I lost my job at age 53, never to find full-time employment again. Now 10 years later, I find myself sitting at home, working around the house, playing golf with my friends and picking up a few freelance assignments -- while my better half goes off every day to her job as a librarian.
At first I thought it was just me. Then I looked around at my friends. One lost his job in his 40s. He tried to start his own business, then had some health problems, and now in his 50s he's being supported by his wife who commutes to the city. Another friend is a writer. He sits at home while his wife goes off to work. My friend Robert was forced into early retirement when he was 57. His wife had gone back to work after their kids left for college. Now he's the house husband; and she's the breadwinner.
Earlier this month Hanna Rosin came out with a book, The End of Men, which argues that the era of male economic hegemony is gone for good. She pointed out that most of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were in manufacturing and other male-oriented industries.
Meantime, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 1970 the female participation rate in the workforce has increased from 43 percent to 62 percent, while the male participation rate has gone down from 80 percent to 73 percent. And while men still take the majority of seats in corporate boardrooms, today women in their 20s actually outearn men in their 20s.
The issue came up in our house over the weekend. My dear partner is helping to run a charity auction at her church. She's looking for an auctioneer. "For some reason I think a man would be better," she mused. "But there aren't many men who come to church."
"What about the elders?" I asked. I was thinking there must be at least one man among the group of elders who run the church, a man who would feel comfortable hosting an auction, serving as master of ceremonies.
She paused for a moment and I could see her thinking. "Actually, there aren't many men who are elders." She counted them up -- 10 of the elders are women, only four are men. "Gee, it used to be all men," she concluded. "Now there are hardly any." She gave me a significant look and asked, "Where are all the men?"
I didn't have an answer. Instead, I could only think about how men are in large measure, and for whatever reason, no longer in leadership roles, and in many cases no longer even working. Women have taken their place. Her boss, the director of the library, is a woman. So is the president of the library board of trustees. Our town supervisor is a woman. The president of the board of education is a woman. The PTA is run completely by women -- although men still dominate the fire department.
It's no secret that the path to a good job is a better education. Today, more women than men go to college. Some 57 percent of undergraduate students are women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for 2011 high-school graduates, the college enrollment rate was 72.3 percent for young women and 64.6 percent for young men. (Interestingly, in higher income groups, men and women go to college in roughly equal numbers; but among lower-middle-class and poor families women go to college in much larger numbers.)
One Minnesota college admissions officer noted ruefully that the admissions pool had recently fallen to just 30 percent male. In the past year it had increased to 34 percent because, he admitted, "We actually did a little affirmative action." He's not alone. According to a 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, some liberal arts colleges find they have to "provide admissions preferences for men in order to avoid large gender imbalances in their student bodies."
Meanwhile, in 2010, women earned 62.6 percent of master's degrees and 53.3 percent of doctoral degrees. But hold on. Men still do "win out" in one statistic. They account for 58% of high-school dropouts.
Currently only about 20 percent of K-12 public school teachers are men, compared to 30 percent in the mid-1980s. Perhaps one solution to male underemployment would be for more men to once again enter the field of teaching, expanding their career opportunities and possibly helping today's young males make more of their public-school experience, lowering their dropout rate.
I spent 30 years in the workforce, and now I'm happily retired. I can't help but think how different the world of work is compared to when I started out -- let alone what it was for my father. For the most part that's a good thing, especially the changes from my father's time. But has the pendulum swung too far against the males? I don't know. All I know is that I have two children, a girl and a boy, both in their 20s. I hope they can both look forward to equally good prospects for their lives and their careers. That's what we're all striving for, isn't it?