Growing pains: Rate of young men struggling in careers alarmingly higher than for young women (+video)
What it means for women, families and the economy
The most important thing to do is help people understand just what is happening to the family in this country. By ignoring these problems, we are adding to poverty and inequality. – Kay Hymowitz, author
Every morning, they're outside his bedroom door, marching their little action figures across the carpet and jabbering in cartoon voices, a reminder of everything he can't control. He asked them to play elsewhere. He asked them to use quiet voices. But the three boys aren't his children and this isn't his house.
Twenty-six years old and done with college, Austin Dent is back under his parent's roof. In addition to his three nephews, he shares the space with his mom, dad, a sister, a brother-in-law and a three-legged dog. When he first lugged his things up the stairs after finishing his coursework at the University of Utah a year ago, he'd been gone so long his parents had redecorated his boyhood room with a vanity, girly trinkets and flowers. He didn't rush to settle in. He was just in limbo, he told himself. Dozens of applications and six temporary jobs later, though, Dent has replaced the vanity with a video game console he bought in the classifieds. Now he half-jokingly, half-seriously describes that state of limbo as "perpetual."
Dent feels lucky to have a paid internship in his field (many of his friends don't), but he makes so little he has to wait tables in the evening. He hasn't applied for graduation yet because he doesn't want to limit eligibility for internships, which seem to be the only gigs he can find. He's in a relationship he thinks could "work out," but he doesn't want to think about marriage until he "has it together." If all else fails, he says he'll probably join the military.
"There's just this huge level of uncertainty," he says. "I feel like I have to continually look for what's next. There's never any time to settle down and focus on actually living."
The recession was not kind to Dent's generation. As the job market dove, the newest entrants to the labor force were the last to be hired and the first to go. Nearly 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. More than a third rely on their parents to help make ends meet and, even among those who have jobs, 69 percent say they don't make enough money to live the kind of life they'd like. The economy is recovering, but young adults, like Dent, likely won't. Research shows those who enter the workforce during a recession are still earning an average of 10 percent less 20 years later.
The struggle is particularly crippling to young men, experts say, because society's definition of masculinity is heavily associated with being a successful provider. In many ways, too, young men are falling behind young women. Young men are less educated, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to live at home with their parents than their female peers. In the workforce, young women out-earn their male counterparts. The achievement gap between young women and men has grown so wide that experts worry it may be contributing to the rising age of marriage and an increase in the number of single-parent homes.
The statistics make Dent feel frustrated and, sometimes, when he's grown weary of putting on a mask of optimism, even a little discouraged. Those who work with young men say those feelings are becoming more and more common.
"I am fearful that, for some of them, life is going to be a continual revolution of spinning their wheels and not getting any traction," said Cory Duckworth, who serves as vice president of student affairs for Utah Valley University and presides over a congregation of young single adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in American Fork, Utah. "I just don't see them moving forward, experiencing the joy and happiness life ought to be bringing. I see too much frustration, a lot of loneliness and despair."
Go to school, find a job
Nolan Husband, 26, always thought he'd follow in his father's footsteps. Shortly after graduating high school, his dad took a job at the Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine and spent the next 30 years working his way up the ladder. So when the time came, Husband started out his career working in a warehouse, packaging lift kits for trucks. A tall, laid-back man with strong arms and a husky voice, Husband liked the work. He was good at it. And his employer rewarded him with frequent pay raises.
"I have a pretty good work ethic," he says. "I don't slack. I was hoping I could advance my career just by showing my leadership qualities. I was in it for the next 20 years."
But, he says with a shrug, "Souping up your car is a luxury," and when the recession hit, his career progression stagnated.
While young adults of both sexes were hit hard during the Great Recession, the past few years have in some ways been more difficult for men. During the recession, men lost twice as many jobs as women. Fifty-six percent of men ages 25 to 34 took a job they didn't want just to pay the bills, according to the Pew Research Center. Just 41 percent of women said the same. While the share of women living with their parents has remained a fairly steady 10 percent since 2007, the share of men living at home has increased from 14.2 percent to 18.6 percent.
Recession aside, though, the economy is shifting in a more female-friendly direction, said Warren Farrell, author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are" and one of the nation's leading men's advocates. The manufacturing economy, which played to men's strengths, is on its way out. Today's economy is becoming increasingly knowledge-based and emphasizes softer skills such as communication and data analysis — things men can do, but that come easier to women.
The emphasis on female-friendly skills is mirrored in schools, Farrell says, where as early as elementary school teachers now encourage learning strategies that girls excel at, like collaboration, and discourage those that come naturally to boys, like competition. As a result of what he calls "biased" teaching methods, by the time they graduate high school, men are already behind. At a university level, just 38 percent of men ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college or graduate programs in 2010, compared to 44 percent of women, according to the Pew Research Center. Women are more likely to graduate, too. Thirty-six percent of women ages 25 to 29 had a bachelor's degrees, while just 28 percent of men obtained the milestone.
The steady climb of the share of women on college campuses is a civil rights victory, no doubt, and a sign of great things to come for the fairer sex. But women aren't just catching up with men; they are leaving them in the dust, says Kay Hymowitz, author of "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys." For the first time in history, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports today's young men will be less educated than their fathers.
"Simply put, women are out-learning men," Hymowitz says.
The disparity in education hampers young men as they seek to launch their careers. Overall, women still earn only about 80 percent of men's wages, but among young adults, women out-earn men. According to a recent analysis of 147 of the country's 150 biggest cities conducted by a market research company, the median full-time salaries of young women are 8 percent higher than those of their male peers. In some cities, young women bring in as much as 20 percent more. Experts attribute the disparity to the growing gap in educational achievement.
Perhaps as a result, young women are more enthusiastic than ever about their careers. For the first time in history, young women surpass young men in the emphasis they place on having a high-paying career, Pew reported earlier this year. Sixty-six percent of women ages 18 to 34 place career high on their list of life priorities, compared with just 59 percent of men.
Many young men, in the meantime, are becoming discouraged, says Marty Nemko, copresident of the National Organization for Men. Over the past 25 years, Nemko, who is also a career counselor, said he has noticed a change in levels of optimism among young men.
"When I started out, the boys would have big ambitions and the girls would have big ambitions," he said. "Slowly, year after year, young women finishing college have remained optimistic about the future, but young men have completely changed. If they are superstars and ... went to Harvard, they are doing OK. But if they are normal, went to a middling university or maybe even dropped out, these men are depressed and angry. They feel like the cards are stacked against them."
At 23, Husband, who now believes it's impossible to "just get a job and make a career out of it," decided to re-route. He enrolled at the University of Utah, where he is studying exercise science and fitness leadership. He is passionate about his studies, but he sometimes feels behind. At 26, he always pictured himself settled into a career, married and thinking about children — not as a single student struggling to make ends meet. And while he is confident in his career path, if he's learned anything from his struggle up to this point, it's that things don't always go as planned.
"I worry there won't be a need for people like me in the future," he says.
Fall in love, start family
Since he graduated with a master's degree in bioengineering from Cornell two years ago, Andy Pyon, a 26-year-old from Gilbert, Ariz., has spent a lot more time thinking about cover letters than dating. He has written 100 different versions to fit job titles as diverse as analytic chemist and retail clerk. He's done some four dozen interviews with little luck. With each one, his confidence has fallen a little.
"I kind of felt in the beginning that it was a problem with the system and that I was just being overlooked," he says. "There's plenty of evidence to suggest that I did enough by going to school and working hard. But as time goes on, I'm thinking there must be something in the game plan I did wrong."
He has had romantic relationships since graduating college and imagines he'd like to get married someday, but, he says, "I am not as productive as I want to be from an employment standpoint, so I am trying to focus my energy on finding out who I want to be personally and professionally."
Accelerated by the recession, men's marriage rates dropped sharply over the past decade. According to the latest Census statistics, 52 percent of all men ages 25 to 34 have never been married. Since 1997, the percentage of young men ages 18 to 34 who say having a successful marriage is one of life's most important achievements has dropped from 35 percent to 29 percent, the Pew Research Center reported.
If society has made women into "sex objects," Farrell argues it has made men into "success objects." Young men are described in terms of their potential earning power. They are "the intern at the medical school" or "the attorney" — not "the good listener."
As women power ahead, these expectations are wearing on men, Farrell said. Modern women have gained choices over the years. They can take a job. They can stay at home with their children. They can do both. Men, though, have only the option to work full time, work full time or work full time.
The pressure can be intense, he said. He illustrates his point by ticking off suicide rates. Prior to age 9, boys and girls commit suicide at the same rate. By age 10, the suicide rate for boys is twice as high as their female peers. By age 15, it's four times as high. Young men ages 20 to 24 kill themselves at five times the rate of young women of the same ages.
"Men are not valued if they aren't successful," Farrell said. "And in today's world, they are far less likely to be successful. Period. In comparison to women, they are in even worse shape."
Some put off marriage because they feel like they must first achieve financial stability, he says. Easy access to pornography is a factor, too, because it makes it easy for men to fulfill sexual needs without risking rejection. But men's advocates also suggest many men want to get married but can't because women refuse to "marry down."
"There are smaller percentages of men who are earning significantly more than women," Farrell says. "If a woman doesn't have a man in her life who is earning as much or more than her, she'll be in a relationship with him, she may even have sex with him, but she doesn't want to marry him."
Women aren't turning up their noses for purely economic reasons, though, Hymowitz says.
Getting married and starting a family has traditionally been the rite of passage to adulthood, Hymowitz says. Because young adults are delaying marriage, a new decade of life has emerged. Hymowitz has dubbed it — rather snidely, she admits — "pre-adulthood." It's a time when young adults focus on themselves and their careers. It's a time, Hymowitz says, that "doesn't tend to bring out the best in men."
"You find a new phenomenon of what I call the child man," she says. "He is, in many respects, more attached to his adolescent self than he is to his adult self. He is hanging around, playing video games with his friends much like he was in college."
As women have gained success, there's been increasing talk about "Why do I need a man?" says Hymowitz. In the future, she predicts more women, unable to find a man they see as their equal, will "go it alone" as single mothers.
"This isn't just an individual problem; this is a societal problem," Hymowitz says. "It isn't a purely economical problem; it is contributing to the breakdown of the family."
Troubled by the plight of young men, a self-formed commission of experts, academics and policymakers is fighting to get the federal government to create a White House Council on Men and Boys, similar to President Barack Obama's Council on Women and Girls, which aims "to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people."
If approved, the council would focus on five areas: education, emotional health, father involvement, physical health and work. To encourage more men to go to college, proponents believe it is important to get more male teachers into classrooms and promote boy-friendly teaching methods.
The council would seek to expand the concept of "man's work" and create incentives for father involvement in unwed and divorced families.
"The most important thing to do is help people understand just what is happening to the family in this country," Hymowitz says. "By ignoring these problems, we are adding to poverty and inequality."
In the thick of it all, the young men themselves are just doing their best to make things work. Despite their struggles, Dent, Husband and Pyon all count themselves blessed. While times are tough now, they are fighting to maintain hope in a better future.
"I don't really have a choice," Dent says. "This is my life right now."