Has the decline of manufacturing jobs affected the marriage market? A new study says yes, and it's bad news for many men.

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Right-thinking people were outraged recently when a billboard appeared in North Carolina reading: “Real men provide. Real women appreciate it.”

At first glance, it does appear outside the norms of 21st century America. But it’s an opportunity to examine a trend holding back the economy. The civilian labor force participation rate by men stood at 69.3 percent in January, down from 73.1 percent before the Great Recession. It was more than 87 percent in the late 1940s.

By contrast, the overall labor force participation rate was 62.9 percent vs. 66 percent before the recession and 56.8 percent for women, the latter barely changed. While many factors are behind the decline, including baby boomers fortunate enough to retire (or be made obsolete), the downdraft of men leaving the workforce is most pronounced. Men also voted for Donald Trump, who promised to bring back manufacturing jobs, by a 12 point margin.

Some fresh insights into the phenomenon come from a paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research. “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage-Market Value of Men” is written by David Autor of MIT, David Dorn of the University of Zurich and Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego. They are interested in how so-called trade shocks (think of NAFTA and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization) play into broader trends. Chief among them is the decline in marriage by young adults and the increase in children born to unmarried mothers.

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Autor, Dorn and Hanson build on groundbreaking work by William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist.

They write, “While economists and expert commentators have tended to downplay the outsized role assigned to declining manufacturing employment in the U.S. economic debate — what economist Jagdish Bhagwati dubs ‘manufacturing fetishism’ — simple descriptive statistics support the contention that manufacturing jobs are a fulcrum on which traditional work and family arrangements rest.”

To risk oversimplifying the findings of a rigorous study, the authors argue that men have been disproportionately hurt by trade shocks, both in earnings and their ability to even find work. This has also played into crime and rising incarceration rates. One result is fewer “high-quality” young men as potential marriage partners. This has helped contribute to the changes in marriage and childbirth.

The authors don’t get into broader social and political implications. Other studies have shown how the changing nature of work may benefit women more than men. In a slow-growth economy, it can seem a zero-sum game. Whether because of nature or socialization, many men do see their role as providers at the top of how they measure themselves and how they believe their society values them.

However, those expecting Trump to bring back manufacturing jobs to their old highs (which, incidentally, were accompanied by strong unions) are going to be very disappointed. The world has changed too much.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Plowshares into swords

Windfalls for defense outfits

The home front gets cut