Feb 23, 2019 - Economy

Blue-collar men in pink-collar times

Data: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey, Census Bureau American Community Survey via IPUMS Abacus; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Young and less educated men are losing their place in the U.S. workforce.

Why it matters: Technology and automation, shrinking unions and changing family dynamics have transformed the role of men in the workforce, while male high school graduates either need to pursue higher education or enter lower-paid industries traditionally dominated by women.

1. The shifting workforce

Technology, globalization and the shrinking of unions have led to lower wages and disappearing blue collar jobs, Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and former chief economist for the Department of Labor, told Axios.

  • In their place, unskilled jobs in health care and secretarial work are booming — occupations traditionally dominated by women. But sociologists have found young men reluctant to take what they perceive to be "woman" jobs.
  • "They don't see themselves as doing that or think it's a feminized job," Robert Moffitt from John Hopkins University told Axios. "Even though the wages are not too bad, they don't want to enter those occupations."

Be smart: Less educated women have seen their wages rise as their male counterparts' have fallen, but women are still less likely to be in the workforce than men, hold far fewer leadership roles and in many cases are paid less.

2. The modern family

Establishing financial stability is no longer a prerequisite for sex or even fatherhood, and 40% of U.S. babies are now born out of wedlock.

  • "An ironic consequence of the sexual revolution is that by making sex outside of marriage safer and more permissible, it may also have reduced the incentive for people to marry," said David Autor an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • At the same time, unmarried fathers aren't faced with the same societal expectation that they provide financially for their children. "They don't feel as burning a need to work," Autor said.
"The opportunities that [men are] facing don't align with their expectations, and it's also somehow socially acceptable for them not to be working,"
— Katharine Abraham, Director of the Maryland Center for Economics and Policy and former Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics

3. Drugs and prison

Men have also been disproportionately impacted by high incarceration rates and the opioid epidemic. Finding a job with a criminal record is extremely difficult and keeping a job is much harder while struggling with addiction, multiple economists said.

  • Yes, but: The relation between employment and opioids or incarceration is cyclical — those who are unable to find work are also more likely to turn to crime or addiction, Abraham pointed out.

What's next: These trends exist in a healthy economy and tight labor markets. Most economists predict an economic downturn would be disastrous for young, uneducated men looking for a job. But there's one optimistic trend: Americans are more educated than ever, and college degrees are generally paying off.

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