Superfluous Men and Women

In patriarchal cultures, women and men are required by the political economy to form family units for institutional purposes. This is very difficult on individuals when the sex ratio deviates from parity. Sometimes small communities experience this sex ratio deviance due to economic migrations, where men or women move abroad to find work, but are not able to bring their partners. And as readers of this blog will know, the US African-American community suffers disproportionately from violent policing and incarceration, which produces a kind of sex ratio deviance both from early mortality and by removing men from their communities.

Other times whole countries can experience this: for instance, as Amartya Sen has noted, China’s one child policy produced 50 million surplus men because of sex selective abortion and female infanticide. Foreign wars–which kill many young men and force many more to be absent for years at a time–can have a similar effect in creating circumstances where there are many excess women, as happened in Britain after World War I. (700,000 British men died in WWI, but that left 2 million women unpartnered.)

Marriage is not a market. Yet some basic economics can help us think through two paradigmatic ways that members of surplus sexes have experienced their excessiveness: as a desperation to find and marry one of the dwindling supply of eligible partners, and as a freedom from the demands of traditional gender roles. It’s worth noting that marriage and procreation are generally recognized as key human rights, but they are not necessarily required capabilities for human flourishing.

The disproportionately male casualties of the World Wars have produced–by necessity rather than justice–a recognition of women’s capacities. That is worth celebrating. But the century-long accommodation to those new sex ratios has been devastating to many individuals. Our societies are heteronormative and those norms do not bend to accommodate one’s available partners easily.

Today, Americans and Europeans are getting married later and later. In 1960 in the US, women got married for the first time at 20; men at 23. In 2010, the ages were 27 and 29. In 1960, 72% of adults were married; in 2010 only 51% are. (From Pew’s coverage of the 2010 census.) This is due to many trends: increasing educational attainment for both sexes, women’s labor force participation, youth unemployment, but especially increasing unemployment among prime age working men (that is, men aged 25-54.)

As the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors explained, there is a very simple explanation: reduced demand for unskilled male labor, which leads to a different kind of sex ratio deviation. There are more educated and employed women whose likely matches are unemployed or underemployed men. Our current political economy is increasingly producing a new class of surplus men and women.

I would argue that the current rise of resentful politics–especially in the embrace of Trump–is largely attributable to this feeling of pending superfluousness. It’s worth remembering that one can be surplus without feeling superfluous: all that is required is to find a new purpose. But these causes are not  always liberal or liberating.

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