You may remember that, a few years ago, there was a boomlet in pop theorizing about the inevitable fading of the American patriarchy—or The End of Men, as Slate alum Hanna Rosin titled her book on the subject. It was largely a story about education. Women were graduating from college at ever-greater rates, setting themselves up for a future economy dominated by jobs requiring analysis and soft interpersonal skills, while men’s attainment had basically plateaued since the 1970s. Already struggling with the disappearance of factory jobs, men faced a bleak future as the need for manual labor continued to vanish, the theory went. (I indulged in a bit of this thinking myself.)
There’s still plenty to be said about the difficulties American males have had finding their footing in a service-dominated economy (see, for instance, their declining workforce participation rates). But when it comes to college, at least, guys seem to be turning things around. According to new data from the Census Bureau, in 2016 the portion of men between the ages of 25 and 29 with a bachelor’s degree or more reached a new high of 32.7 percent. What’s more, this is part of a sustained rise that’s continued since 2010. Men haven’t closed the higher-ed gap with women that first opened up in the 1990s. But they have narrowed it.
This is good news. There’s a contrarian argument that says rising rates of higher education aren’t really something to celebrate as they’re just symptomatic of excessive credentialism or evaporating opportunities for less educated Americans. And yes, college grads have struggled with underemployment during the post–Great Recession era. But like it or not, we have an economy where education is the key to opportunity, and over the long term, the more men who attend college right now, the more who will have at least a shot at a decent, stable career. Insofar as people actually learn useful things in college—whether it’s hard skills like programming and accounting or softer skills like patience and long-term planning—having more people get degrees is a net positive. Plus, having a yawning gender gap in education levels simply doesn’t seem socially healthy or stable.
So maybe men aren’t quite over yet. Now we can all go back to gawking at the bonfire of white male vanity known as the Trump administration or, if you prefer, the waterfall of toxic masculinity that is Twitter. Cheers.