There are disturbing trends of male underachievement in employment and education that, if left to continue, will leave men in a very bad place. Economist Larry Summers estimates that by 2050, more than 1 in 3 men aged 25-54 will be out of work in America (compared to 1 in 10 in the 1970s). The BBC reports that current trends in Britain suggest that a girl born in 2016 will be 75% more likely to go to university than a boy. Hillary Clinton might just be right when she said that “the future is female”.
These problems are complex. Gender politics plays a role (the BBC article refers to a “collective blind spot on the underachievement of young men”), but we’re also dealing with fundamental changes in the economy, the effect of mass incarceration, family disadvantage and single parenthood being more detrimental for boys, and schools that don’t adequately engage boys and their learning style, among other factors.
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In the 1950s and 1960s, only 1 in 15 prime-age (25-54) noninstitutional (not in jail) American men lacked paid employment. This number is now 1 in 6, according to political economist Nicholas Eberstadt in his 2016 book Men Without Work (figure 2.3). Included are both men looking for work, and men who’ve stopped looking (who don’t count towards official unemployment figures). From “The Missing Men” in The Atlantic:
Millions of able-bodied men have dropped out of the labor force, mostly because they have stopped looking for work. Many of them badly need to leave their neighborhoods in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the Deep South, where the rate of non-working men often hovers around 40 percent.
The decline has been steepest for men who are in younger birth cohorts, black, less educated, nonparents, native-born, living in the South, and veterans, according to a 2016 report from the Obama administration.
And the future is not looking good. Economist Larry Summers says that a linear trend gets us to 1 in 4 by mid-century. But he estimates that the pace of job loss will increase, and it will instead be 1 in 3 prime-age American men lacking work in 2050. That would extend the jobless levels of current high school dropouts to men as a whole.
Other developed countries have fared better than the United States so far, but they’re by no means immune from future disruptions.
Fundamental changes are taking place in Western economies due to globalization and automation and they’re hitting men, especially lower-skilled men, particularly hard. The biggest example so far is the long decline of manufacturing (which has traditionally employed a lot of lower-skilled men), but many other male-dominated industries are targets in the future. One study estimates that machines are likely to take 47% of today’s jobs within a few decades, and male-dominated jobs (like truck drivers and construction/carpentry) are at a much higher risk than female-dominated jobs (like administrative assistants and registered nurses) (see “The Age of the Robot Worker Will Be Worse for Men”). And the jobs predicted to grow? Predominantly female:
Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation.
But it’s more than economics and technology. The United States has seen a steep increase in incarceration since the 1970s, which has predominantly affected men. Incarcerated men aren’t included in these jobless statistics (doing so would make the statistics even worse), but according to Eberstadt, 1 in 8 men has a felony conviction in his past, which is a significant hindrance in gaining employment. Many employers, especially in health-care and education, will not consider them. Eberstadt explains in his book (chapter 9) that criminal history is a key reason for the more dramatic collapse in male work rates in the United States than in other developed countries.
Third, women have entered traditionally male fields in bigger numbers than men have entered traditionally female fields. One reason for men’s hesitance to take “pink collar jobs” is traditional ideas of masculinity (New York Times). I’d suggest that another reason is women receiving more encouragement and support (even unfair support, like preferential hiring) than men have for entering the other sex’s traditional fields.
Fourth, the primary anti-poverty program in the United States is structured to incentivize work, but it is 6 to 10× more generous for those with children, thus providing more incentive to work for single parents, who are usually women (The Economist).
1.3 What about women? How are they doing?
Women’s jobless rates are higher than men’s (by how much depends on the measure—see footnote 1), but it’s not a simple comparison. Jobless women are much more likely (40% vs. 5%) than jobless men to be a primary caregiver (usually a stay-at-home parent). Stay-at-home parents are not a concern to the same extent as the idle jobless; SAHPs are doing something productive, and they usually have a working spouse supporting them (more than two-thirds of stay-at-home mothers do, although only half of stay-at-home fathers do). Of course, single stay-at-home parents are a concern because of their high poverty rates and difficulty providing for their children.
But my primary concern about joblessness is that the future looks legitimately scarier for men, due to current trends and predictions. The New York Times: “The jobs that have been disappearing, like machine operator, are predominantly those that men do. The occupations that are growing, like health aide, employ mostly women.”
1.4 If stay-at-home parents (with a working spouse) aren’t a concern like the idle jobless, can’t men increasingly take that role?
In principle, yes (depending on their age and whether they want kids). In practice, making no money or even just less money can significantly harm a man’s desirability to women. This analysis from OkCupid came to the following conclusion: “[i]f you’re 23 or older and don’t make much money, go die in a fire”. See also “When Factory Jobs Vanish, Men Become Less Desirable Partners” in The Atlantic.
Desirability isn’t the only factor; there’s also social stigma. Liza Mundy (author of The Richer Sex, a book about “how women are outpacing men in ever-growing numbers in a knowledge-based economy”) found that men who make less money than their wives are stigmatized by friends and family, especially in-laws (The Atlantic).
Social stigma can change, but mate preferences might be more set in stone. David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that women evolved preferences for men with resources (or resource potential). If correct, this has serious implications for the widespread viability of being a stay-at-home father.
2.1 The Problem
Education is a good place to look for a solution. After all, men with more education have resisted joblessness much better (source for figure), and economist Tara Sinclair describes the ongoing trend as being away from “brawny jobs” to “brainy” ones.
But the trends in education are not good either. Women earned 42% more degrees than men in 2015 (U.S.A.), and this is expected to grow to 48% by 2022, according to economist Mark J. Perry (article, archive).
The gender gap is worse for blacks and Hispanics than whites and Asians (source).
Men trail women in university enrollment elsewhere too. In the UK, according to a 2016 BBC article, women are 35% more likely to go to university, and the gap is widening each year. If current trends continue, a baby girl born in 2016 will be 75% more likely to go to university than a boy. In Canada in 2014/2015, women were 32% more likely than men to be enrolled in university and 24% more likely to be enrolled in college (StatsCan).
The problems above actually start much earlier than university. “It’s become a fact of American life that girls are better than boys at school”—they get better grades, are less likely to be suspended, and have fewer behavioural problems (Washington Post). Psychology professor Gwen Kenney-Benson explains that girls are more likely to succeed in school because they are more likely to plan ahead, set goals, and put in effort. They’re also more interested in impressing themselves and teachers with their efforts.
But why are boys less able or willing to succeed in school?
One major factor is that a troubled upbringing (especially a broken family) seems to be more harmful for boys than girls. A 2016 study found that family disadvantage increased the gender gap on a range of measures, from kindergarten readiness to high-school graduation. A 2013 study found that single motherhood was associated with much larger gender gaps in areas like acting out and being suspended from school; the authors suggest that parental involvement, which is generally lower in one-parent households than two-parent households, is especially important for boys (see also these researchers). Single parenthood has increased dramatically from 9% of families in 1960 to 26% of families in 2014 and is a massive 54% in black families (U.S.A., Pew Research).
Many argue that schools don’t adequately account for boys’ different learning styles and behaviours. According to Canadian educator Dr. Chris Spence, boys thrive when they can be hands-on and move around the classroom, but with the traditional unisex approach “we’re usually telling him to sit down and be quiet”. One study found that teachers take into account good behaviour and give girls higher grades for the same quality of work. Christina Hoff Sommers mentions “boy-averse trends” like the decline of recess (going on for decades) and intolerance for “violent” ways of playing (like tug of war and tag, but also “action narratives” that involve heroes, bad guys, pretend guns, etc.). Jon Bradley, professor of education at McGill University, argues that the focus on co-operation over competition in lower years is detrimental to boys.
The gender of teachers might be a factor. Mary Curnock Cook, former head of the UK’s universities and colleges admissions service, says that she is “instinctively convinced” that male underachievement is related to the gender imbalance in the school workforce. Mike Parr, professor of education at Nipissing University, agrees:
Boys increasingly grow up without fathers at home, male high school teachers have slipped into the minority, and at the primary level, where children gain their first impressions of schooling, the numbers look bleaker by the year. “They’re getting the bias, unintentionally, that school is a girl thing,” says Mike Parr, an assistant professor of education at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont. “They don’t see teaching or reading, or even learning, as a guy thing.”
Differences in gender-specific support and encouragement might also play a role. One author in The Globe and Mail writes that on a regular basis girls encounter “frequent and sustained messages, programs and treatment to build their identity” (being encouraged to play sports, succeed in math, science, and politics, assert themselves, etc.), while boys go without efforts to reach out specifically to them and build them.
One study even found that the gender gap in educational achievement decreases when school starts later in the day.
2.3 Don’t men have more options in other sectors that don’t need education?
Increasingly they do not. Summers talked of the economy shifting “away from sectors such as manufacturing that heavily employ less skilled men”.
2.4 Aren’t men concentrated in more financially lucrative fields at university?
Yes. If that continues, it will mean that on average men’s return from their university investment will be higher than women’s. That might be a concern in its own right, but it doesn’t cancel out the concern that increasingly large numbers of men (relative to women) are receiving no return because they have no university investment.
But it’s not clear that it will continue, at least not to the same extent, because a massive push is underway to make sure it doesn’t continue. Doctors have already seen a switch; women are 62% of those aged 25 to 34 with a medical degree in Canada, a “dramatic shift” from previous generations when it was around 25%.
Larry Summers says that increasing male joblessness “may be the most important socio-economic question the US will face over the next quarter-century”. Let’s start with the consequences for the men themselves.
According to economist Alan Krueger, prime-age men out of the labour force are at notable deficits for emotional well-being and how much meaning they derive from their daily activities. Such an effect of joblessness is not found in women (“Where Have All the Workers Gone?”, 2016). The report “Men, Suicide and Society” makes a clear connection between unemployment and male suicide, too.
Jobless men face high rates of health problems (like chronic pain and painkiller use). For many of them this is the reason for their joblessness, but it’s likely that for others the health problems were actually caused by the joblessness (New York Times).
According to the Obama administration report, men not in the labour force have a much higher poverty rate than men overall.
Now let’s look at the consequences for society more broadly.
The most striking consequence so far is that increasing male joblessness probably made Donald Trump president. Areas (like the Rust Belt) that have seen the deepest losses in male-dominated sectors like manufacturing were key in his victory (he campaigned on bringing those jobs back)—see “How the Rustbelt Paved Trump’s Road to Victory” (The Atlantic) and “Where Were Trump’s Votes? Where the Jobs Weren’t” (New York Times). More generally, we know that joblessness (for men or in general) contributes to social unrest and extremist or populist politics. A 2002 report on internal conflicts in Africa mentions the perils of having “a large pool of idle young men with few prospects and little to lose”, and Summers links joblessness to “toxic populist politics”.
In people’s everyday lives, increasing male joblessness means more men who have to be supported by others (so far, this has been without doing something productive like being a stay-at-home father). Currently their top source of money is non-spousal household members, especially family (Obama report, page 18).
It also affects men’s ability to support others, such as children (or partners caring for children). Married stay-at-home mothers have poverty rates of 15% if their husband works, compared to 74% if their husband doesn’t (Pew Research). One study found that a decline in manufacturing employment in an area is associated with increases in child poverty (and single motherhood) in that area (The Atlantic).
Is male underachievement in education even a problem? Are university degrees useful? Yes. In her article (also book) The End of Men, Hanna Rosin explains that the white-collar economy increasingly requires formal education credentials, and that this leaves women in a better position to succeed.
More than ever, college is the gateway to economic success, a necessary precondition for moving into the upper-middle class—and increasingly even the middle class. It’s this broad, striving middle class that defines our society. And demographically, we can see with absolute clarity that in the coming decades the middle class will be dominated by women.
See “The pay gap between college grads and everyone else is now wider than ever” (Denver Post / Associated Press) and “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College” (Pew Research). From the second article:
On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education.
How do we stop, or reverse, the trends of male underachievement?
Considering the effect of job/income on a man’s desirability to women (in general; individual preferences vary), I’m not optimistic about stay-at-home fatherhood as a widely-applicable alternative to employment, although it’s an option for some men.
Getting men into female-dominated jobs like nursing and education is a much more viable approach (and a necessary one, given that those areas that are growing instead of shrinking). There’s some reason to be optimistic here (“Why More Men Are Choosing ‘Pink Collar Jobs’”) but there’s a lot more that could be done: making it clear to kids at early ages that those are options, marketing them to better appeal to boys/men, scholarships, etc. We should also address male-specific concerns with these fields, such as false accusations of inappropriate conduct with pupils in teaching, which are “on the rise” and target men more. One study in Ontario found that 1 in 8 male teachers had been the victim of a false accusation. One teacher’s comments:
The fear/threat of misconduct allegations is always present in your mind. The rules that govern my female colleagues with regard to student contact [are] much less rigid.
The Obama report makes many suggestions for the broad issue of increasing male joblessness, including: investing in infrastructure to create jobs, improving access to higher education, enacting various reforms in the criminal justice system and tax code, and removing unnecessary occupational license requirements (e.g. florists require a license in some states). An article in The Atlantic suggests combining infrastructure spending on low-income housing with efforts to help men move from areas with fewer job opportunities (like the South, the Rust Belt, and Appalachia).
Many would suggest that post-secondary education be made cheaper or even free. That could be useful, at least for in-demand areas with jobs available (or job growth predicted), but the gender problem really starts before that.
Outside of school, decreasing the prevalence of single parenthood would probably help with the issue of male underachievement in education. We saw that single parent households negatively affect development and school success for boys more than girls; according to the study, “higher amounts of parental time might be extremely beneficial to the non-cognitive development [e.g. self-control, motivation] of boys”. Decreasing single parenthood is a complex task, requiring changes in the values and behaviours of both men and women, as well as good access to birth control and abortion.
At school, there are countless changes that could be made. Canadian educator Edmond J. Dixon, author of Helping Boys Learn, explains that the current problem for boys is one of engagement. He offers various suggestions to increase engagement for boys, including more humour, movement, and games in the classroom. Christina Hoff Sommers suggests more boy-friendly reading assignments (such as science fiction, sports, and battles), more recess, more single-sex classes, and more male teachers—as well as female teachers who take special interest in the pedagogical challenges posed by boys. Claudia Buchmann, co-author of The Rise of Women, suggests that it really helps to focus on showing boys the connection between their current efforts and future success. See also “A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills”.
 Current jobless rates by gender (return to first mention of footnote 1)
This 2016 source says that 14% of men and 30% of women age 24-64 are jobless in the U.S.A., a big gender difference. But this 2015 source says that women are 47% of the labour force, a small gender difference. The discrepancy is unclear; imprisoned men not counting as jobless but also not being in the labour force might be part of it.