The Social Changes That Drove Men from Work

(File photo: Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)
A new paper provides an interesting angle on Tucker Carlson’s famous rant.

We’re nearly a year out from That One Tucker Carlson Rant: the one where he talked at length about how the American economy had left behind low-skilled men and how that was ruining their chances at marriage. There was a lot of truth in this theory, as evidenced by the decline of the manufacturing sector, slow wage growth for the less educated, and growing numbers of men opting out of the labor force entirely, not to mention studies showing that women really do prize breadwinning in their mates.

But a new academic paper, from University of Michigan Ph.D. candidate Ariel J. Binder, asks us to remember that causation can run in the opposite direction too: The decline of low-skilled men’s marriage prospects could cause them to stop pursuing work. Binder shows this by looking at two major social changes that made low-skilled men less important as breadwinners. Combined, these shifts could explain 28 percent of the ten-point decline in the labor-force participation of young, non-college-educated men between 1965 and 2015.

Carlson said that “male wages declined” and added that “when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them.” Binder adds that even when men have a decent job, many women aren’t interested in them. And “when work is less likely to win a desirable marriage contract, why bother?”

The first major social change the paper discusses is unilateral divorce, which swept the country between the 1960s and the 1980s. What does this have to do with breadwinning by low-skilled men? Essentially, it encourages wives to work for a variety of reasons:

When spouses must mutually consent to a divorce, individual bargaining power within marriage is irrelevant, and it is best for spouses to coordinate their activities. But in a unilateral regime, the utility a spouse could achieve in a unilateral divorce becomes a credible threat point within marriage. Thus, under a unilateral regime, a wife may choose to invest in her own career for two related reasons. The first is to insure against being poor in the event that the marriage turns out badly and the husband initiates a unilateral divorce. The second is to insure against the husband not sharing his earnings with her within marriage — if he doesn’t, she can credibly exercise the threat of unilateral divorce [because she can provide for herself].

This isn’t just aimless theorizing; previous research has confirmed that no-fault divorce led to less gender specialization within marriage, which implies that breadwinning ability became less likely to earn someone a spouse — making work a less worthy investment, especially for lower-skilled men, who are limited in how much they earn even with maximal effort. And indeed, Binder’s analysis shows that as states rolled out no-fault divorce, their young, non-college-educated male residents became less likely to work relative to similar men in states that hadn’t changed divorce policy yet.

The second major change is improvement in women’s employment opportunities. This happened throughout the country over the past half-century, but different industries are more common in different regions of the country — meaning that nationwide industry trends can disproportionately help (or harm) the employment of women (or men) at the local level. Binder finds that when such shifts favored women’s employment, men in the most affected areas became more likely to leave the labor force, even after accounting for their own work opportunities.

Binder, of course, is not the first person to note this basic pattern, in which even as the labor market is not serving low-skilled men very well, women have new options for supporting themselves and their children without a man in the house at all. Indeed, I made this point in a blog post shortly after Tucker’s rant.

That post was called “What’s Broken, and What We’re Not Going to Fix,” and Marco Rubio apparently didn’t like its hopeless tone. But Binder’s research reinforces its point: Much of what ails low-skilled men today stems from social changes that we have no intention of rolling back. We are not going to force people to stay in marriages they wish to leave, and we are not booting women back out of the labor force.

We can adjust to these shocks, and I hope we do, but we can’t reverse them.

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