The Trouble with Men

by Barbara Ray


I’m worried about men. Young men, in particular. A year, maybe two, ago, Sheldon Danziger, an economist at the University of Michigan and a member of the MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood sent me the below chart, and added (I’m paraphrasing): This is THE biggest issue that no one is talking about. He was talking about the decline in work among men with the least education.


[click chart to enlarge]


Well, they’re starting to talk about it.

Yesterday’s New York Times article by Binyamin Appelbaum reports on new research by MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman for the Third Way institute, who find that men are, well, tanking. Not a surprise to those, like Danziger, who have followed this story, or to those living it, but it seems the general public is only now catching on.

And interestingly, one of the emerging possible reasons (it’s still very much a working hypothesis only) why these men are faring poorly stems in part from the rise of single-parent families and the more negative impact that growing up in a single-mother home has on boys compared with girls.

Autor and Wasserman chart the decline of men’s education levels, earnings, and workforce participation, as well as their disappearance from the family. The two focus largely on the slice of American men that has a high school degree or who dropped out of high school, although as the “Knot Yet” report shows, these general trends are inching up the income and education scale. Young people in their twenties who have some college under their belt but not a four-year degree are starting to share patterns of earnings and family dissolution that mirror those with just a high school degree or less.

Some of the most striking trends in Autor and Wasserman’s report are:

  • Men are losing ground in education. Among U.S. adults who were 35 in 2010, women were 23% more likely than men to complete a four-year degree.
  • Men are losing ground in earnings. Men with less than a four-year degree have seen their earnings fall (after adjusting for inflation) between 5% and 25% since 1970.
  • Men are dropping out of the workforce in record numbers, especially those with just a high school education or less—the very group whose wages have declined so sharply. And that doesn’t include those who are incarcerated.
  • Women are thinking twice about marrying these men. The  decline in male earning power coupled with the gains in self-sufficiency by women mean that the economic value of marriage for women is declining.
  • Men are less likely to be married today. The decline in marriage among men aged 25-39 is largest for those with the least education and African Americans, and smallest for Hispanics and those with at least some college education. In 1970, 69% of black men with less than a high school degree were married; in 2010, only 17% were.
  • And it’s not that they’re all just cohabiting. Men are not living with their girlfriends either. The fraction of women cohabiting with the fathers of their children has fallen considerably. Only 40% of white men with less than a high school degree were living with their children in 2010, down from 75% in 1970.

It appears that more women in the working class and lower incomes are instituting the “pay to stay” rule and men can’t measure up.

It also appears, to Autor and Wasserman at least, that this rise in single-mother families is taking a larger toll on boys than girls, which as Autor and Wasserman note, is likely to exacerbate growing inequality down the line.

Boys in single-mother families, they note, are less likely than girls to do well in school, they’re more likely to have behavioral problems, they’re more likely to get into trouble with crime and delinquency, and they’re less likely to go on to higher education.

The authors, drawing on prior research, speculate that these poorer outcomes might stem in part from a lack of male role models. Past research has shown that the absence of stable fathers from children’s lives “has particularly significant adverse consequences for boys’ psychosocial development and educational achievement,” the authors write.

One reason why role models may matter, they argue, is that girls are seeing a role model, their mother, who is independent and earning the family’s income. Girls may thus fully expect to support themselves when they’re older, and boys may in turn see themselves in a more tangential role in family life.

One suggestion to help men reconnect with work and family is to create better and more visible paths from school to work for them. More vocational training, more education that is connected directly to a foreseeable job that pays a decent wage, could help—not only in earnings and financial security, but in family formation as well.

One program that does this particularly well is career academies. Career Academies introduce high school students to real jobs, and tailor the curriculum (for everybody in that school) to the profession that the school focuses on, such as high-tech manufacturing, culinary arts, nursing, or others. So in addition to regular academics, these programs offer students an option to specialize in a field. And importantly, they give students real-world job experience in that career, including time out of school for apprenticeship-like positions. The in-school work is also tied directly to the job, so a math class might feature health-care related situations in a nursing-focused academy, for example.

The social research firm MDRC has evaluated several career academies in a rigorous study that used the gold-standard of research designs, random assignment. Like drug trial studies, this study created a control group of students in the same high schools and compared them with those enrolled in the career academies on a variety of outcomes. The high schools were in pretty tough neighborhoods in inner cities. MDRC researchers followed students for eight years.

The results are pretty amazing.

Those who completed the career academy earned about $2,100 ore per year than their classmates—or about $17,000 over eight years. Much of these earnings gains were driven by their ability to land secure jobs: they worked more months and longer hours each week than others. They also earned a higher hourly wage. And these earnings gains were not coming at the expense of post-high-school education or training. Those in career academies were just as likely to go on to some form of postsecondary school.

Young men did particularly well. They earned about $30,000 more over eight years than their peers from the same high school.

These higher earnings and job stability may be one reason that more of those from career academies were also doing better on the home front. There is nothing like a solid wage and a steady job to make you feel secure in your future.

Eight years after high school, significantly more from career academies were married and fewer were single. More were custodial parents and fewer were single parents. And more were living independently from their parents.

Most social programs rarely see impacts this large.

Other options, as we note in “Knot Yet” include developing more apprenticeships on the model of those in Germany and elsewhere and promoting better job ladders on the job to help entry-level workers move up to better positions. On the “cultural” front, we can make fatherhood a defining moment in a young man’s life and provide supports to him to ensure he can be a good father. Improving and building on “fatherhood programs” is a good step.

One thing is certain, we need to do much more to reconnect young men up and down the income and education ladder to real work for real wages and to their families and children. Without paying attention to this growing group, we risk at best perpetuating, and at worst, widening the already sharp inequality gap. We also risk more young men disconnecting from their children and wasting their potential as fathers and role models for the next generation.