It's no longer a man's world. Pundits have speculated for more than a decade about the end of men. After centuries of dominating the economy, most of the job growth is in industries where women traditionally work. And those jobs require more education. The latest piece of data is that women are dominating college enrollment. In a few years, two women will earn a degree for every one man.
On the one hand it's tempting to say. . .finally. Women were effectively shut out of the labor force for decades and still earn less. And it's worth noting that men are still well-represented in STEM degrees at college and universities, which tend to lead to higher paying jobs. But the economy is not zero sum, and a large population of men falling behind doesn't help anyone. Men with lower earnings prospects and less education are less likely to marry. And to make matters worse, coming from a single parent household lowers the odds a boy will go to college (the impact on girls from single parents is not as profound), creating a vicious cycle of single parenthood and more men not going to college.
There are many reasons other than family structure to explain why men aren't pursuing higher education. Some young males don't see the value in taking on lots of debt to learn esoteric concepts that don't relate directly to a job. And to be fair, some schools don't provide good value. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson argues young boys are more likely to struggle in school, so it's not surprising they don't want to take on more years of it. He also points to research suggesting boys have less ability to delay gratification.
And this is a big problem. The economy is evolving and postsecondary education is becoming a prerequisite to a stable middle-class life. There are enormous wealth disparities between people who go to college and those who don't. And we can see the impacts of this long-running trend. Less-educated men are not only in lower-paid jobs, many aren't working at all. In 1992 about 72% of male high-school-only graduates (older than 25) were employed. Just before the pandemic only 64% had jobs, and it's only gotten worse in the last 18 months: last quarter only 61% of male high school graduates were employed. Each recession removes men from the labor force and they don't come back.
This is not only devastating economically and socially, it's also bad for health. Anne Case and Angus Deaton's book about the future of capitalism estimates people without college degrees are more prone to drug addiction, suicide and early death.
Changes in technology and trade mean the economy has evolved where most of the job growth is in the sorts of jobs that women have traditionally worked in, such as caregiving and education, and many of the better jobs in those fields require some postsecondary training. We see women dominating at all levels of education in these fields; there are more women than men in medical school and earning Ph.D.s. As women take over the fastest-growing industries, it seems inevitable that a population of men who don't go to college risk becoming trapped in a permanent underclass.
But believe it or not, men have struggled in the labor market before. According to economic historian at Northwestern University, Joel Mokyr, before industrialization most people were farmers and independent artisans — think tailors and silversmiths. They mostly worked from home and set their own hours. When jobs moved to factories in larger towns and cities, men had a hard time adjusting to being told where to be and what to do. At first, factories hired women and children because they were more compliant and better suited for the structure of the industrial economy. One reason for universal schooling was to condition boys to one day be factory workers who could take direction from a boss and stick to a schedule.
That suggests men can adjust to this economy too. Admittedly, last time it took nearly 100 years and caused lots of social strife along the way, but there are things we can do to speed this process along. First, thriving in the new economy means accepting how it's changing rather than fighting it. That will involve, in some ways, going back to the independent-worker model that existed before industrialization. Well-paid, unionized manufacturing jobs that only require a high school degree aren't coming back, and efforts to restore the old economy with reshoring or a jobs corps won't help men, it only keeps them trapped in the 1960s.
Instead, we need to allow for a more dynamic economy that allows for independent work, including providing benefits to contract workers, and reducing the number of noncompete contracts and unnecessary licensing requirements. These steps would empower men without college degrees to pursue work in a modern economy, unconstrained and on their own terms.
We can also provide more education options that feel more relevant and offer immediate value. The Biden administration's current budget plan offers free community college. But community college doesn't have a great track record at preparing people for work, in large part because it traditionally was meant to prepare people for four-year degrees instead of jobs. A better solution are more apprenticeships, sectoral employment programs and reviving trade schools at the high school level.
Also, most critically, we must respect all jobs and drop elitist talk that presumes some work is pointless or that some jobs are less prestigious because they didn't require a college degree. After all, often good plumber can earn more than an average lawyer. More women in college may not signal the end of men as much as it signals an economy in transition, where some men will flounder and others will find a way to adapt and thrive.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk."