The weaker sex
Blue-collar men in rich countries are in trouble. They must learn to adapt
AT FIRST glance the patriarchy appears to be thriving. More than 90% of presidents and prime ministers are male, as are nearly all big corporate bosses. Men dominate finance, technology, films, sports, music and even stand-up comedy. In much of the world they still enjoy social and legal privileges simply because they have a Y chromosome. So it might seem odd to worry about the plight of men.
Yet there is plenty of cause for concern. Men cluster at the bottom as well as the top. They are far more likely than women to be jailed, estranged from their children, or to kill themselves. They earn fewer university degrees than women. Boys in the developed world are 50% more likely to flunk basic maths, reading and science entirely.
One group in particular is suffering (see article). Poorly educated men in rich countries have had difficulty coping with the enormous changes in the labour market and the home over the past half-century. As technology and trade have devalued brawn, less-educated men have struggled to find a role in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are surging into expanding sectors such as health care and education, helped by their superior skills. As education has become more important, boys have also fallen behind girls in school (except at the very top). Men who lose jobs in manufacturing often never work again. And men without work find it hard to attract a permanent mate. The result, for low-skilled men, is a poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.
From nuclear families to fissile ones
Those on the political left tend to focus on economics. Shrinking job opportunities for men, they say, are entrenching poverty and destroying families. In America pay for men with only a high-school certificate fell by 21% in real terms between 1979 and 2013; for women with similar qualifications it rose by 3%. Around a fifth of working-age American men with only a high-school diploma have no job.
Those on the right worry about the collapse of the family. The vast majority of women would prefer to have a partner who does his bit both financially and domestically. But they would rather do without one than team up with a layabout, which may be all that is on offer: American men without jobs spend only half as much time on housework and caring for others as do women in the same situation, and much more time watching television.
Hence the unravelling of working-class families. The two-parent family, still the norm among the elite, is vanishing among the poor. In rich countries the proportion of births outside marriage has trebled since 1980, to 33%. In some areas where traditional manufacturing has collapsed, it has reached 70% or more. Children raised in broken homes learn less at school, are more likely to drop out and earn less later on than children from intact ones. They are also not very good at forming stable families
These two sides often talk past each other. But their explanations are not contradictory: both economics and social change are to blame, and the two causes reinforce each other. Moreover, these problems are likely to get worse. Technology will disrupt more industries, creating benefits for society but rendering workers who fail to update their skills redundant. The OECD, a think-tank, predicts that the absolute number of single-parent households will continue to rise in nearly all rich countries. Boys who grow up without fathers are more likely to have trouble forming lasting relationships, creating a cycle of male dysfunction.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, hairdresser
What can be done? Part of the solution lies in a change in cultural attitudes. Over the past generation, middle-class men have learned that they need to help with child care, and have changed their behaviour. Working-class men need to catch up. Women have learned that they can be surgeons and physicists without losing their femininity. Men need to understand that traditional manual jobs are not coming back, and that they can be nurses or hairdressers without losing their masculinity.
Policymakers also need to lend a hand, because foolish laws are making the problem worse. America reduces the supply of marriageable men by locking up millions of young males for non-violent offences and then making it hard for them to find work when they get out (in Georgia, for example, felons are barred from feeding pigs, fighting fires or working in funeral homes). A number of rich countries discourage poor people from marrying or cohabiting by cutting their benefits if they do.
Even more important than scrapping foolish policies is retooling the educational system, which was designed in an age when most men worked with their muscles. Politicians need to recognise that boys’ underachievement is a serious problem, and set about fixing it. Some sensible policies that are good for everybody are particularly good for boys. Early-childhood education provides boys with more structure and a better chance of developing verbal and social skills. Countries with successful vocational systems such as Germany have done a better job than Anglo-Saxon countries of motivating non-academic boys and guiding them into jobs, but policymakers need to reinvent vocational education for an age when trainees are more likely to get jobs in hospitals than factories.
More generally, schools need to become more boy-friendly. They should recognise that boys like to rush around more than girls do: it’s better to give them lots of organised sports and energy-eating games than to dose them with Ritalin or tell them off for fidgeting. They need to provide more male role models: employing more male teachers in primary schools will both supply boys with a male to whom they can relate and demonstrate that men can be teachers as well as firefighters.
The growing equality of the sexes is one of the biggest achievements of the post-war era: people have greater opportunities than ever before to achieve their ambitions regardless of their gender. But some men have failed to cope with this new world. It is time to give them a hand.