And in an economy that rewards knowledge, the academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles. Men's wages are stagnating. Men are much more likely to be idle — neither working, looking for work nor caring for family — than they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.
We reported last week that the United States had lost its once-enormous global lead in middle-class pay, based on international income surveys over the last three decades. After-tax median income in Canada appears to have been higher last year than the same measure in this country. The poor in Canada and much of western Europe earn more than the poor here.
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These depressing trends have many causes, but the social struggles of men and boys are an important one. If the United States is going to build a better-functioning economy than the one we've had over the last 15 years, we're going to have to solve our boy problems.
To put it another way, the American economy — for all its troubles (and all of the lingering sexism) — looks to be doing pretty well when you focus on girls. The portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75 percent over the last quarter-century, in line with what has happened in other rich countries. Median inflation-adjusted female earnings are up almost 35 percent over the same span, census data show — while male earnings, incredibly, haven't risen at all.
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"We know we've got a crisis, and the crisis is with boys," said Elaine Kamarck, a resident scholar at Third Way and a former Clinton administration official. "We're not quite sure why it's happening."
Two of the leading theories involve single-parent families and schools. The number of single-parent families has surged over the last generation, and the effect seems to be larger on boys in those families than girls. Girls who grow up with only one parent — typically a mother — fare almost as well on average as girls with two parents. Boys don't.