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Can blue-collar men have anything?

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Can women have it all? A recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly has unleashed a furious debate.

I actually have an answer to offer, but before I give it, I want to suggest the focus is on the wrong question. A more urgent one at this juncture is: Can blue-collar men have anything?

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That may sound like a loaded question, but it's difficult to overstate the long-run economic cataclysm affecting this particular group (and, by extension, working-class women).

The recession that followed the collapse of the housing bubble took a terrible toll on these guys; overall, it cost twice as many men jobs as it did women. But the problem goes back much further.

The economists Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney report that, from 1969 to 2009, median earnings of men 25 to 64 years old fell by an inflation-adjusted 28 per cent.

For those lacking a high school diploma, the drop was 66 per cent. The declines are so large partly because so many men fall out of the workforce when the blue-collar jobs they once held vanish. Many men also lost pensions and health insurance.

Women, meanwhile, have seen dramatic economic gains as more of them entered the workforce and their wages increased. Women also entered fields such as health care and education, which have proved more resistant to imports and recession than such male redoubts as manufacturing and construction. Education is crucial to economic success, and women are now getting more bachelor's degrees than men.

The demolition of blue-collar male earning power has hurt family formation among less-educated Americans. In 1960, according to the Pew Research Center, the least-educated Americans were almost as likely to be married as the most educated. Half a century later, 64 per cent of college graduates were married but, among those who never went beyond high school, just 47 per cent were. Less-educated Americans marry less, divorce more, and have less stable cohabitations.

In other words, while we debate whether the best-educated women can reach the pinnacle of their profession and also raise perfect children, working-class Americans of both sexes often find themselves in dead-end jobs and broken homes. Or worse still, jobless.

What's more, the United States has less class mobility than Canada or much of Europe, particularly at the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. That means too many American children born into lower-rung families are likely to grow into lower-rung adults. They won't be worried about having it all, because they won't have much of anything.

As to the other question -- can women have it all? -- the answer is, sure. Millions of women already have great families and great careers. If some of them find it impossible to become chief executive, spend a lot of time with their kids, bake brownies for the soccer team, sustain a youthful romance with their spouse and train for a triathlon, all while pounding away on a BlackBerry, that should not be surprising. Most men can't do all that either, as Harry Chapin pointed out in 1974 with Cat's in the Cradle.

Consider the aging workaholic in the iconic 1987 film Baby Boom. Diane Keaton plays an advertising executive having trouble balancing work and baby, but gets little sympathy from her hard-charging boss, a man who doesn't even know his own grandchildren's names. Nobody can say this pathetic guy "has it all."

The triumph of feminism was it gave people so many more choices. But having choices means making choices.

The challenge for society, meanwhile, is to push some of those choices down below the top rungs of the economic ladder.

 

Daniel Akst is a columnist for Newsday and a member of the newspaper's editorial board.

 

-- McClatchy Tribune Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 A15

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