The Decline of Men or Just the Rise of Women?

Cato Unbound has an interesting symposium on the changing status of men in society, including a lead essay by Kay Hymowitz arguing that men are in decline and “falling behind.” The idea that the men are declining is not unique to Hymowitz. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger has a book advancing the same thesis. Other writers have also taken up this mantra.

But the evidence underpinning the case for male decline doesn’t add up. Most of it consists of the well-known facts that men now have slightly lower levels of educational attainment compared to women, and never-married men trail comparable women in income. However, there is no actual decline in male performance in either field. Rather, what has happened is that women are doing much better than before thanks to economic and social changes that have opened up new opportunities for them. When several European nations lifted legal disabilities imposed on Jews in the 19th century, the percentage of Jews in various occupations and educational institutions rapidly increased, and the percentage of gentiles in the same fields fell. Obviously, gentiles were not “in decline.” Rather, Jews were doing better because of the easing of discrimination against them. Much the same can be said of women over the last few decades. On balance, men actually benefit from the rise of women, just as gentiles benefited from that of the Jews. Everyone is better off when society is able to more fully benefit from developing the talents of more of its people.

Nineteenth and early century anti-Semitism flourished in part because many Europeans didn’t understand that the economy wasn’t a zero-sum game in which gains for Jews can only come at the expense of gentiles. Today’s fears that economic gains for women somehow harm men are similarly misplaced. Even if women end up out-earning men (which they are still far from doing), that does not mean that men have been harmed, any more than gentiles suffer because of the much higher average income and educational attainment of Jews.

It’s also worth noting that men continue to dominate the highest levels of achievement in many occupations, in part because the variation in male achievement is greater than that among women. Men are more likely to become high school dropouts than women (thereby explaining some of the data cited by Hymowitz), but they are also more likely to be at the top of the class or their profession.

Hymowitz also argues that men have suffered because of the “collapse of marriage norms.” However, the data shows that only about 20% of men aged 40-44 have never been married. And even that twenty percent doesn’t all consist of people deprived of marriage opportunities by social change. Some men (like some women) simply don’t want to be married, and anywhere from 3 to 9 percent of men are gay (gay marriage is a recent phenomenon, and is still available in only a few states). Marriage continues to be available to those men who want it. And despite Hymowitz’s concern that men have lost their status as providers for the family, married men who live with their spouses still have incomes about a third higher than those of married women. Whether or not married men should be the primary bread-winners in their families, the majority still are.

Hymowitz does identify two genuine areas of male decline. It is certainly true, that men have suffered a relative loss from the diminishing importance of occupations where physical strength is a key job qualification. On balance, however, men – like women – have benefited enormously form the rise of modern technology that has displaced work previously performed by human brawn. It has made an enormous range of goods more readily available to a wide range of people at lower prices. Men who rely on physical strength to make a living were relatively more in demand fifty years ago. But their overall standard of living was far lower than today.

Hymowitz is on firmer ground in pointing to the extremely low marriage rates and high rates of single-parenthood among poor African-Americans and Hispanics. This is a genuine social tragedy. But it has little to do with any broader decline of the male gender. Rather, it is in large part caused by the War on Drugs, which imprisons a high percentage of young inner city males, thereby making family formation extremely difficult. The best way to begin to restore family values in poor minority communities is to end the War on Drugs. That’s likely to be a lot more helpful than worrying about the supposed decline of males.

UPDATE: I should note that Hymowitz doesn’t, in so many words, say that men are in decline, merely that they are “falling behind.” That phrasing is consistent with a view that men are better off than before, but merely haven’t made as many gains as women have in recent years. Still, it’s hard to justify concern about men “falling behind” unless there is some actual harm to men involved, as opposed to merely having slightly lower educational attainment (and among the never-married, slightly lower income) than women.

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