Business

Young men falling to the bottom of the income ladder

Billy Exavier sat in a math class at Charlestown Adult Education, where he is taking classes to get his GED. Exavier, a security guard, hopes to become a police officer.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Billy Exavier sat in a math class at Charlestown Adult Education, where he is taking classes to get his GED. Exavier, a security guard, hopes to become a police officer.

Over the past few decades, young women have been climbing the economic ladder. As more of them go to college and join the workforce, their incomes rise steadily.

Young men have been faring far worse.

The share of young men making between $30,000 and $100,000 a year shrank significantly over the past four decades, despite the fact that they are better educated and working full time at the same rate. Many of them have fallen to the bottom of the income scale, according to a new analysisby the US Census Bureau, and this shift is having a major impact on the rest of their lives.

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The loss of blue-collar jobs, many of which are now performed by machines or by workers overseas, is forcing more men into low-wage service jobs, and in some cases causing them to drop out of the workforce altogether.

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The jobs that are growing the fastest, on the other hand, are concentrated in female-dominated professions, such as health care.

Men have also fallen behind academically, and, combined with the fact that manufacturing and other lower-skilled jobs have disappeared, this has created a “riptide that is carrying so many young men out to sea economically,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a workforce development nonprofit.

The increasingly fractured economy is affecting workers of all ages. Wages have stagnated, while the cost of living and student debt have skyrocketed, and college graduates are taking lower-level jobs than in the past. But men are being hit particularly hard, as many of them are forced to take contract or part-time work.

“ ‘How many hours are you getting?’ I hear that all the time,” Sullivan said, noting that the falling fortunes of men could have a profound psychological impact on them. “It’s hard when society expects you to be a provider and you can’t bring home much.”

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Many young men — defined by the Census Bureau as ages 25 to 34 — are starting out their working lives at a distinct disadvantage, compared with previous generations. And as more of them live at home and delay marriage, young adulthood has started looking much different than it used to.

“This has an effect on their entire lives,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, who recently coauthored a report on new high school and college graduates. “Those first jobs are going to set you up for your lifetime of earnings.”

Billy Exavier, 31, makes $13 an hour working as a security guard at Best Buy in Everett and lives with his parents and little brothers in Brighton. Exavier, who moved to Boston with his family from Haiti as a teenager, dreams of becoming a police officer. He is working on earning his high school equivalency degree and is close to finishing an associate’s degree in criminal justice at Bunker Hill Community College.

Despite Exavier’s efforts to improve his life, he is not confident all will go as planned. So he’s already working on a backup plan: getting his commercial driver’s license so he can drive a school bus or a delivery truck.

“I was thinking I would be in a better place by now,” he said.

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Although young women’s median income has risen, while men’s has declined, women still make less than men overall. That is despite the fact the education levels of young women are also rising.

In Massachusetts, the high school graduation rate is 85 percent for boys and 90 percent for girls; the six-year completion rate at public colleges is 63 percent for women and less than 58 percent for men.

William Chen, 26, makes $125 a day installing hardwood floors for a private contractor. He works five or six days a week during the spring and summer but had to take a job as a manager at McDonald’s to get through the winter. Chen, who lives in Malden with his girlfriend and a roommate, is trying to get a plumbing apprenticeship and wants to go back to school for “whatever I can get a career out of and make decent money.” But he’s not overly optimistic . “If I think too far ahead, I get frustrated,” he said.

Downturns tend to hit men harder, largely due to the fact that more men work in industries that suffer during recessions, such as construction and manufacturing, and the effects have lingered.

During the most recent recession, the number of male high school graduates (age 17-20) considered “idle,” not employed or enrolled in school, surpassed that of women and has remained higher, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Among high school graduates in 1990, 11.2 percent of males and 16 percent of females were idle, compared with 15.5 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively, earlier this year.

Even men with college degrees are less successful than they used to be. The unemployment rate for recent male college graduates (age 21-24) is 7.1 percent, up from 4.1 percent in 2000. Recent female college graduates, however, have made a full recovery, back to the 4.4 percent unemployment rate they had in 2000.

In Boston, women who graduated from college in the past two years are finding jobs more quickly than their male counterparts, are more likely to be employed full time, and are earning higher salaries, according to a new study by the professional services company Accenture. Nearly 40 percent of female graduates are making more than $40,000 a year, vs. just 16 percent of male grads.

Women are benefiting from the fact that many of the fastest-growing jobs that pay stable middle-class wages are in industries that employ a lot of women, such as health care and professional services. Men are often reluctant to take jobs in these professions, said Harvard economics professor Lawrence Katz, and the result is a “gender divergence” between men’s expectations of fulfilling occupations and the types of jobs that are growing.

One bright spot for men between the ages of 25 and 34: more of them — nearly 8 percent — earn more than $100,000 a year, up from just more than 3 percent in 1975, as more attend college and snag high-paying jobs at financial firms and tech companies. But with the drastic rise in the number of male low-wage earners, and the steep decline of those in the middle-income bracket, the divide between the haves and the have-nots keeps growing.

“People from elite colleges moving to Wall Street and top law firms and to tech companies are doing perfectly fine, in fact they’re doing much better than comparable people in their parents’ generation,” Katz said. “But for the typical young man, they’re doing substantially worse economically than their father.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.