The Side Effects of the Decline of Men

Some questions for this Valentine's Day: Why do relations between the sexes, at least in public rhetoric, seem so fraught these days? Why are the political views of educated women turning against the president, relative to his male supporters? Why are marriage rates rising for educated Americans but falling for the less educated? Some new results about labor markets -- quantifying the loss in male status -- may help shed light on these and other puzzles.

New research shows that the percentage of college-educated men working in cognitive, high-wage occupations has been falling. For women that percentage has been rising. So, I suggest, if men feel as if they are in decline, combined with the already-known phenomenon of male wage stagnation, that may unsettle society and politics as we have known them.

The researchers Guido Matias Cortes, Nir Jaimovich and Henry E. Siu split jobs into categories, with "cognitive" occupations relying on brain power corresponding closely to what many call white-collar jobs. Their worrying result for men is this: In 1980, 66 percent of college-educated men worked in these cognitive occupations. By 2000, that had fallen to 63 percent. Those three percentage points may not sound like a major change, but that's over a 20-year period when the American economy became wealthier and more Americans became educated. Men also grew older as a group during this time, which should have propelled them into more white-collar jobs. Relative to those expectations of improvement, the retrogression is startling.

The good news is that a higher percentage of women moved into such cognitive jobs, with that number rising 4.6 percentage points from 1980 to 2000, up to 58.8 percent. That shift is larger than it looks, because so many more women received a college education over that period, and yet so many of them were absorbed fairly smoothly into good jobs. Overall, women went from holding 38 percent of the cognitive jobs to 48 percent, a stunning improvement.

One possible reason for this shift is that more jobs demand good social skills. The data show that the growing demand for social skills, as measured by job characteristics and employment ads, has matched where women have gained relative to men in the workplace. The researchers suggest the scientific evidence shows that women have on average stronger skills in empathy, communication, emotion recognition and verbal expression, and corporate America is valuing those qualities all the more.

So what does this mean for society? Whether or not it's fair, a cognitively based, white-collar job can be a significant determinant of status. It can shape the neighborhood you live in, the friends you have, and the status markers you pass down. For many people, and their children, status may shape their futures as much or more than income. 

And these changes in status have not been restricted to the workplace. Over this same period, men went from a group that dominated higher education to often requiring a kind of "affirmative action" for admissions, as many schools want to keep their student population relatively balanced between the sexes.

So let's tie this back into some current social trends. President Donald Trump has consistently appealed to white male resentment. Given that male workers have been losing status, perhaps it's not surprising that he has found a sympathetic ear. Yet if you are an educated woman, and see your status and that of your peers rising in the workplace, you are more likely to be left cold by "Make America Great Again."

Indeed, recent evidence shows a remarkable rebellion against Trump from white college-educated women, with only 27 percent of them approving of his job performance.

How about the polarization of marriage rates across the well-educated (almost steady) and the less well-educated (drastically falling)? Well, if you are an educated, high-earning man with a good white-collar job, you will meet more women at work than before. You are facing less competition from other men with comparable workplace status, and so your marriage prospects may be quite attractive. But lower-status men don't have it nearly as good in the marriage market, and many women may prefer to stay single.

What about the viral spread of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment? Well, there are more educated women in the workforce, and they may feel more confident about speaking up and lodging complaints.

Today's America is not quite "the end of men," but the evidence is accumulating that their social status is ailing, and for reasons that are fairly deep and structural and hard to fix. Unfortunately for the rest of us, men are not always accepting this relative decline with grace.