America’s wayward sons: Why they can’t carry on

At the close of a speech on women’s contributions to global prosperity, I was asked to predict what the U.S. workforce would look like in the coming decades. My mind fixed on the image of all those Catholic churches I’ve attended where mostly women fill the pews — even though the Vatican’s men are firmly in charge. If current trends continue, we’re heading toward a 21st-century workforce in which senior roles remain solidly male and women are the strivers. Absent from the picture? Rank-and-file American men, who increasingly are falling behind and becoming far less equipped than women to land promising jobs.

There has been much discussion in the media, thanks to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and others, about how women’s gains as business leaders have stalled: There are a record 20 women in the U.S. Senate, but the number of women at the top of corporate America has plateaued over the past decade — 4% of Fortune 500 chiefs and just 14% of so-called C-suite positions.

But even as outspoken women try to change that dynamic, a less noticed and equally troubling phenomenon is happening much further down the economic ladder: Men are disappearing from the bottom rungs. MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman spell it out in a new study: While women are adjusting to the 21st-century economy — graduating from college at higher rates than men and then migrating into higher-paying jobs — the average guy is moving backward. “Although a significant minority of males continues to reach the highest echelons of achievement in education and labor markets, the median male is moving in the opposite direction,” the authors write in “Wayward Sons,” a study for the centrist think tank Third Way.

College degrees now offer the highest income premium in history, but men’s educational-attainment levels are dropping. Today’s typical 38-year-old woman is 23% more likely than her male counterpart to hold a four-year degree. “Females have fared better than males in every educational category,” note Autor and Wasserman.

Other social scientists have documented that a growing portion of the male population is opting out of employment altogether — a trend among prime-working-age men that political scientist Charles Murray shows predates the 2008 financial crash. Says demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute: “This exit from gainful work for men is historically unprecedented.”

There’s plenty of debate over the reasons behind the plummeting economic status of America’s median males — the decline of manufacturing and labor unions; the rise of a globalized, high-tech economy; the availability of government aid (and even wives’ or girlfriends’ incomes) to supplement sagging earnings and possibly chip away at individual initiative.

Autor and Wasserman inject an important new note into that debate: Single-parent families are on the rise, supplanting married families. And while “it is widely documented that children of single-parent homes fare worse on a broad range of outcomes,” boys fare especially badly without a stable male role model (otherwise known as Dad). Girls in most single-parent homes at least have a biological, most likely working, mother as a regular presence in their lives.

These are the boys most at risk to join the river of men without college degrees who have seen their earnings plummet since 1979. The authors fear a vicious cycle, in which sons with poor earnings prospects become less viable marriage material, so single-parent households continue to increase, and generations of more “wayward sons” are produced.

None of this lends itself to easy policy prescriptions out of Washington. But once we as a nation begin to ring the alarms, we can at least start asking the right questions: How to provide successful role models for teenage boys, how to make college an attractive option for more men, how to devise training programs for 21st-century jobs that reach them. The alternative is a cycle downward for half our population — even as superstar women struggle to get to the top.

This story is from the April 29, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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