Thursday, September 15, 2011

Married To The Job

The OECD has published its annual update on educational statistics for member countries. One chart that caught my attention was that for the percentage of third level degrees awarded to women by broad subject matter. Now to my layman's eyes the stand-out fact from the chart was that in all but three of the OECD's member countries men make up a minority of third level graduates. The majority of graduates from most of the developed world's universities are women. It has been that way for some time now (since 1992 in the United States). But the OECD doesn't see it that way. No, the stand-out fact for the OECD is that not enough women are doing science at third level. I kid you not.

Like I've said several times before, the myth of men as the economically and politically dominant gender demands that any situation in which men are a disadvantaged minority is ignored or dismissed. Elsewhere there will always be such a thing as a majority and a minority, but men will always be in a manority.

The OECD's politically-corrective proclivities aside, there are some important implications arising from this trend. One is that gender is now as significant a driver of income inequality as occupation. No I'm not referring to the 'gender pay gap'. That's one of those myths that Tim Harford calls a 'zombie statistic', i.e.: no matter how often you disprove the existence of a gender pay gap (arising from sex discrimination) it still keeps coming back from the dead...

No, I'm talking instead about the income inequality that arises from men's increasing alienation from third level education (even those men in third level don't think it's as beneficial as women do). Indeed I'm intrigued that of the prevalent narrative about rising income inequality and the disappearance of the middle class never mentions gender. And yet it is as powerful an explanation as any other, including shifts from manufacturing to services or the off-shoring of unskilled work to developing countries etc. Kay Hymowitz is right when she observes that:
The economic independence of women and the collapse of marriage norms have deprived men of the primary social role that incentivized their achievement. Adult manhood has almost universally been equated with marriage and fatherhood. Boys grew up knowing that they had inescapable future demands on them. There were exceptions, of course. In polygamous societies, low status men often had neither wives nor children; in others some males became priests and some, warriors and soldiers. But in most human societies, men knew that they were expected to become providers. Why have men agreed to do all of those dangerous, boring, dirty, exhausting jobs? Because people were depending on them. Evolutionary psychologists would point out it’s not insignificant that many of those dependents shared their genes.

Beginning in the middle of 20th century, not coincidentally the same historical moment that great numbers of women were moving into the workforce and becoming economically independent, the universal assumption that men were essential to family life started to erode. Divorce and single motherhood began to rise; even today, though divorce rates have declined, 40% of American children are now born to single mothers. Close to half of those mothers are living with their child’s father at the time of birth, but within five years, 40% of those fathers have moved out and their contact with their children diminishes steadily.
One of the reasons that marriage is collapsing (first in the West and now in the East) is that women are increasingly married to their job - and don't need a husband as a traditional economic provider. Ironically though this exacerbates the distribution of income in society. Educated women marry within the diminishing pool of educated men (hypergamy taking its natural course), combining two high incomes in one household, whilst low skilled men (and women) generally experience insecure, low paid, unskilled jobs that are subject to falling incomes, subjecting their fragile households and families to economic uncertainty.  Back in the days, trade unions used to campaign for a 'family wage'.  But since their capture by third wave feminism they have been reduced to meaningless demands for a 'living wage' - much to the relief of capitalists everywhere...

So what next? My guess is that the unfolding economic collapse in the developed world will mean a sharp shrinkage in the third level sector anyway (that particular bubble is already bursting in the USA). Then what? A reversion to traditional values and family wages? I don't think so. A new 'rapprochement' between the genders? Possibly. One thing is for sure, long after the debts have been repaid and the bondholders burned, our society - even our civilisation - will continue to be profoundly shaped by the real gender inequalities now facing us.

2 comments:

  1. Very well-written Gerard, with some great points. But I wonder if the real problem is the disconnect between work (for those of us still working) and our lives. Women are as subject to this as men, and face the further dilemma of working or child-rearing.

    There may well be a positive outcome to the current economic chaos if people in the developed countries assess their lives and find they have been neglecting what really matters for the pursuit of worthless consumer dross.

    There's a school of thought that predicts the relentless rise in the price of oil, combined with the decline of industrial-era employment, will force men and women to work at home or close to home. If this happens, traditional family units may become not only possible again, but essential.

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  2. I agree about the work disconnect Hugh. We are at the end of a very long, credit fuelled consumer market bubble that will unwind painfully and slowly (for borrowers and lenders) over the next next decade or three.

    Along the way I suspect the dubious charms of enslavement in the pursuit of what the Japanese call 'chindogu' will cause a profound cultural shift. And an entirely new set of family structures. Though probably less the nuclear family and more the multi-generational household.

    It's already happening...

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