Mancession: Gender, Occupational Segregation, and the Structural Transformation of Capitalism


Paul Jay: Nancy Folbre, in her blog on the New York Times, wrote the following: “The Great Recession has sometimes been dubbed the Mancession because it drove unemployment among men higher than unemployment among women.”  So how is this affecting families?  How is this affecting the future outlook for the population as a whole when it comes to unemployment?  What might be the social consequences of men being more reliant on women for family support? . . .

Nancy Folbre: Male unemployment is significantly higher than female unemployment now.  That’s not terribly surprising — typical in recessions for men to be more affected, because they’re employed in more cyclical industries like manufacturing that go up and down more than other industries.  But –.

Paul Jay: As opposed to service sector, like nurses.

Nancy Folbre: Right.  But the more disturbing trend is a longer-term decline in manufacturing employment.  If you look at the last ten years, even counting the boom years, employment in that sector has declined.  And that’s one of the factors that are driving higher unemployment among men.

Paul Jay: So outsourcing of jobs and automation domestically is hitting men more than women ’cause men are more in the sector affected by this.

Nancy Folbre: Right.

Paul Jay: What are some of the numbers?

Nancy Folbre: Manufacturing employment for men, about 17 million in 2000, is down to about 12 million today.  And employment in health and education services, which is kind of the opposite, the mirror image sector, the predominantly female sector, has gone up by about that same amount.  So you can see a real divergence, in that the demand for traditionally women’s jobs has increased, while that for traditionally male jobs has gone down.

Paul Jay: So let’s talk a little bit about the manufacturing sector.  The skill level in a lot of manufacturing is going up, the education level needed to work in the factories that have robotics and such is going up, so you would think women could be more in that sector.  But is it more traditional reasons why women are not more in the manufacturing sector?  ‘Cause in a lot of manufacturing there seems to be no good reason why there aren’t more women there.

Nancy Folbre: That’s right.  That’s a good point.  It’s partly compositional effects.  The women employed in manufacturing, many of them were in the textile sector, in a part of manufacturing that’s suffered particularly big job losses.  So a lot of women who were in manufacturing have already been kind of wiped out.  But also, in general, there’s been less occupational desegregation in blue-collar jobs and in manufacturing than in other parts of the economy.

Paul Jay: To what extent, then, . . . is it the woman in the family that’s the breadwinner and the man that’s at home getting depressed looking for a job?

Nancy Folbre: Women’s employment has definitely gone up.  Women are now almost 50 percent of employees on non-agricultural payrolls.  They’re still more likely to work part-time than men are, so that’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s certainly a big change.  And women are now more likely to be breadwinners in families where men are unemployed.

Paul Jay: And I assume, in a lot of these families, women are coming home and then having to deal with the housework and the kids as well, on top of everything.

Nancy Folbre: I think there’s probably some bargaining and renegotiation of housework going on.  We don’t know exactly how much.

Paul Jay: So how do you compare male and female unemployment?

Nancy Folbre: 10.6 percent for men, 8.9 percent for women.  So it’s high for both.  But definitely men are having a harder time finding jobs.

Paul Jay: Now, we know unemployment’s higher in urban areas —

Nancy Folbre: Unemployment’s higher in urban areas.

Paul Jay: — than in rural areas.

Nancy Folbre: Unemployment is way higher for Blacks and Hispanics.  Unemployment is very high for young people.  And unemployment is also unusually high for older people, for individuals 55 and over.  So it’s a pretty severe and pretty uneven impact overall.

Paul Jay: Now, there does not seem to be any public policy in place that at the structural level, either in terms of short-term unemployment or — we’re talking about perhaps a decade of these kinds of unemployment numbers — longer-term in terms of a revitalization of American manufacturing and jobs more typically men were involved with (although I think over time that’s changing, and would likely change more anyway as manufacturing becomes more automated).  But it looks like we’re looking at a decade of what we’ve got now, at least.

Nancy Folbre: I think it’s very disturbing.  I think we definitely need more job training and more education to help workers adapt to a pretty significant structural shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.  You know, the Obama administration has talked about that to some extent with the expansion of community colleges and community college enrolments.  Those have become a kind of focal point for vocational training.  But the future of those initiatives now is very much in doubt, given the state of the budget and political stalemate.

Paul Jay: I mean, you could say one solution is that men should do jobs that aren’t traditionally for men and learn how to be nurses and such.  But that in itself doesn’t solve anything anyway, ’cause you’ve already got a 8.9 percent unemployment rate amongst women who are quite happy to take women’s jobs.  So, I mean, at most you’d have men replacing some women who might be working otherwise.

Nancy Folbre: That’s right.  Redistribution isn’t going to solve the problem.  But I think it’s also true that we should be looking for more flexibility in the types of jobs that both men and women can do, and that’s something that job training and expanded education can help accomplish.

Paul Jay: But if we’re looking at a decade of these kinds of employment rates — and a lot of people are talking about that; even conservative economists are talking about this — what is a public policy solution?  Some people are talking about direct jobs programs.

Nancy Folbre: I’m an advocate of direct jobs creation, and I think that the green jobs idea, the green jobs concept, is a very good one and one that could help create jobs for both men and women.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be the political will these days to move forward with it.

Paul Jay: What would it look like in your mind?  I think we should start talking about solutions, whether they’re politically possible or not, because what appears to be politically possible also seems to be ineffective.

Nancy Folbre: I think the best plan in terms of a specific job creation program is one that was devised by my colleague, Bob Pollin, at the Political Economy Research Institute.  It calls for some direct training and investment in weatherization and energy conservation in homes, which is a very cost-effective and, I might add, very labor-intensive process.  And it also calls for investment in green manufacturing and development of green technologies.  You know, right now, US public policy subsidizes fossil fuel production and fossil fuel consumption in a variety of ways, and if we could shift those subsidies away –.

Paul Jay: Including corn, in a big way.

Nancy Folbre: Exactly.  If we could shift the structure of those subsidies towards renewables, I think we could really get some traction.

Nancy Folbre is Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.  This video was released by The Real News on 16 December 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.

| Print