In Boys Adrift, I also presented evidence that schools bear some of the blame for the disengagement of boys from education. American schools, with a few exceptions, have become unfriendly to boys. Boys doing things that boys have always done—such as pointing fingers at each other saying “bang bang you’re dead”, or doodling a sketch of a sword—now often get into trouble at school. But reprimanding an elementary-school boy for chewing his pastry into the shape of a gun does not change that boy into a flower child who wants to talk about his feelings.
There is a growing gender gap in higher education. According to the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center: as of spring 2021, women accounted for 59.5% of students attending colleges and universities nationwide. Among four-year private colleges, women now account for 61% of all students. Both figures represent new records. Douglas Shapiro, executive director of research at the National Student Clearinghouse, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that if current trends continue, within a few years there will be two women graduating from college for every one man.
Well, so what? In 1970, men accounted for 58% of students attending colleges and universities, and there was no great outcry back then about the gender imbalance. Why should we be concerned now that the pendulum has swung in the other direction?
I think there are good reasons for concern, which can be summed up in three words: “educational assortative mating.” Educational assortative mating means that if a woman has earned a four-year degree and she is looking for a husband, she will usually choose a man whose educational achievement is equal to or greater than her own. Fifty years ago, if a man earned a four-year degree and was looking for a woman to marry, he might have many qualifications in mind for his future wife; but educational attainment was not one of them. In that era, college-educated men were happy to marry women who had never attended college. In our era, college-educated women are hoping to marry college-educated men. And there are not enough college-educated men to go around.
This problem is not confined to the college educated. I am a family doctor. A young woman in my own practice, let’s call her Linda, has two small children. She has never been married. She has never attended college. I bumped into the father of her two children. He told me how much he loves Linda. He told me that he has proposed marriage, twice, and both times Linda turned him down. I asked Linda, as gently as I could, why she did not want to marry the father of her two children. She answered: “Dr. Sax, I already have two babies at home. I don’t need a third!”
At every level, not just among the college-educated, young women seeking a man to marry are looking for men who are at least as competent and hard-working as they are. But ever since the 1980s, boys’ academic achievement in high school has declined relative to girls, not primarily because girls are doing better but because boys are doing worse.
Marriage rates in the United States peaked at 16.4 per 1,000 per year in 1946. As recently as 1990, marriage rates were still 9.8 per 1,000. Right now, the marriage rate is 6.1 per 1,000: that’s the lowest on record, going back to the 1880s. Although many factors have contributed to the decline in marriage, scholars agree that one major factor driving the decline is the reality that many women want their husbands to earn more than they do. American women have always tended to prefer husbands who can earn more than they do, but the growing phenomenon of underachieving young men means that there are not enough successful men to go around.
Nevertheless, many women still want to have children.