NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

As Girls Excel, What Happens to Boys?

August 10, 2011

Women today are entering adulthood with more education, more achievements, more property and, arguably, more money and ambition than their male counterparts.  This is a first in human history, and its implications for both sexes are far from simple, says Kay Hymowitz, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

You can see the strongest evidence that boys and young men are falling behind in high school and college classrooms.

  • Boys have lower grade point averages and lower grades in almost every subject, including math, despite their higher standardized testing scores, and they are 58 percent of high school dropouts.
  • In the mid-1970s about 28 percent of men had college degrees; since then, that number has barely budged.
  • Meanwhile, the percentage of women with a college degree increased from 18.6 to 34.2 percent and women now earn 57 percent of college degrees.
  • Male earnings have come to reflect their educational disadvantage -- childless twentysomething men now earn 8 percent less than their female counterparts in 147 out of 150 of American cities.

So what explains this stunning shift between the sexes?  The deepest roots of women's current success lie in economic and technological change. 

  • In the early decades of the 20th century, a "household revolution" dramatically eased the domestic burdens primarily borne by women.
  • Women's release from household drudgery coincided with the emergence of the postindustrial labor market, meaning a growing number of service and knowledge-based jobs -- all areas where women have excelled.

The second and related theory about why men are falling behind is that today's labor market prizes female strengths more than male strengths.

Hymowitz adds a third, more existential explanation, for the male problem:  The economic independence of women and the collapse of marriage norms have deprived men of the primary social role that incentivized their achievement.  What this means is that boys today are growing up in a culture that, unlike any before in civilization, is agnostic about their future familial responsibilities.

Aside from school reforms that could help keep boys more engaged, the new gender gap has no obvious solutions.  The profound economic changes that have led to female success and male stagnation have also transformed our culture and its expectations for men.

Source: Kay Hymowitz, "What's Happening to Men?" Cato Unbound, August 8, 2011.

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