Monday, May 2, 2011

The Decline of the Working Man

Two new articles have appeared addressing the growing plight of the US male. The first, and the most insightful, is in The Economist: The Decline of the Working Man. The second is in Businessweek: The Hidden Job Crisis for American Men. We shall also refer back to Hanna Rosin’s article in the Atlantic: The End of Men.

The Economist provides this chart to put the issue into perspective.

The US seems to be following a general trend that is shared by other advanced economies, but the recent recession seems to have fallen harder on US men as indicated by the chart. The focus of The Economist was on the possible reasons for this.
“The main reason why fewer men are working is that sweeping structural changes in rich economies have reduced the demand for all less-skilled workers. Manufacturing has declined as a share of GDP, and productivity growth has enabled factories to produce more with fewer people. Technological advances require higher skills. For the low-skilled, low demand has meant lower wages, both relative and absolute. This in turn reduces the incentive to find a job, especially if disability payments or a working spouse provide an income.”

“Men have been hit harder than women by these shifts. They are likelier to work in manufacturing; women have been better represented in sectors, such as health care and education, where most job growth has taken place. Women have also done more than men to improve their academic credentials: in most rich countries they are likelier than men to go to university.”

“Broadly speaking, this is a common story across the rich world: in virtually all OECD countries male employment rates are lower than they were 40 years ago, and the decline in America’s rate since the 1970s is similar to others in the G7. But in America the timing has been different: the fraction of men in work has fallen especially quickly in recent years.”
It is suggested that part of the cause may be that there are few restrictions on hiring and firing in the US and companies are more ruthless in eliminating jobs during recessions. Another explanation may be that US men have simply fallen behind tending to their education. To support that notion they provide this informative chart.

Clearly it is better to have a higher level of educational attainment, but even college-educated men have seen dramatic increases in the unemployment rate. This could indicate something more fundamental is occurring in the economy. A final suggestion is that government policies, or the lack thereof might be a problem.
“Yet in the 1970s America was at the cutting edge of policies to get the hard-to-employ into work. Jimmy Carter’s administration experimented with wage subsidies, ran an array of training schemes and introduced a public employment programme which at its peak provided more than 700,000 jobs. But these policies were tainted by association with ‘big government’: Ronald Reagan scrapped them, slashed funding and reoriented training towards the private sector. America’s government today spends 60% less, after adjusting for inflation, on ‘active’ labour-market policies than in 1980, and much less as a share of GDP than almost any other rich country.”
An intense and focused training program would help—assuming there are jobs for which to train. It is not obvious that there are enough unfilled positions to justify a large scale program. It is more likely that there is a fundamental imbalance in our economy that needs to be addressed.

Although I have a hard time accepting “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin does make some good points.
“What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, and that shows up now as a drive to win on Wall Street; women are programmed to find good providers and to care for their offspring, and that is manifested in more- nurturing and more-flexible behavior, ordaining them to domesticity. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order. But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?”

“Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you. It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.”

“The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women.”
The projections of job growth over the next decade do indicate greater job growth in areas that traditionally hire women. However, the reason they are female-oriented jobs is mainly because they are low-wage jobs that have historically gone to women. The injustice of this is not today’s subject. The point to be made is that the economy seems to be producing mainly low-wage positions.

The only way to counter this trend is by massive intervention in the economy to create different types of jobs—better jobs for both men and women. And there are areas that demand massive intervention. Healthcare is one; conservation and alternate energy sources are others. The one that would be most beneficial in the context of the current topic is infrastructure. The country is falling apart and climate change is going to demand a massive response. These considerations should provide a large number of typically masculine jobs. Will this happen? It must! The increasing deficit is a problem, but so are falling bridges and rising temperatures.

A focus on infrastructure will buy men some time while they evolve towards the sensitive, communicative beasts that will be able to compete—once again— with the female of the species.

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