I've had some conversations with people lately that have got me thinking: It's pretty hard for young people to get a start in life these days. It seems to me that it has to do with the nature of production in today's economy. Machinery has greatly reduced the need for human muscle power, and information technology has greatly reduced the need for jobs that have a routine intellectual aspect. Technological change has hollowed out certain sections of the labor force-- first agriculture, then to some extent manufacturing, and now maybe clerical work and middle management. That doesn't mean there are no jobs, but it seems to me that the jobs that are left more than ever involve a high degree of... well, it's hard to say what exactly. Human capital? Yes, but not just human capital in the sense of education or specific skills, and it's hard to say in what the human capital really consists. Social capital? Yes, and that's even less well understood. It consists partly in "making a name" for yourself: you not only have to be good, but you have to be known to be good, and while that was always true I suppose, the types of things you have to be known to be good at are subtler than in the past. In the industrial era, labor was commoditized: any warm body could do routine factory tasks, and supervision was easy, too. Now the opposite seems to be happening: labor is become more impalpable and abstract, and more difficult to cover by contract.
Which brings me back to where I started: it's difficult for young people to get a start in life. It's hard for them to understand the nature of the economy, first of all, and then working one's way into the right social networks, picking up not just the knowledge but the value systems, making the right impressions, simply takes time, probably years. A Bachelor's degree, even from a good school, might leave you working at Starbucks; I hear again and again that you need a Master's these days. That typically involves going into a lot of debt, at a time when you have only the dimmest idea what the job markets are like on the other end. Your earnings trajectory will be unpredictable; career advancement may require unpaid work, internships and whatnot, as well as school of course. Your availability can't necessarily be restricted to 40 hours a week. Of course, this is the career path to relatively prestigious jobs, where incomes are a large multiple of the bare necessities. You don't need those jobs just to get by, unless you have a lot of student loans. But you might need them to support a family.
So, what about family, and marriage? Here there is a difference between men and women. Men can afford to wait to marry more than women can. Biologically, men remain potent much longer than women remain fertile. Presumably because of this (albeit by subconscious channels) men tend to be attracted to younger women, women to somewhat older men. Of course these tastes are also culturally conditioned, but they have a sound biological basis. If it's necessary to get a Bachelor's and a Master's and do internships etc. before one can really get established in a solid career, a man might be in his late 20s or early 30s. That age doesn't narrow his marriage prospects much. For a woman, however-- I'm no gynecologist, but see here, or here-- pregnancy becomes more difficult and riskier after 35. So if women want to do Bachelor's and Master's and then get married and have two or three kids the timing starts to become a little tight.
So here's my modest proposal. A shrewd response to the evolution of production and career trajectories might be stronger gender role differentiation. Men could take their time, getting advanced degrees and trying adventurous, experimental internships and jobs, gradually developing skills and networks and interests, making their names, getting established, and start thinking about marriage around 30 to 35. Women could think about marriage and children much earlier, say 20 to 25. The implicit price of their time would be relatively low when they were engaged in the very important but often tedious and certainly not especially skill-intensive tasks of caring for young babies. Women would generally not get advanced degrees before marriage and childbirth, but they might pursue them later, probably in a more casual and intermittent fashion, to the extent that babysitting pools and day cares and other arrangements could free up some of their time. By their 40s and 50s, with teenage children or as empty-nesters, women could pursue careers more aggressively, working full-time etc., and would still have two or three decades to fulfill career dreams, if they were so inclined, before retirement at 65 or 75.
Since the 1960s or so, there has been a tendency to be more egalitarian in gender roles, and within marriage specifically. My modest proposal would reverse this trend as far as marriages are concerned. With a ten-year difference in life experience between husbands and wives, there could certainly be courtesy and mutual respect between spouses, but hardly equality. One might even say that the inequality was in the women's favor, just as, if a 30-year-old manages to win a place on a Board of Directors whose other members are over 50, his youth, if anything, makes him rather more impressive than his colleagues. But as husbands would have far more experience and knowledge of the world than their wives, marital relations would presumably not be quite on an equal footing.
Now, I am being partly facetious here. I am suggesting that there is an economic case for a change in social norms along these lines, but it may turn out, on closer examination, not to be a strong one. And it's quite possible that marital partners would simply not enjoy such a marriage: a 23-year-old girl, for example, might simply not be attracted to 32-year-old guys. But put that to one side. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the proposed change in social norms would make it easier for young people to get a start in life, reduce their anxieties and financial difficulties, give rise to more stable and fertile marriages, and help men and women both to have more satisfying careers over the life-cycle.
Here's my question: Would it somehow be morally wrong to promote stronger gender role differentiation, if it were economically efficient to do so? I have a feeling that my modest proposal would be horrifying to feminists, not so much because of any objection to my practical arguments, but precisely for moral reasons. It would seem unjust. Is this objection valid, or not? If so, why? What is the broader meta-ethics in which it could be best understood?