Chart 5 offers a measure of this strain. Most measures of earnings look only at the incomes of men who work; as the top line of the chart shows, their earnings have gone nowhere for the past 40 years. That measure, however, overlooks the large and growing population of men who don’t work. If you add them to the mix and thereby look at the earnings of all American men, including nonworkers with zero income, you get the middle line. Think of it as a misery index for the male population. The median man in America, by this measure, is almost 20 percent worse off than he was four decades ago. The misery line sinks still lower, of course, for all men (working or not) with a high school degree but no college; their median earnings have fallen 40 percent.
Harder to quantify, but probably at least as important, are the social consequences of the broken link between less-educated men and work. Work, for men, means more than money: It connects them to their communities, makes them more attractive as mates and more successful as spouses, and is a linchpin of their self-esteem. When they don’t work, their role in the community tends to wither, harming the places where they live as well as themselves. Their family lives suffer, too. More and more often, less-educated men are strangers to marriage.
UNHAPPILY NEVER AFTER
Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.
To women, men who either can’t or don’t earn a decent living are less necessary and desirable as mates; they’re just another mouth to feed. This helps to explain why rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth have risen to hitherto unimaginable heights among the less educated. Causality also flows in the opposite direction. The very fact of being married brings men a premium in their earnings, research shows, and makes them steadier workers, presumably because they have more stability at home. “Marriage is an institution that makes men more responsible in their pursuit of work and in their work-related duties,” said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project.
You can see where this leads. Nonwork makes men less marriageable; non-marriage makes men less employable; the cycle repeats. This is slippage No. 4: Low-earning men are decreasingly able to form stable families. That, in turn, harms their children and communities. “Social capital disintegrates as you have a combination of drop in participation in the labor force and the disintegration of marriage,” said Charles Murray, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.
Given the diverging economic destinies of men at the top and bottom of the education curves, you might expect such a self-reinforcing cycle to lead to something like a self-perpetuating class divide. You would be right. “If you look back 50 years ago, there were not major class divides in marriage or family structure,” Wilcox said. Today, as Chart 6 shows, marriage and earnings correlate strongly. In 1970, more than three-fourths of men, no matter how much they earned, had wives; men at the bottom of the earnings scale were only slightly more likely to be single than were men at the top. Today, nearly half of the low-earning men are single, versus only a seventh of highly paid men.
Family structure, in short, has become both a leading cause and a primary casualty of an emerging class divide. At the top are families with two married earners, two college degrees, and kids who never question that their future includes a college degree and a good job; at the bottom, families with one (female) earner, no college, no marriage, and kids who grow up isolated from the world of work and higher education. And the two worlds are drifting apart.
WHAT WILL (OR WON’T) WORK
It seems promising that scholars of left, right, and center are fastening onto the failure to transmit productivity gains to workers and starting to agree on its magnitude and importance. True, these scholars differ on causes and implications. Liberals emphasize economic forces that are eroding less-skilled workers’ ability to make a decent living; conservatives emphasize cultural changes and government programs that make it easier to get by without working. Both views, actually, are probably correct: Economic and cultural forces are at work—and remedies to both can and arguably should be tried. Among the sorts of measures that experts are discussing:
• Get more people, especially men, through high school and college. (See p. 16.) The agenda includes an increase in financial aid and loans, a push for states to require that students stay in high school (as Obama has proposed), and encouragement of online learning.
• Expand federal support for job training and consolidate the tangle of programs. Obama wants to do this, too, as do many politicians in both parties—which doesn’t make it a bad idea.
• Expand and improve vocational education for those not suited to college. (See p. 12.) Apprenticeship, in particular, can help prepare young men for the kinds of jobs that the economy increasingly creates. The United States does far less of this than, say, Germany does.
• Change Social Security disability benefits so that the program helps people keep working (and helps employers accommodate disabilities) instead of encouraging them to leave the workforce, as it does now. An analogous overhaul of welfare in the 1990s was a notable success.
• Liberals talk about increasing wage subsidies for low-skill jobs, raising the minimum wage, or both. Although such measures can be expensive, they may be worth it if they keep men working.
• Conservatives talk about nudging the culture back toward stigmatizing nonwork among men. “Don’t prettify the way you talk about it,” said AEI’s Murray. “It is never rational not to take a job.” Liberals may be squeamish about stigmatizing nonwork, but some men may need tough love.
The answer, of course, may be some or all of the above. In truth, another point of agreement is this: No one is sure what might work, because the country is in unexplored territory. “There’s pretty much no precedent” for today’s double detachment from work and marriage among low-earning men, Murray said. In any case, in the current political climate, before the fiscal cliff and after, most or all of the pricey ideas under discussion are probably a stretch.
And if nothing changes, what then? What will be the effect—on families, on kids, on neighborhoods, on politics and public spending—as millions of less-skilled Americans, and then entire neighborhoods and demographic groups, slip beyond the reach of economic growth? No one really knows, because the experiment hasn’t been tried. Until now.
The author is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a guest scholar of the Brookings Institution.