A Brookings Institution paper by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney has a particularly salient introductory quote about male workers. Not only did the median income stagnate after the 1970s, but median male income plummeted. A lot of great things happened for women workers after 1970 which helped keep the median total income from plummeting, but if you just look at male workers, things are amazingly bleak.
From 1950 to 1970, the average earnings of male workers increased by about 25 percent each decade. And these gains were not concentrated among some lucky few. Rather, earnings rose for most workers, and almost every prime-aged male (ages 25-64) worked.
Technological advancement and ever-broadening global markets brought opportunities that increasingly educated American workers raced to embrace. This resulted in steadily rising living standards, generations of children who outearned their parents, and a thriving middle class.
But in the mid-1970s, that pattern abruptly changed. Technological change and globalization continued to power both economic growth and the total earnings of the work force. Women, who were entering the market at increasing rates, enjoyed the fruits of that prosperity in rising wages. But the fortunes of a large segment of workers – male workers lacking specialized skills – was unhitched from the engine of growth.
Over the past 40 years, a period in which U.S. GDP per capita more than doubled after adjusting for inflation, the annual earnings of the median prime-aged male have actually fallen by 28 percent. Indeed, males at the middle of the wage distribution now earn about the same as their counterparts in the 1950s! This decline reflects both stagnant wages for men on the job, and the fact that, compared with 1969, three times as many men of working age don’t work at all.
This is an under-appreciated cause of the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family in America. It explains a lot of the reasons why old TV shows like Leave It To Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet look foreign today.