From his cluttered office at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, Andrew Sum has been watching chart after chart deliver the same disturbing news for several years. The data show a lack of positive educational momentum among boys and young men. Sum says the new gender gap could create a new kind of "social dynamite" that will drive deep rifts in society. If he had his way, high schools across the country would be plastered with posters reading "Wanted: Five Million Men." That's how many more men it will take, Sum points out, to achieve gender parity in higher education by 2010.
BusinessWeek's Michelle Conlin talked with Sum at length about his views concerning everything from Bart Simpson to the impending marriage squeeze. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: You're very careful to point out that it's not as if boys are completely worse off than they were a generation ago.
A: That's right. The real issue is that men just haven't made any real progress. The dangerous thing about this is that we're in an economy that is rewarding the educated more and more. And men are just not responding to this new reality.
Yes, some guys are doing very, very well. But more guys are doing very, very badly. And it's those guys that will dominate prisons, homelessness, and who will be far less likely to get married and raise kids. Men have fallen behind, and they're continuing to fall behind. And it's going to be a tragedy for the country.
Q: Are college degrees the new high-school degrees? In other words, is it even more imperative now that people go to college?
A: Absolutely. Just think back to the heyday of manufacturing in the 1970s. Back then, you could go into trucking or construction and do alright. But you just can't get into the middle class today with a low-class education. Today, your college counterpart will make 90% more than you. And so what we have is a situation where men are really underinvesting in themselves. They're shortchanging their future.
Q: What's the ultimate cost of this underinvestment?
A: Our country needs a well-educated workforce. Our productivity, our innovation, our growth -- they all depend upon the population getting continuous improvement in literacy and other skills. This lack of progress among men will hold down productivity growth. It will also have a big impact on male earnings, and, as a result, for taxes and government spending.
Already, we've become so much more dependent on the immigrant workforce. It's also true, when we do happiness studies, that better-educated people tend to be much happier. So there are immense social implications across the board here.
Q: But isn't it true that men with high school degrees still make more than their female counterparts?
A: There used to be a big pay gap between the genders among high-school graduates. But today, boys out of high school only make about 5% more, on average, than girls in the same boat.
Q: What role is the culture playing?
A: There are so many strains to that question. But one of the biggest things that jumps out at me is rap culture. It's totally antagonistic to academic achievement. It demeans students who try to do well in school. And I think it disengages boys from academic learning.
Q: When Michael Moore asked Marilyn Manson about the role of music in his film Bowling for Columbine, Manson replied that music wasn't to blame. The real problem was a media machine that promotes fear and consumerism.
A: Well, boys aren't just victims. They play a big role in this, too. They need to get off their butts, basically. It's not cool to take AP classes. It's a Bart Simpson culture. Underachiever and proud of it. Cool to be stupid.
And these are the guys who are going to keep living with mom. I mean male culture has just become totally anti-intellectual. The male cultural heroes and icons -- very few of them have a brain in their head. We glorify male idiocy. And young guys pick up on that.
Q: And then what happens to the women who may want to date those guys?
A: When you listen to women's groups, and they say there's not enough good men out there, they're right. There are fewer well-educated men than there were 20 years ago. And people tend to like to marry someone within the same educational class. Historically, women have tended to marry up.
Q: Now what do you think will happen?
A: More women will marry down, or marry younger, or not marry at all.
Q: What's your prescription then?
A: Men have to realize what women did. We have to go back and earn it. We have to start paying our dues.