In February of 2009, as news broke that a greater percentage of the paid American workforce was now female than male, in some quarters there was a tiny, fleeting sense of victory as another tradition was broken. But such a celebration can only be abstract and very, very hollow. We must always remember that men and women are supposed to be on the Same Team, notwithstanding all the rhetoric of the ‘battle of the sexes’! When one group suffers, the other group inevitably suffers too. So, when it comes to relations between the sexes, really there is no place for talk – or thought – of victory.
The male face of the current Financial Crisis is unusual among the more recent recessions of the past half-century. According to an article in the NYT, “a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men“. That is incredible! The days of bread lines and rail car hobos of the Great Depression were the last time we saw huge numbers of men basically ejected from the social fabric of the nation. This recession, however, is the first time we’ve seen men differentially affected. Men’s dominance of the construction, finance, and manufacturing sectors means they’ve been the ones hardest hit. Some have written about this but, I believe, not enough attention has been paid to the enormous effect this will have on families – not just financially but on the emotional health of the family and its members. One of the few articles I’ve seen on this that explores male joblessness in depth is this one in the Atlantic Monthly: How a New Jobless Era will Transform America.
Men and Work
I think that men have a unique relationship to work beyond the fear of living under a bridge and begging for food that all working people share. For men with families, work means contributing. Men feel a bit left out when kids arrive and contributing in a financial way is their way of showing love to their woman and physical protection for the children. Women tend not to appreciate the depth of emotion that inspires men’s willingness to go out to thankless, often dangerous jobs. Men also size up other men as ‘contributors’ or ‘moochers’ so when men loose their jobs, they often experience a huge loss of face in the eyes of their peers. The feelings of shame and uselessness are enormous for men – and that’s all in addition to the usual experience of frustration, humiliation, and invisibility that comes with jobhunting.
For single, childless men, work is a status-marker that affects marriageability (or at the very least, access to recreational sex). Men who are licking their dating wounds or have gone through an angry divorce are often convinced that women only want rich men. It is normal to feel the seductive call of depressive ‘all-or-nothing thinking’ along with the agony of rejection but that doesn’t mean it is accurate! Most women are not actually fixated on rich men, but it is true that woman are generally thinking they want to avoid being poor and pregnant at the same time. This means it is true that unemployment affects a man’s marriage prospects and to some extent, his dating options. It is tough enough to be jobless but to have to do it loveless, and while begging for help from retired parents, is aw-ful.
So, male joblessness is a big, big issue that needs to be discussed and most importantly, addressed in concrete ways by government and business. We need to consider it as as psychologically profound and devastating as large-scale fertility problems would be for women’s sense of well-being and social place. When it is happening on the scale that we are seeing today, we all need to take a deep breath, pull together and think about what we can do to get all our unemployed men back in the game!