Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Mancession

That is how the MRA sites describe this recession, because the unemployment has hit construction and manufacturing, traditionally male fields, hardest of all. Now Don Peck has written the mainstream equivalent of the mancession argument in the Atlantic Monthly.

He writes with great empathy and with great emotional force of the horrible consequences of blue-collar male unemployment. These are, perhaps surprisingly, hardly at all about the lost income. Instead, working-class men will be psychologically crushed, perhaps never to recover, marriages will be dissolved (because both men and women agree that a man's worth is in the money he brings home), domestic violence will rise and previously vibrant and strong white working-class communities will begin to look like black inner-city ghettos (yes, he does say that). Children will suffer when marriages fail. Working-class men will become valueless serial daters. And so on. Here's what Mr. Peck bemoans:

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who've suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008. Male-dominated industries (construction, finance, manufacturing) have been particularly hard-hit, while sectors that disproportionately employ women (education, health care) have held up relatively well. In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within the next few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country's jobs.

In this respect, the recession has merely intensified a long-standing trend. Broadly speaking, the service sector, which employs relatively more women, is growing, while manufacturing, which employs relatively more men, is shrinking. The net result is that men have been contributing a smaller and smaller share of family income.

"Traditional" marriages, in which men engage in paid work and women in homemaking, have long been in eclipse. Particularly in blue-collar families, where many husbands and wives work staggered shifts, men routinely handle a lot of the child care today. Still, the ease with which gender bends in modern marriages should not be overestimated. When men stop doing paid work—and even when they work less than their wives—marital conflict usually follows.

Last March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline received almost half again as many calls as it had one year earlier; as was the case in the Depression, unemployed men are vastly more likely to beat their wives or children. More common than violence, though, is a sort of passive-aggressiveness. In Identity Economics, the economists George Akerloff and Rachel Kranton find that among married couples, men who aren't working at all, despite their free time, do only 37 percent of the housework, on average. And some men, apparently in an effort to guard their masculinity, actually do less housework after becoming unemployed.

Many working women struggle with the idea of partners who aren't breadwinners. "We've got this image of Archie Bunker sitting at home, grumbling and acting out," says Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and an expert on family life. "And that does happen. But you also have women in whole communities thinking, 'This guy's nothing.'" Edin's research in low-income communities shows, for instance, that most working women whose partner stayed home to watch the kids—while very happy with the quality of child care their children's father provided—were dissatisfied with their relationship overall. "These relationships were often filled with conflict," Edin told me. Even today, she says, men's identities are far more defined by their work than women's, and both men and women become extremely uncomfortable when men's work goes away.

It's hard not to touched by all the suffering and grief in Mr. Peck's story. But it's also not hard to think that had this recession been a womancession, Mr. Peck wouldn't have written anything at all. After all, he states:

In her classic sociology of the Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, Mirra Komarovsky vividly describes how joblessness strained—and in many cases fundamentally altered—family relationships in the 1930s. During 1935 and 1936, Komarovsky and her research team interviewed the members of 59 white middle-class families in which the husband and father had been out of work for at least a year. Her research revealed deep psychological wounds. "It is awful to be old and discarded at 40," said one father. "A man is not a man without work." Another said plainly, "During the depression I lost something. Maybe you call it self-respect, but in losing it I also lost the respect of my children, and I am afraid I am losing my wife." Noted one woman of her husband, "I still love him, but he doesn't seem as 'big' a man."

Taken together, the stories paint a picture of diminished men, bereft of familial authority. Household power—over children, spending, and daily decisions of all types—generally shifted to wives over time (and some women were happier overall as a result). Amid general anxiety, fears of pregnancy, and men's loss of self-worth and loss of respect from their wives, sex lives withered. Socializing all but ceased as well, a casualty of poverty and embarrassment. Although some men embraced family life and drew their wife and children closer, most became distant. Children described their father as "mean," "nasty," or "bossy," and didn't want to bring friends around, for fear of what he might say. "There was less physical violence towards the wife than towards the child," Komarovsky wrote.

In the 70 years that have passed since the publication of The Unemployed Man and His Family, American society has become vastly more wealthy, and a more comprehensive social safety net—however frayed it may seem—now stretches beneath it. Two-earner households have become the norm, cushioning the economic blow of many layoffs. And of course, relationships between men and women have evolved. Yet when read today, large parts of Komarovsky's book still seem disconcertingly up-to-date. All available evidence suggests that long bouts of unemployment—particularly male unemployment—still enfeeble the jobless and warp their families to a similar degree, and in many of the same ways.

There you have it. I wish the story didn't touch me quite so much, because I hate to go on to talk about numbers but that I must. Note that reference earlier in the long quote:

In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948.

Such a number may well have been posted somewhere. But my most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics tables tell me that the unemployment rate of men 25-54 in November 2009 equaled 10.2%, not 19.4%. January 2010 had that number at 9.4%. Not good, but about half of the number in Mr. Peck's article.

The same source tells me that the overall unemployment rate for married men in November 2010 (presumably when he was writing his piece) was 7.5%, and that for married women 5.8%. The corresponding January 2010 numbers were 6.6.% and 5.8%.

Now, it's quite possible that some sub-groups of married men have much higher unemployment statistics. But in general the groups with the highest rates are the unmarried men and women. To then focus so much of the article on married men seems odd.

What is also odd is the long anecdote about a financial analyst at a hospital who lost his job:

Over lunch I spoke with one attendee, Gus Poulos, a Vietnam-era veteran who had begun his career as a refrigeration mechanic before going to night school and becoming an accountant. He is trim and powerfully built, and looks much younger than his 59 years. For seven years, until he was laid off in December 2008, he was a senior financial analyst for a local hospital.

Poulos said that his frustration had built and built over the past year. "You apply for so many jobs and just never hear anything," he told me. "You're one of my few interviews. I'm just glad to have an interview with anybody, even a magazine." Poulos said he was an optimist by nature, and had always believed that with preparation and hard work, he could overcome whatever life threw at him. But sometime in the past year, he'd lost that sense, and at times he felt aimless and adrift. "That's never been who I am," he said. "But now, it's who I am."

Recently he'd gotten a part-time job as a cashier at Walmart, for $8.50 an hour. "They say, 'Do you want it?' And in my head, I thought, 'No.' And I raised my hand and said, 'Yes.'" Poulos and his wife met when they were both working as supermarket cashiers, four decades earlier—it had been one of his first jobs. "Now, here I am again."

Financial analysts are not blue-collar workers. The unemployment rate for the category of management, business and financial operations in January 2010 equaled 5.0%. Why didn't Mr. Peck find someone for this anecdote who had worked in construction and extraction, with a January 2010 unemployment rate of 24.6%? Why was this anecdote used at all when it does not pertain to Mr. Peck's apparent thesis?

Probably because it does pertain to his real thesis which is about the emasculation of men on various levels?
Thanks to Martha Bridegam for the link to the article and for the point that Peck worries about white male unemployment, not about male unemployment.