The Sexism of the Recession

While lamenting alleged sexism in the workplace for decades, the media have remained strangely quiet about the gender-specific impact of the recession that began in 2008. According a cover story in The Atlantic by Don Peck, the job losses of the past two years has turned into what others call a “he-cession,” which the deputy managing editor fears does not bode well for the future of marriage, the family, and society.

“The weight of this recession,” observes Peck, “has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered 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 statistics in 1948. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within a few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country’s jobs.”

Peck believes that Mirra Komarovsky’s account of the Great Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, is remarkably applicable 70 years later, as her interviews with out-of-work husbands and fathers “paint a picture of diminished men, bereft of familial authority.” The observation of one unemployed man quoted by the sociologist—that would never be said of a woman then or now—says it all: “A man is not a man without work.”

Given that most married men work to support wives and children, their loss of jobs is more catastrophic than job losses among women, whose families depend less, on average, on their income. Unlike other observers, Peck sees the social dimension of the current recession. If job losses among men are not reversed, he projects higher rates of divorce in the next few years, even as the divorce rate fell slightly in 2008. He thinks the observation of sociologist Brad Wilcox, “If men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer,” gives wives—who initiate two-thirds of divorces—greater reason to dump their man.

As the working class is prone to family breakup more than the college-educated, the social impact of prolonged levels of male unemployment could be a disaster as well, as working-class neighborhoods take on the characteristics of the inner city, where “large numbers of unmarried men take on an unsavory character over time.”

If Peck is right, his account is a wake-up call for policymakers, especially after a generation of affirmative action for college-educated women, to think about ways to enhance job opportunities and earnings of breadwinning husbands, especially those without college credentials.

(Don Peck, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” The Atlantic, March 2010, pp. 42–56.)