6 reasons why men are falling behind women

May 8, 2013, 5:17 PM UTC

FORTUNE — There is a growing consensus among scholars on the right, left, and center that the state of median-income men in America is in distress.

They’ve endured a three-decade drop in earnings. Even before the financial crash, prime-age men were dropping out of the workforce altogether, and the problem has only worsened since. Meanwhile, women are far outstripping their male counterparts in the area that’s most important for a 21st century global economy — education.

The big question remains — why? On this, the research still falls short. So the outpouring of reader feedback on my column in the April 29 issue of Fortune — “America’s Wayward Sons: Why They Can’t Carry On” — offers some valuable on-the-ground perspective.

The focus of that column was an MIT study showing the sharp rise in single-parent households hurts boys more than girls. Other scholars have blamed a rise in more readily available government assistance, making aid checks more appealing than paychecks. The decline of well-paying manufacturing jobs, combined with fast-paced technological change, also factors in.

MORE: Warren Buffett is bullish … on women

Here’s what readers, reporting on what they see in their own backyards, had to say:

Flight of fathers. There was broad agreement with the MIT study’s conclusion that the rise of single-parenting has set back achievement levels. “My father was a small-time white-collar criminal that fled the country prior to a court date when I was just a few months old,” Adam C. Dudly writes. “Even now, in my 30s, I struggle with laziness, sense of identity issues, figuring out who I am or what I want to be, and what kind of man I’m supposed to be … I would have to assume most young men are not as proactive as I am.”

“While this may seem glamorous for those who admire movie stars and athletes, such family arrangements in the real world often doom children to lead lives of emotional and material privation,” writes Jason DeSena Trennart. “It is a clear and present danger to the fabric of our republic. Senator Moynihan spoke honestly about this problem in the African American community as long ago as 1965. Sadly, the phenomenon of single-parent households has only grown.”

A rise in autism and ADHD. “Unfortunately, the current debate is being waged by social scientists and psychologists who are quick to blame the issue on vague societal trends (globalization, decline in manufacturing) and of course, single mothers and the lack of a male role model,” writes Michelle Linn. “I suggest you consider exploring how biological (real) science may be playing a role in this alarming issue. The generation of children born since 1988 are by many accounts the unhealthiest on record. The rates of ADHD, asthma, autism, bipolar disorder, diabetes, and allergies have skyrocketed in the last two decades. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control published a rate of 1 in 5 children having a behavioral disorder or chronic disease.

“It is well known that neurological disorders affect boys more frequently than girls (for autism, the rate is fivefold),” she continues. “Could it be these illnesses and diseases of the central nervous system are actually affecting our economy? It is very easy to blame the lost potential of up to 20% of our youth on social stereotypes and psychology 101 blithering.”

Video games. “As the mother of two boys ages 14 and 15,” writes Chris Olofson, “my biggest fear is that it’s the video gaming, in addition to the factors you mentioned in your article, that is causing the lack of motivation and initiative to work and thus get a firm hold on the economic ladder.’’ She wants to see more research on how video games lead to a decline in reading and thereby college performance.

A K-12 education system biased toward girls. As Rob Ritzenthaler bluntly put it: “Who was the nut that thought that boys should sit at a desk for 6-8 hours a day while they were growing up?” Some readers also criticized the emphasis on obtaining college degrees.

Microbiology professor Pinghui V. Liu cited Japan’s system of vocational schools for high school students who can’t afford college — offering engineering and mechanics, commerce and accounting, schools of agriculture and forestry, and even schools of fisheries. With this kind of schooling, teenagers “can start looking for jobs at the age when American students are just beginning to worry about how to pay for their college education,” he writes.

Likewise, writes Dave Danson, “the constant message to your our young people that they are going to be a failure in life without a four-year degree is the wrong message to send to parents and young people … The food in your grocery store was delivered by a trucker who most likely did not have a degree. The store mechanicals are maintained by someone without a degree … Post-secondary training is vital … But please try to look at the bigger picture.”

MORE: Spanx founder joins Giving Pledge

Several readers noted that in school, boys and men still outpace women in science and math. And they still dominate in high-paying industrial jobs. Corey Planter, who graduated with a paper-engineering degree, notes that men mostly fill factory jobs as millwrights, pipe fitters, welders, and ironworkers — paying up to $28 an hour. “You may be thinking that these jobs are rapidly disappearing, however they are not,” he writes, noting one machinist shop that was on a nationwide search for enough machinists to keep up with his orders.

The financial gains of women. Gustavo A. Duran makes clear he supports the recent economic gains of women — his own daughter has a masters from Stanford — but he sees more and more men taking a backseat. “I am now seeing many women in their 40s being the main breadwinners while their husbands diddle [around] daily in odds and ends,” Duran writes. “I think this trend will just get larger as we move on the next two to three decades unless we as a society become more demanding of our male children to be disciplined and accountable … Men need to be equally responsible for themselves so that they can contribute to taking care of their children and their spouses.” 

Affirmative action. “I was surprised, however, not to see any mention of affirmative action as a contributor,” writes T.J. Wilsson, echoing a number of readers. “With so many major employers obliging ‘guidelines’ pressuring them to, effectively, discriminate against males … For example, I read that a major employer in one state had guidelines that some 80% of its newly hired veterinarians be female.” Ron Goddard complained that “every step of the way my sons and I were put on notice by corporate America that we were their second choice.”

Whatever their perspective, most of the readers who responded wanted more discussion, more research, and more attention to this vital conversation.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.