SAN FRANCISCO - The recession that began in 2007 accelerated changes that had already begun to reshape the labor landscape, helping women in their quest for earnings equality while making it tougher for men to remain the family's primary bread winners.
"This has been a male recession more than a female recession," said Wesleyan University economist Joyce Jacobsen.
While the overall U.S. unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, 10 percent of men are jobless, compared with 8.4 of women, reflecting the fact that this recession hit guy-fields like construction and manufacturing harder than gal-industries such as health care and education.
Buttressing this short-term disparity are longer-term trends that favor the purse over the wallet -- more women than men are earning the college degrees that should lead to even better-paying jobs in the future. At California State University East Bay, for instance, female graduates now outnumber men 58 to 42 percent.
"This is no country for young men," said Timothy Smeeding, a public policy professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is among a growing legion of social scientists who fret about the fate of working men.
Are women poised to surpass men economically? Feminist economists, who understand the complexities of the situation, are not making predictions.
"We have this little roadblock for women," said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Studies. "We haven't figured out how to get men pregnant."
Her quip highlights the biological edge that favors men in the workplace: Many women take time off work to raise children while men continue to accumulate pay and promotions.
Occupational segregation also helps men out-earn women: Men predominate in better-paid fields, such as finance for college grads or construction for blue-collar youth; educated women tend toward less remunerative social services while those with high school skills go into fields like retail.
These two factors -- breaks to raise children and occupational segregation -- help explain why the median hourly wage for working women nationwide was 81.1 percent of the comparable wage for men in 2009, according to Alissa Anderson of the nonprofit California Budget Project.
"There is probably some residual discrimination that goes on, but the bigger issue is what happens when it is time to have kids," said Randy Albelda, a feminist economist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, adding that it's difficult to know if or when women can reach the top economically, as long as they carry the main burden of child rearing.
Among the myriad complexities in the situation is the fact that many of women's current workplace gains have been relative; women have not raced ahead economically, but have continued to crawl forward at a time when men have been pushed back.
When demographer Kristin Smith of the University of New Hampshire looked at wives' earnings as a percentage of family income, she discovered that in 2009, the ratio hit a record 47 percent, sharply higher since the recession began in 2007.
But her findings give women no reason to cheer, because working wives' median income fell from $31,041 in 2007 to $30,000 in 2009. Their greater contribution to family income occurred because their husbands' wages fell even more, from $46,562 to $42,000, during the same period.
A more positive dynamic -- at least for women -- underlies the educational gains that should fuel their future earnings potential.
"It's a worldwide phenomenon that we've seen for the last 10 to 15 years," said John Aubry Douglass with the Center for Studies in Higher Education at University of California, Berkeley. He said that 20 years ago men were the predominant college grads, whereas today women are on top.
Why? Economist Heather Boushey with the Center for American Progress tried to sleuth out why young American men seem less interested in college. Her report this month, co-authored by John Schmitt, found that over the past 30 years, the inflation-adjusted cost of attending college rose as much or more than the returns of getting the degree, and students had to take on ever more debt.
Her findings suggest that, until recently, a young man who could get a job, with benefits, in construction or manufacturing might have figured it made economic sense to start working and earning instead of borrowing and learning.
Whatever the genesis of this educational divide, young men will have to get more serious about schooling or risk falling further behind.