You got a fast car (and I got a job that pays all our bills)

Are you tired of separating the recycling and having to put your underpants in the laundry basket? Are you sick of watching your wife’s vampire shows on tv? Chrysler knows how you feel. Last year the struggling US auto company filed for bankruptcy protection and was forced into a humiliating shot gun wedding with Fiat. So in keeping with the spirit of the age, the company’s made-for-Super-Bowl Dodge Charger ad features whiny men who feel oppressed by women. Now you can broadcast your powerlessness and frustration every time you fire up your new muscle car (just make sure you remember to put the trash out first).

The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin. argues that there’s a connection between beaten down men and America’s shrinking manufacturing sector. Rosin spoke with Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra where she argued that traditionally male industries are in decline and displaced men are failing to adapt to new job opportunities.

In an article for the Atlantic Rosin wondered whether the "modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men":

Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you. It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.

The changes in America’s labour market have hit the working class hardest, says Rosin: "Since 2000, manufacturing has lost almost 6 million jobs, more than a third of its total workforce, and has taken in few young workers." And with the bursting of the housing bubble, construction jobs have evaporated (at least for now). Rosin explains:

Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation. Many of the new jobs, says Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “replace the things that women used to do in the home for free.” None is especially high-paying. But the steady accumulation of these jobs adds up to an economy that, for the working class, has become more amenable to women than to men.

Rosin isn’t saying that women now have the upper hand in the labour market or that men are a disadvantaged group. She’s fully aware that men still have most of the highest paid jobs and women still do most of the unpaid work such as caring for children. But she senses a trend.

There is a trend, but it’s more complicated than gender. For example, consider education. These two graphs from Richard Settersten’s and Barbara Ray’s article ‘What’s Going on with Young People Today? The Long and Twisting Path to Adulthood‘ show the earnings of men and women aged 25 to 34 by education. While women’s earnings have improved across the board over the past 40 years, only more educated men have managed to match or improve on the earnings of their predecessors. And it’s clear that women still earn less than men (if you think this is just because they work fewer hours see this graph).


Looking at households rather than individuals, it’s clear that the long boom did little for those at the bottom of the income distribution. The graph below from Lane Kenworthy’s blog shows average inflation-adjusted incomes of the poorest 20%, middle 60%, and top 1% of households since the 1970s (see Kenworthy’s post at Crooked Timber for more discussion).

As Kenworthy notes: "For the bulk of American households, incomes have increased moderately or minimally. For those at the top, by contrast, they have soared." Some economists like Greg Mankiw argue that rising inequality is about the economy’s increasing demand for skills. Citing the work of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, he argues that the growth in educational attainment has slowed in recent decades. So as technological change has continued to drive the demand for skills, the supply of skilled workers has lagged behind. As a result, the wage premium for highly skilled workers has increased.

As Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko point out, compared with women men have lagged behind in educational attainment: "Women are now the majority of undergraduates and those receiving a bachelor’s degree" (pdf). So if the labour market is demanding higher levels of education, it seems that women are adapting better to change.

However Kenworthy isn’t convinced that education tells the whole story about rising inequality. Even Mankiw admits that differences in education don’t explain how some people go from rich to super-rich. But for whatever reason, inequality has been growing in the US and some Americans — not all of them men — are being left behind.

Rosin’s article for the Atlantic hints at the way this environment of persistent inequality and stalled opportunity fuels hostility towards women. Here’s how she describes the Charger ad:

… four men stare into the camera, unsmiling, not moving except for tiny blinks and sways. They look like they’ve been tranquilized, like they can barely hold themselves up against the breeze. Their lips do not move, but a voice-over explains their predicament—how they’ve been beaten silent by the demands of tedious employers and enviro-fascists and women. Especially women. “I will put the seat down, I will separate the recycling, I will carry your lip balm.” This last one—lip balm—is expressed with the mildest spit of emotion, the only hint of the suppressed rage against the dominatrix.

So it seems that today’s man fantasises about speeding along deserted highway alone. That’s not how it used to be.

10 thoughts on “You got a fast car (and I got a job that pays all our bills)

  1. Is there also research on the impact of unemployment on subjective wellbeing on men compared to women? If aesthetic skills and social expectations are providing less employment opportunities for men on the lower rungs, I fear that the established (patriarchal) expectation of men as breadwinner may also result in greater disapprobation of and self loathing in men who are unemployed compared to women. So we’re not just failing to utilise our workforce fully by limiting women at one end and men at the other, but also causing misery out of proportion to the output foregone.

    Mark Latham spoke sometimes of a crisis in masculinity. Lord knows if he had some misogyny mixed in with his anger or other issues, or whether he was genuine, but I think there is an issue here.

    So long of course that we end up trying to remove arbitrary social and internalised expectations of man’s work and women’s work, and not promoting fantasies about a lost past.

    That ad reminds me of a short story, “The Masculinist Revolt” by Tenn, that I read once. The main thing I remember is the militant masculinists who strutted around wearing codpieces and Cavalier fashion, constantly calling each other out each other to duels.

  2. Don, it’s an interesting question whether technological trends suit women more than men in terms of opportunities for income and status. But I don’t think those first two graphs tell us much about this. They tell two stories: one about increasing inequality and returns to education in the USA, which is a largely a separate issue; and one about how the gender gap in education in income has been closed since 1975. What we really need data on is how men and women in the same age cohort have fared relatively since, say, 1990 when the high school completion rates converged.

    By the way, that figure from Lane Kenworth is a text-book example of a badly designed graph. You can’t really see what’s going on at all for the lower-income groups. He/she should have used the RH axis for those groups, or used an index with the same starting point for all three groups.

    Finally, in case this needs to be pointed out: any bloke to whom that Charger advertisement appeals, fully deserves his fate.

  3. James – I think the story the first graph tells is that the prospects for less-educated American men (25-34) have diminished since the 1970s while the prospects for men with some postcollege have improved significantly.

    Compare this to the second graph for women. While this shows improvements for women across the board, the gains for less-educated women are not as large as the losses for less-educated men.

    It seems to me that this implies something about the prospects for households that depend on low-skilled work. It suggests that women might be gaining ground against men, but in not in a way that makes their families better off.

    If it’s a victory, it’s a pretty hollow one.

    I take your point about Lane Kenworth’s graph. If you scroll down the post I got it from, you’ll find another graph you might find more helpful.

  4. In the 1970s and 1980s women at a given educational level started getting access to jobs previously only available to men at that educational level. Your graphs are consistent with that. More stayed in the workforce after marriage and those that did, received more promotions. Women may also be gaining ground in the sense that they are progressing further in education, but the gr aphs don’t tell us that.

  5. James – Yes, I think both those claims are correct.

    For more educated women the changes in the labour market have been good news. And that’s true for more educated men too.

    But are the changes good for less educated women? I think that’s less clear.

    For women want to partner and raise families the changes are mostly bad. While their own opportunities to earn are better, their potential mates’ opportunities are likely to be worse. The family’s income is likely to be lower.

    What I wanted to highlight in the post, was that it’s more complicated than men vs women.

  6. It’s important to understand that the decline in the position of the unskilled – unskilled men in particular – over the last thirty years has been far more marked in the US than in any other country, including Australia. I’m not saying none of it at all applies here – just that Australian data is more ambiguous. Don’t make the mistake they tend to make on the Right of reflexively importing US concerns unmodified.

  7. DD – That reminds me of James Vickery’s 1999 analysis:

    … demand for skilled labour has increased markedly in Australia in recent years. This is true whether skill is measured by educational attainment or by occupational skill level. However, wage relativities and unemployment relativities between skill groups have not changed substantially, because the supply of skilled labour has thus far kept pace with the shift in demand. There has been a large increase in the aggregate unemployment rate in Australia since the 1960s; however, this has not been disproportionately focused on the less skilled, and appears to be due to aggregate labour market factors.

  8. Don,

    seems you have some more references on the feminisation of work with the Rosin quote.
    A propos the increased premium for higher education, a general finding has been that inequality within education/gender groups has increased markedly in the last 30 years, i.e. something not measured by either gender or education has driven much of the increased inequality the last 30 years. Those who think this is some kind of reward for skill talk about things like emotional intelligence.

  9. … a general finding has been that inequality within education/gender groups has increased markedly in the last 30 years, i.e. something not measured by either gender or education has driven much of the increased inequality the last 30 year.

    I’m interested in this. So many conversations about labour market inequality and disadvantage seem to begin: “Assuming education and training are the answer, what’s creating the problem?”

    Every answer to the what-causes-disadvantage question is translated into a statement about skills — ‘soft skills’, ‘aesthetic skills’, ‘emotional skills’. So, for example, if someone suggests that staff work slowly and carelessly because they are underpaid, this can be translated into a statement about ‘motivational skill’ — ie the ability to find hard work rewarding for its own sake.

    And maybe skills are part of the answer. But it would be useful to have a conversation that starts with the assumption that inequality and disadvantage have nothing to do with skill.

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