What’s Happening to Men?

Women today are entering adulthood with more education, more achievements, more property, and, arguably, more money and ambition than their male counterparts. This is a first in human history, and its implications for both sexes are far from simple.

You can see the strongest evidence that boys and young men are falling behind in high school and college classrooms. Boys have lower GPAs and lower grades in almost every subject, including math, despite their higher standardized testing scores.[1] They are 58% of high school dropouts.[2] In the mid 1970s about 28% of men had college degrees. Since then, that number has barely budged. Meanwhile, the percentage of women with a college degree increased from 18.6 to 34.2%.[3] Women now earn 57% of college degrees; predictions have them at 60% in the near future.

People often assume that this “boy problem” as it is sometimes called, is really a “low-income boy problem,” primarily affecting Blacks and Hispanics. It’s true that the human capital disparities between women and men are especially pronounced in these groups. But there are signs that higher income boys are also falling behind. By 2008, men were in the minority at Harvard;[4] that’s been the situation for years at Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia (though men continue to have an edge at Dartmouth, Princeton, and Yale.) At high-ranking historically male schools like Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Tufts, and Haverford, men are also less than half of the populations. Male college students are far less likely to study abroad or engage in extracurricular activities other than sports. They go on to earn fewer graduate degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2007 men were earning only 40% of master’s degrees and by 2009 fewer than half of all Ph.D.s; these numbers represent a decline of ten percentage points over just ten years. Admissions officers in colleges and universities are quietly resorting to affirmative action for male candidates since, for obvious extracurricular reasons, women are averse to campuses where men are scarce.

Given that the college premium has been rising since 1980, it was inevitable that male earnings would come to reflect their educational disadvantage. That’s already starting to happen. In an analysis of recent census data, Reach Advisors found that childless twentysomething men now earn 8% less than their female counterparts in 147 out of 150 of American cities.[5] That’s despite the fact that college-going women major in subjects that tend to lead to lower paying jobs. Young single men are less likely to own a home than women. While on average men continue to earn more than women, their wages, unlike those of women, have stalled. The median male fulltime worker is earning about the same as he did in 1970 after inflation. Meanwhile, women’s earnings have climbed steadily.[6] The Great Recession hit male workers so much harder than female that that it earned the label “Mancession.” Since 2009, men have been gaining jobs at a faster clip than women, but overall men’s job losses remain far higher than women’s.[7]

So what explains this stunning shift between the sexes? Although feminism clearly played a role, the deepest roots of women’s current success lie in economic and technological change. In the early decades of the 20th century, a “household revolution” dramatically eased the domestic burdens primarily borne by women. Indoor plumbing and electricity led to refrigerators, washing machines, and other “engines of liberation.”[8] By the mid-twentieth century and especially after 1960 when the birth control pill became widely available, women found themselves living in an utterly reshaped habitat from that of their ancestresses, free from sepsis, unplanned children, nursing obligations for ailing relatives, sewing, baking, and arduous trips to the river or well. Second wave feminism of the late 1960s was in large measure a response to this new freedom, a point that Betty Friedan well understood.

Women’s release from household drudgery coincided with the emergence of the postindustrial labor market, meaning a growing number of service and knowledge-based jobs. Already in 1950, Peter Drucker observed that the emerging job market would be a congenial one for women, who were at least men’s equals when it came to the management, analytic, and communication skills required there. But historians and economists have underestimated just how much this economic shift undergirds women’s success. Before feminism, educated women who held jobs often gravitated towards publishing and journalism more than other fields. Since then, the media has exploded with opportunities for them. In 1973 there were 3,000 book publishers, according to Publisher’s Weekly; by 2004 there were about 85,000. Television outlets also dramatically expanded to the great benefit of women. By 2006 women held 57% of news anchor jobs. They were also 58% of reporters, 56 % of news writers, 66% of producers, and 55% of executive producers.

The knowledge economy multiplied opportunities in other fields like public relations, graphic and product design, and management, as well as occupations using analytic reasoning. These are all areas where women have excelled. A 2003 report from the Dallas Federal Reserve detailed a large increase in the number of designers, architects, performing artists and directors, lawyers, doctors, and accountants throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s.[9] Some of these jobs have surely been lost in the Great Recession, but the basic point still holds: over the past decades knowledge jobs proliferated both in number and in complexity, to the great advantage of women wanting gratifying jobs. The Economist nicely summed up the point this way; “The landmark book in the rise of feminism was arguably not Ms Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique but Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.”

The success of young women has also been an international affair. Women are outperforming men in school and moving ahead in urban workplaces all over Europe and Asia. They are half or more of university students throughout Western and Eastern Europe, and have reached or are approaching parity in Japan, Korea, and Singapore.[10] As they move into cities, get their degrees, and join the workforce, women are delaying and even forgoing marriage and children.[11] In South Korea, for example, well over half of 30 year old women remain single, preferring to pursue more education and “self-development.”[12] Their success is changing entrenched patriarchal attitudes. In the 1990s after sex-selective abortion became commonplace, Korea had one of the highest boys-to-girls ratios in the world. Now as younger Koreans reject the traditional preference for sons, the sex ratio is beginning to right itself. It’s probably only a matter of time before the same thing happens in China and India, both places where younger women are also becoming independent and successful workers. What’s causing the shift in women’s status? South Korea never had a vocal feminist movement—but it does have a vibrant knowledge economy.

All over the developed world, then, working women have been beneficiaries of the post-industrial economy. That leaves us with the question: why are men failing to keep up? There are two common answers. First, girls are “better at school” than boys, and are able to better compete for the higher paying, higher status jobs that require a college education. The reasons for this are highly disputed. One possibility is that boys learn differently than girls and that the schools, where women do most of the teaching, fail to recognize boys’ particular interests and “learning styles.” Female teachers choose fiction, goes one example of this line of thinking, but boys prefer adventure stories and biographies. Another possibility is that girls possess noncognitive strengths that lead to greater school success. In a 2002 paper, “Where the Boys Aren’t,” Harvard economist Brian Jacob compared a large cohort of college grads who had been 8th graders in 1988. He found that while boys and girls scored similarly on cognitive tests, girls were better at paying attention in class, keeping track of homework, and collaborating with classmates.[13] Other studies have also found them to be more self-disciplined.[14]

The second and related theory about why men are falling behind has it that today’s labor market prizes female strengths more than male strengths. The manufacturing economy, the one that ironically gave women the household revolution that helped to liberate them, relied on physical strength and endurance. Perhaps there were women who could be men’s equals in the steel mills, on the auto line, digging in mines, building bridges, or laboring as lumberjacks, bricklayers, or roofers. But there weren’t many. Good jobs today are another breed. They rely on traits like organizational and planning skills, aesthetic awareness, an ability to collaborate, and what are called “people skills.”[15] They also often require a consumer mindset, and despite their increasing time on the job, women remain the world’s dominant consumers. The noncognitive skills Brian Jacob found to be at the root of girls’ school success also serve them well in the office. Whether these qualities are innately feminine, culturally taught, or some combination doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this argument. The point is that today, with the important exception of the technical and financial sector, younger women (that is, childless women, an important caveat) have shown they can easily be men’s equals, and possibly even their superiors, in the knowledge economy.

I would add a third, more existential explanation, for the male problem. The economic independence of women and the collapse of marriage norms have deprived men of the primary social role that incentivized their achievement. Adult manhood has almost universally been equated with marriage and fatherhood. Boys grew up knowing that they had inescapable future demands on them. There were exceptions, of course. In polygamous societies, low status men often had neither wives nor children; in others some males became priests and some, warriors and soldiers. But in most human societies, men knew that they were expected to become providers. Why have men agreed to do all of those dangerous, boring, dirty, exhausting jobs? Because people were depending on them. Evolutionary psychologists would point out it’s not insignificant that many of those dependents shared their genes.

Beginning in the middle of 20th century, not coincidentally the same historical moment that great numbers of women were moving into the workforce and becoming economically independent, the universal assumption that men were essential to family life started to erode. Divorce and single motherhood began to rise; even today, though divorce rates have declined, 40% of American children are now born to single mothers. Close to half of those mothers are living with their child’s father at the time of birth, but within five years, 40% of those fathers have moved out and their contact with their children diminishes steadily.[16]

At first, the large majority of unmarried mothers were low-income women relying on a bundle of government benefits, particularly welfare, to support themselves and their children. More recently, however, high school educated women and those with some college have swelled the ranks of single mothers.[17] Thus far, high-income women have bucked the trend towards single motherhood, but there’s evidence that is changing. In a forthcoming paper, Lucie Schmidt, an economist at Williams College, found that the birthrate for unmarried college-educated women has climbed 145 percent since 1980, compared with a 60 percent increase in the birthrate for non-college-educated unmarried women. It’s a safe prediction that the college gender gap will cause these numbers to climb. By age 23, there are 164 women with bachelor’s degrees for every 100 men, and trends have been towards greater educational homogamy, because women show little interest in marrying “down.”[18]

What this means is that boys today are growing up in a culture that, unlike any before in civilization, is agnostic about their future familial responsibilities. The effect of this agnosticism on black men has been particularly dramatic. Social scientists generally point to the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs as the cause of high black male dropout and crime rates, poor college performance, and absence in the lives of their children. It could also be that black men and women were caught in a negative feedback loop. As the manufacturing economy declined, black men could not find the decent jobs they had once relied on. Black women chose to have children on their own. Sons grew up observing that men were of little consequence to family life, which in turn gave them less incentive to adapt to changes in the labor market or more generally to become reliably productive husbands and fathers. With little hope for finding suitable husbands, black women came to take single motherhood for granted. Today 72% of black children are born to unmarried women.

This existential theory, stressing the loss of men’s primary social role, is impossible to prove with any certainty. But there is some evidence that unmarried men are less motivated in the workplace. Married men work longer hours, earn more, and get more promotions than single men, including those who are fathers; indeed, their earnings rise after they marry.[19] This still could be a product of self-selection. The same qualities that make a man more productive in the work place may also make him a more reliable marriage partner. Several studies attempt to tease out the problem. Eric Gould at the Hebrew University in Tel Aviv looked at the schooling and career decisions of over 2,000 young American men between 16 and 39. He concluded that if there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, “men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs.” The findings don’t apply to the highest achieving men, but it does help to explain some of the behavior of men who straddle blue and white collar worlds.[20]

Consider another recent study by S. Alexandra Burt at Michigan State University. Burt followed 289 pairs of male twins for 12 years, between the ages of 17 and 29. More than half of the twins were identical. She found that men who had shown less antisocial behavior as adolescents were more likely to marry as they got older, which argues for self-selection. But she also found that a married twin had fewer antisocial behaviors—aggression, irritability, financial irresponsibility, and criminal involvement—than his unmarried brother. This suggests there is some truth to the very unfashionable idea that marriage helps to discipline men.

Aside from school reforms that could help keep boys more engaged, the new gender gap has no obvious solutions. The profound economic changes that have led to female success and male stagnation have also transformed our culture and its expectations for men.


[1] National Center for Education Statistics, “America’s High School Graduates: Results of the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study,” April 13, 2011.

[2] http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/pdf/1_PDF.pdf

[3] Sheldon Danziger and David Ratner, “Labor Market Outcomes and the Transition to Adulthood,” The Future of Children, Spring 2010.

[4] Brittney L. Moraski, “The New Gender Gap: Are males an endangered species on American college campuses?The Crimson (Harvard), June 7, 2006.

[5] Belinda Luscombe, “Workplace Salaries: At Last, Women on Top,” Time, September 1, 2010.

[6] Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “The Problem with Men: A Look at Long-term Employment Trends,” Up Front Blog (The Brookings Institution), August 8, 2011.

[7] Rakesh Kochhar, “Two Years of Economic Recovery: Women Lose Jobs, Men Find Them,” Pew Research Center, July 6, 2011.

[8] Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu, “Engines of Liberation,” Review of Economic Studies 2005, 109–33.

[9] Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, “The Evolution of Work,” 2003 Annual Report.

[10] United Nations Statistics Division, “Statistics and Indicators on Women and Men,” June 2011.

[11] “Growing number of young women in S Korea avoid marriageChina Daily, July 28, 2010.

[12] Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Welcomes Its Daughters,” New York Times Upfront; Choe Sang-hun, “Where Boys Were Kings, a Shift Toward Baby Girls,” New York Times, December 23, 2007.

[13] Brian Jacob, “Where the Boys Aren’t” Economics of Education Review 2002, 589–598. See also Gary Becker , William H.J. Hubbard, and Kevin M. Murphy, “The Market for College Graduates and the Worldwide Boom in Higher Education of Women,” American Economic Review, May 2010, 229–33.

[14] Angela Lee Duckworth and Martin E. P. Seligman, “Self-Discipline Gives Girls the Edge,” Journal of Educational Psychology, February 2006, pp.198-208.

[15] Lex Borghans, Bas ter Weel, and Bruce A. Weinberg, “People People: Social Capital and the Labor Market Outcomes of Underrepresented Groups,” NBER Working Papers 11985, January 6, 2006.

[16] Sara McLanahan and Audrey Beck, “Parental Relationships in Fragile Families,” The Future of Children, Fall, 2010.

[17] W. Bradford Wilcox, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat From Marriage in Middle America,” National Marriage Project, 2010.

[18] Jeroen Smits, “Social Closure Among the Higher Educated: Trends in Educational Homogamy in 55 Countries,” Journal of Social Science Research, June, 2003, pp.251–277.

[19] See, for instance, Sanders Korenman and David Neumark, “Does Marriage Really Make Men More Productive?” The Journal of Human Resources, Spring 1991, pp.282–307.

[20] Eric D. Gould, “Marriage and Career; the Dynamic Decisions of Young Men,” Journal of Human Capital, April 2008.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kay Hymowitz connects several worrisome trends: Men underperform women in high school and college. Men are going to college less altogether, even at many elite schools. Men are often less likely than similarly situated women to own a home. Men earn fewer graduate degrees and are underrepresented in the new, knowledge-based economy. Hymowitz suggests three possible causes for the decline of men: the decline of the industrial economy; girls’ superiority in the context of traditional educational methods; and a third, “existential reason” — men are increasingly deprived of marriage, and thus of a key motivator to male achievement. Public policy implications may vary depending on which cause one finds most important, but they might range from pedagogical reforms to government incentives for marriage and family.

Response Essays

  • Jessica Bennett characterizes the decline of men as both “exaggerated” and sometimes “plain wrong.” Women have made great strides, but the pay gap persists across occupations, even after controlling for children and education. The recent recession has been difficult for men, but at least they’ve bounced back in the recovery; women haven’t. Elaborate concern about masculinity at best hides enduring inequality—and at worst blames women for a lengthy set of non-problems.

  • Amanda Hess argues that not much has changed for men in recent years. Juvenile behavior among adult men is nothing new; it’s part and parcel of male privilege, and it has been that way for many years. Likewise with men who underachieve in school yet go on to high-status careers, owing mostly to their networking with other men. The reason for male dominance? The Old Boys’ Club, which has never truly left us.

  • Myriam Miedzian considers the 1960s, the era that formed the parents of many of today’s underperforming men. For a generation of women, second-wave feminism opened the job market, while the 1960s “do your own thing” ethos meant educational and career success. For the same generation of men, education and career meant conformity; “do your own thing” meant having fun. Miedzian points to a wide variety of other cultural trends in a far-reaching response, but ultimately concludes that we have failed men in two ways—by placing sports and conflict ahead of study and communication, at least for them; and by culturally shutting them off from traditionally female traits, like nurture and care, and the careers associated with these traits.