Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education

Income Distribution, March 2013

It is widely assumed that the tra­di­tional male dom­i­na­tion of post sec­ondary edu­ca­tion, highly paid occu­pa­tions, and elite pro­fes­sions is a vir­tu­ally immutable fact of the U.S. eco­nomic land­scape. But in real­ity, this land­scape is under­go­ing a tec­tonic shift. Although a sig­nif­i­cant minor­ity of males con­tin­ues to reach the high­est ech­e­lons of achieve­ment in edu­ca­tion and labor mar­kets, the median male is mov­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. Over the last three decades, the labor mar­ket tra­jec­tory of males in the U.S. has turned down­ward along four dimen­sions: skills acqui­si­tion; employ­ment rates; occu­pa­tional stature; and real wage levels.

While the news for women is good, the news for men is poor. The emerg­ing gen­der gap in edu­ca­tional attain­ment and labor mar­ket advance­ment will pose two sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for social and eco­nomic pol­icy. First, because edu­ca­tion has become an increas­ingly impor­tant deter­mi­nant of life­time income over the last three decades—and, more con­cretely, because earn­ings and employ­ment prospects for less-educated U.S. work­ers have sharply deteriorated—the stag­na­tion of male edu­ca­tional attain­ment bodes ill for the well-being of recent cohorts of U.S. males, par­tic­u­larly minori­ties and those from low-income house­holds. Of equal con­cern are the impli­ca­tions for the well-being of others—children and poten­tial mates in par­tic­u­lar. Less-educated males are far less likely than highly-educated males to marry, but they are not less likely to have chil­dren. Their chil­dren thus face com­par­a­tively low odds of liv­ing in eco­nom­i­cally secure house­holds with two par­ents present. Ironically, males born into low-income single-parent headed house­holds appear to fare par­tic­u­larly poorly on numer­ous social and edu­ca­tional out­comes. Thus, the poor eco­nomic prospects of less-educated males may cre­ate dif­fer­en­tially large dis­ad­van­tages for their sons, poten­tially rein­forc­ing the devel­op­ment of the gen­der gap in the next generation.