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If you’re wondering what’s wrong with men, here it is

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Get it in gear, fellas.

Milliennial women are doing a nice job of getting their careers started. New figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show 32% of women at the age of 27 have a bachelor’s degree. Another 38% have spent some time in college — including women still in school — bringing the total portion of 27-year-old women with college experience to 70%.

Guys must be stuck in front of the Xbox, because their numbers are lower in every category. Just 24% of 27-year-old men have a bachelor’s degree. Another 37% have some college education, bringing the total to 61%  — nine percentage points lower than women at the same age.

You might think men catch up a bit later in life, as they finally mature. Sorry, no. Women now earn 60% of the master’s degrees conferred by universities, and 52% of the doctorates. Those gaps are projected to widen during the next 10 years. Women have been outperforming men in education for more than a decade, a trend only expected to intensify.

The widening gaps

Not surprisingly, this growing education gap between women and men has generated an employment gap. The unemployment rate for men is 7%, while it’s just 6.4% for women. As recently as 2006, women and men rode out economic ups and downs almost exactly the same way. But the unemployment rates for each sex began to diverge with the recession that began in 2007. For women, the rate peaked at 9%, in 2010. The peak for men occurred around the same time but was much higher —11.1%.

College-educated men seem to be doing just fine, with a 3.6% unemployment rate and many of the top positions at America's best firms. And in some skilled trades dominated by men, such as welding, plumbing and high-tech manufacturing, there are even reports of jobs that can't be filled for lack of qualified workers.

Still, men suffered more than women during the recession, largely because they're overrepresented in two lower-skilled professions that got clobbered the most: manufacturing and construction. Women are more prevalent in industries that are recession-resistant and tend to require more training in the first place such as education and healthcare.

With the economy now recovering, women are poised to gain more than men, widening the breach that opened during the recession. Men account for 57% of the people over 20 who’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more — the so-called long-term unemployed — even though they’re just 53% of the labor force. The education deficit could increasingly leave men on the economic sidelines, since lower-skilled jobs are the ones taking the longest to return. Many are probably gone for good, replaced by robots or cheaper overseas workers. Education has become so important, in our knowledge-based economy, that some experts now say we should consider making college mandatory, just as high school has been in most states for nearly 100 years.

Evening out the achievement gaps between women and men is a complicated matter entailing not just education standards but family and community life and other intangibles. Whatever the cause, the declining productivity of men is a national problem that threatens living standards for much of the middle class. A sharp decline since 2000 in the percentage of working-age adults employed or looking for work has mostly been due to men dropping out of the labor force and either drawing disability payments or living off somebody else’s income. “These numbers have no precedent in a country where, until the last few decades, it was taken for granted that all adult males in the prime of life who were not completely disabled would be working or looking for work,” conservative scholar Charles Murray wrote recently.

The labor-force participation rate for women, by contrast, began to drift down when the recession began, but before that it had been steady for 10 years, after growing for 50. 

Whether this is a cultural crisis or not, an economy with fewer and less-productive male workers will be one that generates less prosperity overall. Men still earn more than women, largely because men who do work don’t interrupt their careers for family reasons as often as women do. Many families losing the income provided by a male breadwinner will have less to spend regardless of how they compensate.

Meanwhile, with more men at home — or somewhere, other than work — women may increasingly call the shots in the economy. Maybe they can find new ways to convince men college is worth it.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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