In New South, old Bubbas getting passed by Bubbettes

Southern males' job skills are less in demand, while women don white collars

January 31, 1999|By Bill Bishop

"I got all my country learnin' milkin' and a churnin', pickin' cotton, raisin' hell and bailin' hay." -- Singer Billy Joe Shaver

POOR OLD BUBBA. He's in a heap of hurt. The TV boys canceled "Dukes of Hazzard," and now there's nothing to watch except shows about a scrawny female lawyer and city kids who don't have jobs and, for fun, drink coffee. Sure, there's wrestling on cable, but the plot is no better than "Baywatch" -- all meat and no potatoes.

Now Bubba-land, the South, is no longer the South -- at least not in the ways that count to Bubba. You can see that in the latest edition of "The State of the South," an every-once-in-a-while report on the region from a research group in North Carolina. According to "The State of the South," the days when Bubba ruled a region built on rototillers and fresh tomatoes, feed-store caps and shirt-sleeve tans, hard work and a meat-and-three are darn near over.

This is the second "State of the South" produced by MDC Inc. The first appeared two years ago. And what this review says is that the South is becoming more urban, more diverse, more dependent on brain than brawn.

And it says that Bubba, the region's undereducated male, is the South's most endangered species.

The new South is extraordinarily urban. Seven out of 10 Southerners live in metro areas. The poor cousins of the South -- Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia -- are the only four Southern states to have more people living in rural areas than cities. Bubba might park his S-10 for the night on the farm, but he earns the gravy for his biscuits in the city.

Once Bubba gets to work, his troubles really begin. Southern men excel at jobs that are disappearing, according to "The State of the South." Unskilled labor, farmers, factory operatives and production crafts are jobs that are less important in the South. They are also jobs that Bubba dominates. "Son, you are in a world of trouble," says "The State of the South." Those are words Bubba had better understand.

Meanwhile, Bubba -- black or white -- is not working. A smaller percentage of men of working age (24 to 65) are on the job today than in 1996. The level of education doesn't matter. In every category, Bubba is off the payroll. "It is striking -- and disturbing -- that so many Southern men, and particularly black men, are not working," reports "The State of the South."

And Bubba's paycheck is shrinking. From 1976 to 1996, a white man with a college degree saw his real earnings drop by 7.7 percent. Education still makes a huge difference in earnings and work. Bubba still makes more than his black or female colleague. But his advantage is waning.

On the rise is Bubbette, the Southern woman. While men are stuck in jobs with little future (factory work and unskilled labor), women are wearing white collars. There are more women than men in professional-technical jobs in the South. That wasn't true 20 years ago. And the number of women in executive or administrative jobs, while lagging behind Bubba, is up more than five times since 1976.

There are reasons for Ms. Bubba's success. She's been working, and she's been learning. "The State of the South" reports that by "fall 1997, university systems in every Southern state enrolled more women than men -- roughly 55 percent to 45 percent." (That gap has been widening for at least the last 10 years.) The numbers in community college are more tilted in favor of women. Kentucky's community colleges, in fact, have the highest percentage of women students (65 percent) in the South.

While men as a percentage of the work force are declining, women are increasingly seeking employment. The only place Bubba seems to lead is in swelling the South's prison population.

Economist magazine noted recently, "Apart from being more violent, more prone to disease and more likely to succumb to drugs, bad diet or suicide -- more socially undesirable from almost every point of view -- men, it seems, are also slightly more stupid than women."

Poor old Bubba. All he did to deserve this fate was to remain utterly the same.

Bill Bishop is editorial-page columnist for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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