Saving Low-Skill, Low-Education Men Requires Blowing Up Marriage and Education




The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates was described yesterday, perhaps not inaccurately, on Twitter as the best writer on manhood and class.

In Manhood Among the Ruins, Coates tells the story of a family’s eviction with particular emphasis on the patriarch:

He was in the living room with his spouse and their two kids. He was being emasculated in front of all of them. He had no power. His family was about to be sat out and there was nothing he could do. The officers escorted him outside. They told him to leave the immediate premises or be arrested. Outside there were men hired to haul the family’s stuff into the streets.

As much as we women might bitch about being asked to be Manic Pixie Dream Girls, it’s really nothing compared with being socialized to understand yourself as the provider for your family and then watching helplessly as men haul everyone’s stuff onto the curb.

Seventy seven cents to every dollar is a tragedy. But what to make of the fact that single, childless urban women outearn their male counterparts? Or that women are earning the majority of today’s degrees?

Manufacturing in the United States is over, shipped abroad where natural resources abound and labor is cheap, cheap, cheap. And yet the question remains of what to do with all these low-skill, low-education men. No one will hire them. And without jobs, no one will marry them. We see this in the lower classes, where more babies are born to single mothers than married ones.

The economics of gender have changed, faster than the culture can keep up.

The rise of the female breadwinner is a real phenomenon. But it’s not feminism that’s to blame. Or, if it is, only in a very roundabout way. Women are better suited to an information and service-based economy than are men. Perhaps this is because excelling in an information and service-based economy requires education, and education is geared more toward how girls are socialized to learn and behave (sit down and stay quiet for hours, obey the rules). Or perhaps it’s because the parents of girls never said, “she can always work in a factory,” and so pushed them harder to go to school. And even the girls from means who never intend to work still go to school to earn their Mrs degrees, never expecting to have to put them to use, but often having to.

Perhaps feminism is to blame. Maybe if women weren’t able to pick up the slack, men  would have been forced to adapt to the new economy more quickly. Maybe if girls couldn’t go to school, school would change to better suit boys. But if it requires forcibly excluding girls from education and work, consigning them to dependence on men, to achieve that kind of social change, it’s probably not a good tradeoff.

We’re not going to revive American manufacturing. I would guess that most that would like to see that happen have never worked in a factory. The rise of the service/information economy is a wonderful thing, offering better, safer working conditions. But it has, for better or worse, made marriages where one man financially supports one woman and their children much harder to accomplish.

If the economy isn’t going to change back to offering these men good jobs. The culture is going to have to change instead. Solving the problem of the unmarriageable, uneducated man will require nothing less than the revolutionization of education and marriage themselves.

American education is failing boys completely. As Christina Hoff Sommers, who I certainly don’t agree with on everything, has astutely pointed out:

A review of the facts shows boys, not girls, on the weak side of an education gender gap. The typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing; he is less committed to school and less likely to go to college. In 1997 college full-time enrollments were 45 percent male and 55 percent female. The Department of Education predicts that the proportion of boys in college classes will continue to shrink.

A monopolistic education system that consistently underserves half its customers cries out desperately for competition. The idea that every kid, regardless of sex or background, learns in the same way is ludicrous. Parents of boys need to be able to find the kind of education that works for them.

As for marriage, American couples need to disregard gender-based assumptions about roles and responsibilities in favor of the individual facts on the ground. Research is showing that gay couples, forced to evaluate who does what based on factors other than gender, are better at dividing responsibility effectively. How interesting is it that low-skill, low-education women have generally been able to marry, but not men. Women have traditionally been expected to contribute to caregiving and household upkeep, regardless of income, and men have not had those expectations, regardless of income. Getting rid of those gender-based expectations to ensure that tasks are split sensically and evenly regardless of sex will make low-skill, low-income men much more attractive as marriage partners.

I mourn for the men who must watch their families get evicted. For the boys who expected to work in the plant, only to watch the plant close up and move overseas. I mourn for the women who raise children alone because the men who make bank have their pick of college-educated women to choose from, and then men who don’t make bank won’t help out at home instead.

I’m not a feminist because I wanted to see women overtake men in school and in the workplace. I’m a feminist because gender-based assumptions and expectations have long outlived their utility. I’m a pragmatist, and I want to see everyone, men, women and children, more prosperous and enjoying higher standards of living. Putting the responsibility for earning on men without giving them the tools they need to do so is not a winning formula. Nor is barring women from fields in which they clearly excel. Marriage can clearly offer utility to both sexes at all income levels. Freeing it of sexist baggage will help make it useful for both parties once again.

Photo by mindgutter


  1. York Luethje

    “Women are better suited to an information and service-based economy than are men.”

    Collectivist much?

    • Brendan Moore

      It’s not “collectivist” to describe a particular demographic’s social characteristics, IF you incorporate a sufficient explanation for where those characteristics come from. Cathy attempts to explain it; feel free to disagree with her reasoning, but don’t pretend she’s making blanket assertions.

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