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.

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

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