Men were dealt a blow in recession

W. Bradford Wilcox and David Lapp, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6/18/2010

High rates of joblessness among working–class and poor men are likely to harm married life among lower-income couples. Job loss and instability can be a big blow to a man's sense of self–worth, can undercut his wife's faith in him and can cause considerable financial stress for the couple. Men's unemployment can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict, recrimination and withdrawal that ends in divorce.

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Subjects: Family, Marriage

More by: David Lapp and W. Bradford Wilcox

John Longenecker, a married father of three children, was a custom cabinetmaker in rural Pennsylvania when he suddenly found himself out of a job during the Great Recession. He had been a cabinetmaker for 18 years.

With Father's Day approaching, he told his local paper that "It's going to be a bittersweet type of thing. I'm not feeling really proud right now."

He's not alone.

In 2000, the annual unemployment rate for high-school educated men was 3.4 percent. Today it is 11.4 percent. By contrast, the unemployment rate today for college-educated men is 4.3 percent, and 8.8 percent for high-school educated women.

This means that unemployment is higher among all less-educated workers, but also that a rising share of working-class families are now being headed by female breadwinners.

Of the recession's job losses, 75 percent have been among men – the majority among working-class men. Some economists now call it the "mancession."

How is the family life of these unemployed fathers? Are they spending more time with their children, overseeing more of the household chores and preparing dinner for the family when Mom comes home? Sociologist Christine Whelan, in the essay "A Feminist-Friendly Recession" published in the 2009 State of Our Unions report, predicts that current unemployment trends will foster more gender egalitarianism and greater marital happiness on the home front, as unemployed or underemployed men take up more child care and housework.

It's possible. But it would be unwise to discount the deep sense of meaning and purpose that men have traditionally drawn from providing for their families.

Indeed, other research indicates that husbands are significantly less happy in their marriages and more likely to contemplate divorce when their wives take the lead in breadwinning. Men today do not have difficulty with working wives, so long as their wives work about the same amount of time or less than they do.

High rates of joblessness among working-class and poor men are likely to harm married life among lower-income couples. Job loss and instability can be a big blow to a man's sense of self-worth, can undercut his wife's faith in him and can cause considerable financial stress for the couple. Men's unemployment can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict, recrimination and withdrawal that ends in divorce.

The marriages of working-class Americans are already vulnerable. Over the past 30 years, there's been a growing marriage divide between college-educated and less-educated Americans, a divide marked by dramatically higher rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births among those without college degrees compared with those who have college degrees.

The mancession threatens to strain this already fragile marriage culture and to further undermine the long-term health of marriage in working-class America.

What's the solution? One of the biggest things we could do is to create a culture that affirms the great worth of fatherhood. Women are now more likely to give their husbands more marital slack if they play an active role in parenting – and men are also happier if they take a hands-on role in the home. As men's economic contributions to the family become more attenuated in some homes, the culture should encourage them to invest more in their children and give them status for doing so.

Still, these men want to go back to work and need jobs. Policymakers should pursue policies that target unemployment among working-class men, which means strengthening vocational education, toughening trade laws to ensure that countries like China are penalized for taking advantage of lax environmental laws and passing legislation – such as right-to-work laws – that make it easier for companies to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States.

The mancession has taken a devastating toll on the psyche of working-class men. While it's easy for working-class men to slip under the radar screen, the integrity of families and communities all across America depends on us taking note of their declining fortunes.

This article originally appeared here.

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