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If you’re an American man you’re more likely to be unemployed than your female counterparts. Today more than 4.3 million Americans are considered “long-term unemployed” — out of work for more than 27 weeks. Fifty-six percent of them are men. The Great Recession emasculated generations of men, displacing many of them from the labor force and undermining their financial security. The effects may be felt for decades.
But does that mean the end of men and the rise of women, as author Hanna Rosin has suggested? Not quite. Male unemployment hasn’t come at the expense of women’s success; it reflects deeper structural changes felt by everyone. Technology and globalization has rendered many better-paying jobs, traditionally held by men, obsolete. Both men and women have the potential to thrive, but in order for that to happen we need policy that complements the modern labor market — rather than hold it back.
Even before the 2008 recession, male labor force participation had been declining while more women went to work. This trend was heightened early in the recession because men experienced the brunt of unemployment, losing jobs in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. These jobs disappear more rapidly during recessions, when weaker firms need to shed workers.
But as the recession wore on, more unemployed men found jobs or left the workforce, and the male/female unemployment rates almost equalized. Today, male unemployment is only slightly higher than it is for women, although the lower unemployment rate masks the fact that many men, especially men older than 55, left the labor force because they couldn’t find work. The unemployment rate also doesn’t tell us how many men took lower paid or part-time jobs because they couldn’t find anything else.
What happened to men’s jobs during the recession reflects a long-term trend of middle-skill jobs, in industries like manufacturing, disappearing from the economy. They don’t come back as the economy recovers, which explains, in part, why unemployment persisted as the economy recovered.
Rosin, in her 2012 book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” argues that these external factors are changing the job market in a way that will ultimately favor women. She believes that the jobs that can’t be outsourced or replaced by machines, like teaching or healthcare services, reward skills innate to women — like communication and empathy.
But if it were that simple, women would be paid more than men, because the labor market rewards people with better skills. Yet women are still paid less — a mere 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, as President Obama recently pointed out. Women have always been paid less than men, though that gap in pay has been narrowing since the sexual revolution, when more women went to work. But starting in the 1990s, the convergence in male/female pay began to slow, leading economists to worry that women will always be paid less.
Rosin believes this wage gap is because of persistent discrimination. But even if we eliminated all gender discrimination, women would still be paid less than men. The wage difference is largely due to the fact that women tend to work in lower-paid industries and occupations, like home health aides or nursing. Taking time off or working part-time, which women often do to care for their families, cripples income and earning potential. Even if all the male construction workers became health aides, men would still be paid more because they are more likely to remain in the job market without any breaks to employment. It’s hard to argue that women are overtaking men or that they ever will.
But we still need to worry about future of men — especially men under 35. Gaining the skills necessary to thrive in the modern labor market requires education and on-the-job training early in one’s career. Men are less likely to be enrolled in school (including high school and post-secondary) than women. That means eventually, more women will have attended college than men, which has never been true before in America. So even if men have the potential to thrive, they might struggle because they are less educated.
Young men, displaced by the recession, are also missing out on the crucial on-the-job training that happens early in one’s career. Throughout the recession, young men had much higher rates of unemployment than older men.
If young people are missing out on skill development, they will earn lower wages for decades. Combine that with less education, and young men, in particular, face a precarious future. Policy must do more to address youth unemployment and education for both genders. Monetary policies like a near-zero federal funds rate and quantitative easing, the primary tools we’ve used so far, are too blunt and ineffective to address the needs of young workers.
It would be more effective to target them directly, through education and jobs that give them the training they need. In his State of the Union, President Obama outlined an initiative to encourage apprenticeships and vocational training for both genders. Details are still uncertain, but it’s a promising start.
Yet even the best program may be undermined by the way compensation is structured in America. Employer benefits, especially healthcare, are expensive to provide. The cost of benefits might exceed the value of a young, unskilled worker’s labor. The employer mandate (which is part of healthcare reform, but its implementation has been continuously delayed) may discourage hiring young workers who need training because it requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide healthcare to full-time employees.
A better policy would separate employment from healthcare by eliminating the mandate and the tax-exempt status of employer healthcare benefits. Those measures would go a long way to build a functioning individual market and break the tie between employment and healthcare. This would encourage employers to take on young men — and women — who need training.
Both men and women can succeed as the economy changes. What’s happened to men during the recession highlights a worrying trend, but it does not mean men will be marginalized. It should be a call to action to improve training and enact policy that promotes a dynamic, fluid labor market.
Allison Schrager is a writer and economist. She worked in finance where she created new, individual pension account investment strategies. She has written for the Economist, Quartz and National Review and has a PhD in economics from Columbia.
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