Father’s Day Lessons

As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, those on the presidential campaign trail may want to take note of some surprising changes that have occurred in American society over the past generation. On this Father’s Day, maybe it’s “the old man” who should be giving gifts to his son – or at least showing some appreciation for the fact that today’s young adults are struggling to support their families. It’s not as easy as it was in “the good old days” of the 1970s.

Suppose you are a young man in your thirties thinking about how you are doing compared to what life was like for your father at the same age – that is, back in the mid-1970s. While individual experiences will obviously vary, a recent analysis done at Brookings and released by The Pew Charitable Trusts, shows that, on average, young men in their thirties actually have lower incomes, after adjusting for inflation, than their father’s generation did at the same age.

What could account for this decline in earnings across the two generations? One possibility is that young men are working somewhat fewer hours than their fathers did. Some may still be in school or in the early stages of their careers. With education being increasingly important for success in today’s economy, it may make sense to get as much education as possible, thereby increasing one’s eventual earning power but at the cost of a slower start on one’s career.

A second possibility is that men’s earnings have been held down by greater competition from women and from the influx of less skilled immigrants into the work force in recent years. There isn’t strong evidence that either of these factors has played a major role, but they have probably had some impact.

A final explanation centers on the fact that the economy did not grow as rapidly in the last 30 years as it did in the decades following World War II. The up-escalator that has historically assured that each generation would do better than the last one has slowed. Even more importantly, whatever growth we have had has not been broadly shared. Some men have hit the jackpot and are doing very well, but most are not. Family incomes have continued to rise, albeit modestly, but only because more families now have two earners.

What to do?