Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education

Working Paper

David Autor and Melanie Wasserman

March 2013

It is widely assumed that the traditional male domination of post secondary education, highly paid occupations, and elite professions is a virtually immutable fact of the U.S. economic landscape. But in reality, this landscape is undergoing a tectonic shift. Although a significant minority of males continues to reach the highest echelons of achievement in education and labor markets, the median male is moving in the opposite direction. Over the last three decades, the labor market trajectory of males in the U.S. has turned downward along four dimensions: skills acquisition; employment rates; occupational stature; and real wage levels.

While the news for women is good, the news for men is poor. The emerging gender gap in educational attainment and labor market advancement will pose two significant challenges for social and economic policy. First, because education has become an increasingly important determinant of lifetime income over the last three decades—and, more concretely, because earnings and employment prospects for less-educated U.S. workers have sharply deteriorated—the stagnation of male educational attainment bodes ill for the well-being of recent cohorts of U.S. males, particularly minorities and those from low-income households. Of equal concern are the implications for the well-being of others—children and potential mates in particular. Less-educated males are far less likely than highly-educated males to marry, but they are not less likely to have children. Their children thus face comparatively low odds of living in economically secure households with two parents present. Ironically, males born into low-income single-parent headed households appear to fare particularly poorly on numerous social and educational outcomes. Thus, the poor economic prospects of less-educated males may create differentially large disadvantages for their sons, potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.