Fields dominated by men are among those that have seen the biggest job losses in this downturn. Yet compared with years ago, many are taking their unemployment in stride.
By Catherine Holahan
There’s a gender gap in this recession, and this time men are on the losing side of it.
The unemployment rate for men is nearly 2 full percentage points higher, at 8.8%, than the rate for women. Before the recession, the jobless rate was virtually the same for both genders: 4.5% for men and 4.6% for women in November 2007.
But now, more than two-thirds of those looking for full-time work are men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nearly 70% of the extended layoffs in the final quarter of 2008 affected men.
Men have borne the brunt of job reductions because male-dominated industries are facing the severest contractions, according to the Labor Department.
Construction: One in five workers in this field is unemployed, and more than 95% of those out of work are men, according to the department’s March employment report.
Manufacturing: That same data show that manufacturing jobs — of which nearly 80% are held by men — declined 4.5% from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of this year.
Finance: The largely male financial industry cut 260,110 jobs in 2008, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
And there are few signs that these industries are done shrinking: Just last week, banking giant UBS said it would lay off 500 financial advisers.
Meanwhile, industries with predominantly female work forces, such as health care and education, are growing. While nearly every other major industry was laying off workers, education and health services actually added about 8,000 jobs in February and March.
Reflections on the Depression era
The last time the U.S. dealt with such a large gender gap in unemployment was during the Great Depression. During that time, suicide rates for men hit an all-time high, as many unemployed men felt their sense of purpose and identity undermined by their inability to fulfill their traditional provider role. The suicide rate peaked at 17 per 100,000 population during the Depression. It is now around 11 per 100,000 and hasn’t increased in recent years.
But there’s reason to believe that men have become much more resilient about job losses. In the 70 years since the Depression, the male identity has become less tied to that of sole family provider. That’s partly due to the large number of women who help support their families. More than 40% of households now have two wage-earners.
“The idea of being a provider is the bedrock experience of American masculinity . . . but the fact that most of these men are in two-career couples will mute some of the possible depressing elements of their unemployment,” says Michael Kimmel, an author and sociologist at New York state’s Stony Brook University.
Changing attitudes toward family life and employment are also mitigating the disappointment associated with a job loss. Whereas before identity was closely tied to career or a role in the home, Kimmel says, now both men and women have a broader idea of what defines them. Jobs, family roles, hobbies and talents all now contribute to self-identity.
Today’s men are more resilient
The day Bjorn Eriksen was laid off, he went straight to a bar. A portfolio manager for Washington Mutual, Eriksen saw the cuts coming long before the official announcement in January. Still, the warning didn’t erase the shock of actually receiving the news. Eriksen, 27, hadn’t lost just a high-powered banking job. He had lost everything that went along with it: the influence, the status, the salary.
But Eriksen didn’t go to the pub to wallow in self-pity or shame. He went to talk about his newfound joblessness with other unemployed friends and former co-workers. A few days later, he found himself hanging out in a Seattle coffee shop, again chatting with other unemployed guys about their situations.
“I think some of the stigma is gone,” says Eriksen, who admits he was initially concerned that he would be viewed as a guy who couldn’t take care of himself, let alone provide for a family or take a woman out to someplace nice. “If you meet someone who is unemployed, you have something to immediately talk about. . . . It’s almost like a little club.”