Men Not at Work

EVERYBODY knows that women are working more. It comes as a surprise, if not a shock, to learn that men are working less - that the traditional breadwinners are bringing home a shrinking share of the bread on the family table.

During the 1970s, almost 80 percent of the males between the ages of 22 and 58 were fully employed year-around. Within a decade, that robust figure dropped by almost 10 percentage points.

How come the one-time American provider is providing less? Other statistics seem to point in the opposite direction. Unemployment has fallen below 6 percent. Overtime has reached a record high. The second (or third) job is becoming a way of life.

The answer is that while better-educated, better-trained men are working more than ever, the unskilled high school dropout has never had it so bad. The wages and benefits of blue-collar workers have fallen by 20 percent in the last decade and a half. To a dismaying extent, the well-paid factory positions that let a workingman live like a member of the middle class just aren't there any more. The millions of new jobs created as smokestacks cooled and assembly lines fell silent are very different from the jobs that have gone.

Nonwhite males, as the government classifies them, have been particularly hurt - 73 percent worked full-time during the 1970s, but only 51 percent in the '80s.

At this point, terms like the ``underclass'' insinuate themselves into the discourse - restrictive terms repellent to the American dream, the noble concept that all men and women are owed the opportunity to rise as far as individual ability, determination, and energy can take them.

What will save these people from being marginalized? The answer is hardly a mystery. Leaders from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Labor Secretary Robert Reich have long been shouting the refrain: education, and more education, including technical training.

But has the message really come through, not only as a demand, but as an invitation to the workers to expand their scope? The marketplace challenge need not be a threat. The premise of education is that a higher human being is waiting to be fulfilled in his or her life's work, making that work more than just a job. Taken positively, the demand - the invitation of the '90s for more knowledge and more skills - can mean fuller employment in every sense of the term.

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