Men's Earnings Haven't Grown Since the 1970s—Why?

Today's Census report confirmed one of the worst facts about the U.S. economy.

Typical household income fell by 1.5% in 2011. But that's not the worst thing. Median household income fell for the second consecutive year, despite being two years into a recovery, and now sits 9% below its all-time high in 1999. But that's not the worst thing, either. There were 46.2 million people living under the Census's definition of poverty -- e.g.: a family of four with an income of $23,021 or less -- and income inequality is rising again. These are all tragedies, but I would argue there's something even worse going on.

It's this graph: Real male earnings are lower than they were in the early 1970s (these figures discount government transfers):

Screen Shot 2012-09-12 at 3.28.56 PM.png

What's happening? As Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney explained in a report for the Hamilton Project, median annual earnings for men are actually in worse shape than the Census shows. When you calculate the earnings of all men -- not just those working full-time -- you see an awful 28 percent plunge in median real wages from 1969 to 2009.

Screen Shot 2012-09-12 at 3.46.27 PM.png

What's happening is that men are dropping out of the the full-time work force in frightening numbers. Greenstone and Looney use Census data to estimate where they're all going. Most of the increase comes from older men retiring early and middle-aged men collecting disability or failing to find work. This raises the possibility that, in addition to be discouraged by the labor force, many of these men are also taking advantage of the growing safety net to stay out of the work force.

Screen Shot 2012-09-12 at 3.39.50 PM.png

As Hanna Rosin explained in her article "The End of Men" and her book of the same name, the erosion of male-dominated industries has fed this long-term trend. Nearly half of the jobs created in the last 15 years have been in government, health care, and education, three industries that are too big and diverse to call "female-dominated" but nonetheless have historically employed higher shares of women. Manufacturing employment hit its century-high mark in the mid-1970s and has since dropped to its lowest level since the 1930s.

Behind the poverty numbers, the saddest part of today's Census report isn't a new piece of information. It's the confirmation of 30 years of awful wage growth for men, even fully employed men. In other words, this is not merely a reality of Obama's America, but also both Bush's America and Reagan's America (real male wages clearly grew under Clinton). Men are falling behind, and it's not particularly clear that they -- or anybody -- have the tools or ideas to end the trend.


Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Business

Just In