home as part of the American Dream. Women are more likely to say that having a financially secure retirement is part of the American Dream to them. Women are more likely to say that being able to do better than their parents did is part of the American Dream—a core American value, upward mobility. Women are the ones who are aspiring to that more than men.

Women are also more likely to see the Dream as everyone getting an equal chance, freedom of choice in how to live your life, and having a rewarding career and family life. The trends suggest these gaps could continue to grow. I think that in some ways we’re just beginning to see the changes that are going to be unfolding over the next decade.

Does this mean men are becoming less ambitious?

I think it goes back to what I said about being in a process of sorting-through. Some very positive developments could come out of that. It could bring a fresh discussion of ideals. We may see a renewed interest, for example, in chivalry. I would not be surprised to see a genre of literature that goes back to the Knights of the Roundtable and the Arthurian legends to distill a code for men that has more of a resonance than what has been passed down from the past few generations. Or going back to the ancients, to Greek or Roman philosophers, or to early American history.

Some unearthing, I think, has already begun. I think it’s reflected in the artisanal food movement coming out of places like Brooklyn, with its appreciation of craft, of quality, and a return to ideals of the past. In Brooklyn, they’ve even brought back the traditional New York Beefsteak. This was a social ritual from the early 1900s where men came together to eat, no cutlery—they’d just throw the steaks on the table and have food and drink to go along with it, and you would gorge yourself.

So apart from going back to the past, are we seeing masculinity manifesting in new ways today?

Some nontraditional areas are getting “masculine makeovers.” The kitchen is a great example. Our Roper trend studies have shown a really interesting development over the past decade: Food and cooking has been climbing the list of men’s interests. It’s practically dead even with cars now. So in a sense what’s happening is that the garage has moved inside and it’s the kitchen now where men are finding expressions of masculinity.

And it’s cooking in their own particular way, like grilling or taking on the terminology of restaurants, like “plating” dishes, not just serving the meal. Or having the gadgets that go along with cooking. In a sense men are reshaping cooking.

Can you talk a bit about what you see from your work in Europe?

I think because the trend has been unfolding longer in the U.S., going back to the 1970s, some of these inward changes are unfolding faster here than in other cultures. When we go to Europe, we still see a fairly pronounced “boyism,” to use the term that’s been popular over the years among men. To some extent, that’s the respective cultures: The U.S. as a culture is always reinventing itself. In Europe, there’s more appreciation of tradition.

Is there a downside to the rapid change that you’re seeing in the U.S.?

There’s a lot of talk today about men being adrift. Many see a trend toward extended adolescence. More kids are moving back home. According to the Census Bureau, 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are living in their parents’ house. There was a provocative article a while back, “Where Have the Good Men Gone?” It’s definitely not the pattern we see in all men, but it’s out there.

Looking at an older demographic, do you have any thoughts on whether the stereotypical midlife crisis has changed at all?

It is going to be really interesting to see how Baby Boom men evolve as their kids grow up and leave home, and they themselves leave the workforce. The 50s and 60s can be times of significant change both for men and women. There’s a lot of events that happen when you’re in your teens and 20s, and then things quiet down for a while and you’re in that building phase with your career and family. And then in late middle age, it all explodes again. People talk about the 20-somethings and 30-somethings. When you get in your 50s, it’s more like the 50-anything. People go in all different directions.

The midlife crisis is a reflection of that. Large percentages have a health issue come up and they have to radically change their diet and lifestyle, and from that go into becoming a marathon runner or a champion swimmer, have some type of life adventure or tackle the bucket list. But true to being “50-anything,” we’re going to see many different kinds of expressions of aging. For some men, it will be adventures like going horseback riding in Mongolia. For others it will be expressions that are much more intimate, like being a good grandfather. It’s not a “one size fits all” type of lifestyle or response.

Our research shows there is a growing appreciation of being a grandparent and changing your lifestyle to accommodate grandchildren—making your home grandchild-friendly, becoming a regular caregiver, putting a high priority on time with family in your leisure time or planning vacations with grandchildren.

You mentioned the Dove Men+Care campaign. What are some other ways you’re seeing brands change course or maybe change products in response to changes among men?

One of those trends we’ve been seeing is the whole reformation of men’s care products. This was called metrosexual in the past, but that’s a term that’s really gone away. It’s more just men’s appreciation of grooming and taking care of themselves, which has health benefits as well—using skin care products to protect your skin, for instance. For example, Old Spice comes in a variety of very up-to-date styles and scents, but at the same time, its imagery evokes heritage and tradition. It has an updated old-school look that’s really cool.

That gets at the trend of looking to the past that you mentioned.

It’s a trope that each generation looks to its grandparents for guidance. Look at food trends today. A lot of it is putting new spins on foods that were popular in our grandparents’ days, like cupcakes or moon pies. But there’s a kind of wink and sense of humor with it, like that Axe campaign, “Nothing beats an astronaut.”

It seems like a lot of men’s campaigns these days have that wink.

There’s a danger in being overly earnest. It goes back to men’s aspirations. You want to be smart, but you also want to be easygoing. I think men, essentially, say, “I do these things and it’s no big deal. It’s just part of who I am.” It’s not heavy, you know. One way to definitely misstep with men is to be too heavy.

What are some key differences between men and women as consumers?

One of the fairly persistent differences is that men seem to be more likely to use technology to do research on the Web: get all the product comparison and details, like a good online hunter, and then bring them as an offering to the wife.

Finally, are there any other key trends we haven’t touched on?

It’s important to consider what women think about men. There’s a bubbling trend of women resenting men. Large numbers feel men have it easier. It’s particularly true among young women. And men often give themselves more credit for changing than women do.

In 2003, we asked how men and women share a list of different household responsibilities or decisions, like what food and groceries to buy, how to save and invest, what electronics to buy, etc. Counter-intuitively, while men are doing more, the perception gap between men and women has grown. Men and women in 2003 were more likely to say a range of decisions were shared equally than they are today. In 2003, there was only a 5-point difference between men and women saying various decisions were shared equally; today the difference is 15 points.

Men are a whole lot more likely to say they share decisions equally with their spouse than they did a decade ago. But among women, there hasn’t been much of a change. So marketers, in turn, face a predicament. They can’t present men as clueless. But they can’t overstate things and portray the modern household as a nirvana of shared equality, because a lot of women think we’re not yet there.