Male decline is no myth

We all agree that the number of female breadwinners leapt from only 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent in 2010. Coontz, however, discounts this gain by arguing that when we look at all married couples, not just dual-earner couples, the numbers look much weaker because some wives don’t work at all. This is a fair point. But if we are going to add on extra data samples, then I offer another, more relevant one: the growing number of single mothers. Trends in the United States do not point toward an explosion of full-time stay-at-home mothers but of single mothers who are, by default, for better or worse, often the main breadwinners of their families. We recently passed the threshold, for example, at which more than half of all births to mothers under 30 were to single mothers. I’m not sure this counts as feminist progress, but it does count as a profound shift in the traditional power dynamics of the American family. …

But here’s the thing: The upheaval in gender dynamics I’ve spent three years reporting and writing about all points in one direction. Yes, there are zigs and zags. Yes, different sectors of the economy and society are moving at different rates. Yes, in the last decade progress has slowed down (it has slowed down for men, too). Yes, a female MBA earns less than a male MBA out of school (although the difference, before children, is now negligible). Yes, the richest of the rich are still almost exclusively male, or their wives. And yes, we have not yet remotely figured out how to make most American workplaces family-friendly.

But zoom the graph back a few decades and you can see how far we’ve come—and that the lines all point one way: Men’s wages have been stagnating, and by some measures declining, as women’s economic fortunes continue to rise. The wage gap has been slowly closing for women, but the education gap has not been closing for men. We can focus only and eternally on the fact that those lines have not yet crossed or even converged in many professions. But isn’t that vantage point a bit narrow? Why does we’re-not-there-yet mean we’re not headed there?