Men’s earnings fall; childhood faulted

WASHINGTON – The decline of two-parent households may be a significant reason for the divergent fortunes of male workers, whose earnings generally declined in recent decades, and female workers, whose earnings generally increased, a prominent labor economist argues in a new survey of existing research.

David H. Autor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the difference between men and women, at least in part, may have roots in childhood. Only 63 percent of children lived in a household with two parents in 2010, down from 82 percent in 1970. The single parents raising the rest of those children are predominantly female. And there is growing evidence that sons raised by single mothers “appear to fare particularly poorly,” Autor wrote in an analysis for Third Way, a center-left policy research organization.

In this telling, the economic struggles of male workers are both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of traditional households. Men who are less successful are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners.

“A vicious cycle may ensue,” wrote Autor and his co-author, Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student, “with the poor economic prospects of less educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.” The fall of men in the workplace is widely regarded by economists as one of the nation’s most important and puzzling trends. While men, on average, still earn more than women, the gap between them has narrowed considerably, particularly among more recent entrants to the labor force.

For all Americans, it has become much harder to make a living without a college degree, for intertwined reasons including foreign competition, advancements in technology and the decline of unions. During the same period, the earnings of college graduates have increased. Women have responded exactly as economists would have predicted, by going to college in record numbers. Men, mysteriously, have not.

“I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, an MIT economics professor who was not involved in Autor’s work.