How Men’s Economic Struggles Can Look Like Good News for Women

When actually everyone is having a hard time

Yuya Shino / Reuters

Over the last three decades, the relative economic positions of men and women have shifted dramatically. Wives now make more money than their husbands in a third of U.S. homes; women are also more likely to have jobs, and keep them during recessions. Men, meanwhile, have on average seen their wages and employability sink.

Earlier this month, a long-running study on income inequality dropped new data that made men look even worse off. The average male worker has a much lower chance of making the same wage that his father did decades earlier, the report showed. In the 1970s, more than 90 percent of 30-year-old men earned higher wages than what their fathers were paid at the same age. These days, only around 40 percent make more, a reduction by more than half.

It’s a bit different for women. For a time, their generational fortunes fell in unison with men’s. Both genders saw their economic mobility take major hits in the ’80s and ’90s, falling at roughly the same pace amid de-unionization and outsourcing.

But something shifted around the year 2000. Here’s the proportional drop of mobility for each gender, pegged to 1970 and running through 2014.

Right around the turn of the millennium, relative mobility for women began to rise, while male mobility stagnated. When the 2008 recession hit, women took a hit and leveled out—but men tanked.

This looks like good news for women—after facing a persistent wage gap despite decades of proving themselves the equal of male colleagues, perhaps they are finally getting their due.

But the actual mobility rates (as opposed to the relative ones) show a different story. Here’s the raw chance a man or a woman will outearn his or her father, again charted from 1970 through 2014:

Remember that 4-in-10 chance that a 30-something man would rise above his father’s wage? Women of the same age have just a 26 percent chance of doing that. Indeed, women have always been less likely to out-do their fathers, and while the gap has narrowed, it’s no triumph of equality—for most of the past 40 years, men’s chances just got a lot worse.

Much of this can be traced back to the increasing number of women who are now in the workforce full time. As the United States continues its long transition from manufacturing to services—from an economy that makes stuff to one that does stuff—jobs once considered solely the domain of women are becoming central to family income. Traditionally male jobs, on the other hand—mining, manufacturing, steel-working—are on the way out.

Unfortunately, women’s gains are not making families richer. The manufacturing jobs men have lost, on the whole, were well-compensated; the service-sector jobs many women have filled pay less. While wages from women have become more important to the average family, their depressed earning power, compared to men, means some households are just making do with less.

That’s backed up by a recent report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which noted that while 42 percent of mothers are the primary breadwinners for their family, the wage gap “continues to drag down women’s wages, which makes households less economically secure.” The earnings of black mothers are particularly important: 70 percent are the sole providers for their families, and 85 percent contribute more than a quarter of their household’s income.

Perhaps the most important dynamic captured in the Harvard-Stanford study is that intergenerational mobility has dropped sharply for both genders since the 1970s. Simply put, most Americans are no longer getting ahead. In the 1970s, more than 90 percent of families headed by 30-year-olds made more money than their parents’ did at the same age. Today’s families, by contrast, have only a 50-50 chance of out-earning their parents.

Even so, it’s hard to look at these numbers without thinking of the much-discussed decline of working men, and the effect it had on this election. To be sure, men are still doing better than women, on average: They’re paid more, and they still have a better shot at making a better living than the previous generation. But this is another illustration of an inflection point in the American economy, another divergence between the genders—and perhaps another possible explanation for Donald Trump’s victory in November.