The after-effects of war

This page draws your attention to some curiosities in worldwide data which suggest a dramatic, long-term after effect of major global conflict – primarily damaging to men. I first noticed this in the imprisonment rate for men in England & Wales, see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Numbers of men and women in prison in England & Wales, from 1900 to 2013 (click to enlarge)

Prison Population to 2013

The increase in male incarceration started in about 1945, at the end of World War 2 in Europe. Male imprisonment is likely to be an indication of underlying disadvantage, particularly as regards employment – which in turn may be expected to be related to educational disadvantage. My curiosity was therefore roused further when I noticed Figure 2, below. This shows the attainment of degrees by males and females since year 1896 (averaged over OECD countries). The data are taken from the OECD report The ABC of Gender Equality in Education.

Figure 2: Percentage of men and women obtaining degrees, averaged over OECD countries, since 1896 (click to enlarge)

OECD trend degrees

The number of men acquiring degrees flat-lined abruptly in about 1945, the end of WW2 in Europe. Women were not affected, their increasing rate of degree attainment continuing uninterrupted. It is possible to read into this the root cause of women overtaking men in degree attainment in OECD countries. Although this did not happen until the 1960s, the graph suggests that, nevertheless, this may be a delayed effect of WW2.

So far this is, admittedly, rather wild speculation based on little evidence. I decided it was worth posting these observations only when I saw another curious phenomenon in USA educational data. Figures 3 and 4 below are taken from Wayward Sons: The emerging gender gap in labor markets and education. They show the fraction of the cohort with college level education against year of birth. The graphs show a reversal in male college attendance and degree attainment starting in year-of-birth 1949 or so.

Recall that the Vietnam war reached its deadly peak in 1968 (the year of hippies and love and peace, man). Notoriously most US service men who were killed in Vietnam were just 19 years old (and hence unable to vote at that time). Hence, the median year of birth of US dead would be around 1949. It is tempting, then, to attribute the catastrophic fall in US male college education shown in Figures 3 and 4 to have resulted from the Vietnam war. About 58,000 US men were killed, and there were a further  154,000 casualties. However, millions of young US men were drafted and it requires no imagination to see that this would interfere with their education, perhaps permanently after the trauma of war.

Figure 3: Percent of Adults with Some College Education by Age 35

US college attendance v birth year

Figure 4: Percent of Adults with Four-Year College Degree by Age 35

US degree attainment v birth year

It is not surprising that war would interrupt men’s education. The surprising thing is how long lived is the effect. Ultimately other social changes will have added to the effects of these wars. But it is clear that the effect of war itself on male education is huge and long lasting. Given the other disadvantages consequent upon educational under-attainment, one sees that it is not only the physical casualties of war who are the casualties of war.

Related links (open in this tab)