Dear Educated Women, Blue-Collar Men Can Earn Great Livings

It’s worth remembering, if you’re looking for a husband or partner.

This commentary appeared at on January 17, 2019.

The U.S economy is aching for many more highly skilled, technically trained people. But what if men end up limiting their eventual marriage prospects if they pursue careers in the trades or other jobs that don’t require a four-year degree? Some proportion of women who have bachelor’s and post-baccalaureate degrees avoid romantic involvements with such guys, holding out for those with B.A.s, M.B.A.s, or J.D.s. Which is to say, they seek potential husbands who have degrees that are more generally esteemed than those earned in a year or two. Same with the kinds of training acquired via apprenticeships or in the armed forces.

This is a vital matter because young men who enjoy working with their hands might choose not to pursue careers in construction and manufacturing (among other fields), for fear that women will dismiss them out of hand as life partners.

American economic growth and prosperity are already constrained by our having too few skilled men and women in technical occupations. This problem threatens to grow worse as highly skilled Baby Boomers continue to retire at rapid rates — 10,000 a day, by one estimate — while they are not succeeded by enough younger people who are sufficiently trained.

But do women with more-advanced degrees really steer clear of men in the trades and similar fields? Do they really give men with an A.A.S. degree, or who have pursued apprenticeships or learned jobs in the military, so little chance? Perhaps that’s not the case.

While some women with B.A.s and additional degrees avoid “marrying down” educationally, others will nonetheless do so out of necessity, because women overall are earning more degrees of various kinds than men. This is true not only in the United States but also in much of Europe and elsewhere I address complexities such as these in my soon-to-be-released book, Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, for which I interviewed about 80 diverse (albeit not scientifically selected) men and women. A blunt question I asked most of them was whether they thought women with at least a bachelor’s degree were as likely to become romantically interested in blue-collar men as men who wear button-downs.

In my book, I urge young people to at least consider education routes other than four-year degrees. But, by so urging, might I be complicit in curtailing marriage opportunities if many college women view non-college men as unsuitable mates? Again, it’s imperative for individual, economic, and societal reasons that young men not be dissuaded from entering the trades and similar jobs. Interviewee answers were all over the place. Not everyone saw the mating dances of men and women of disparate education backgrounds as potentially problematic.

Explaining why they envisioned mostly starry days ahead, some of the interviewees noted that “money talks,” a locution used more than once. They observed that men with two-year degrees and shorter-length certificates in the trades and other fields often make more money than women (and men) with baccalaureate and advanced degrees. Financial facts of life such as these lead to socioeconomically mixed marriages and will continue doing so. Or so went the argument.

A construction executive told me:

I think it depends on whether she perceives he’s going to be able to make some dough. And if she thinks he can make some good money in this business, I don’t think [their different education histories] are going to matter. I think it’s a question of whether she understands that this guy, who’s a plumber, is going to yank down a hundred G’s a year, or 90 or 80, and have a pretty good life.

Of a different mind thematically was a professor who had been married to a woman who hadn’t gone to college. “We were fine through my time as an undergraduate, but she had no capacity to understand much of what was going on in my life when I was in graduate school. We became estranged and eventually divorced.” The social distance had grown too big.

Then there was the morning I interviewed a roundtable of five impressive young women, all graduates of an elite private high school and starting their sophomore years at five excellent universities across the country. It was hard to miss their discomfort and to-and-froing when I asked whether they could imagine themselves, after finishing college, marrying someone with substantially less education than theirs. One of the women, who hopes to be an architect, said:

I think I would probably be more likely to marry someone with a college degree. Not necessarily because of anything intellectual, but simply because I’ll be interacting with them at school.

I followed up by asking, “So let’s say you’ve finished school, and you’re a full-fledged architect. You’re 30, you’re doing well, and you meet a guy you really like but he’s a carpenter.”

“I might be less inclined to know him well,” she said. “I would like to say that wouldn’t be the case, but . . . ” Her voice faded.

Questions and answers like these were based on informed speculation, both mine and interviewees’. But what might quantitative research suggest? The following nuggets are pulled from the Institute for Family Studies’ website and from a 2018 sociology review by a trio of academics at Belgian, Spanish, and American universities, “The Reversal of the Gender Gaps in Education and Its Consequences for Family Life.”

  • “The pattern of the husband marrying up educationally is more pronounced among newlyweds. In 2015, 32% of newlywed women married a spouse whose education level was lower than theirs. In contrast, 20% of newlywed men married a spouse with less education.”
  • “What remains clear from recent studies is that women still tend to prefer partners with good economic prospects (and men increasingly do too).”
  • “Thus, while women no longer tend to marry up in education, they still do in terms of earnings.”
  • “With delayed marriage, individuals increasingly use income rather than education as the main marker of potential partners’ economic prospects.”

These empirical findings partially allay concerns that huge numbers of women are reflexively rejecting the lesser-educated men. Perhaps, the research suggests, women are more open-minded than often assumed when it comes to the prospect of partnership and marriage. If that’s the case, good — marriage in the United States is troubled enough without the denigration of important, satisfying, and often remunerative jobs and the solid careers they lead to.

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and senior fellow at Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.