How Is This Recession Different From All Other Recessions?

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It's not. Men, minorities, young people, and the under-educated suffered the most in the Great Recession, just like they did in every downturn for the past 30 years.

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Reuters

Perhaps it's finally time to retire the phrase "mancession."

During the past few years, that grisly portmanteau has become a popular shorthand for the way men seemed to suffer a special degree of misfortune during the Great Recession. Male-dominated industries, particularly construction, had been at the heart of the housing bust and the ensuing downturn, and their job prospects diminished more as a result. Hence, a new turn of phrase was born. 

And it is accurate. Men's employment did indeed crash further than women's. But here's why we might want to consider putting "mancession" on ice: It turns out men have gotten the brunt of every economic downturn for the past thirty years. In other words, every recession has been a "mancession." 

That's one of the major points in a recent working paper released by a group of researchers from the University of California, Davis. The team gathered data from the five recessions between 1979 and 2011 in order to see which demographic groups experienced the worst swings in unemployment as the economy deteriorated. They broke their data down by age, sex, education, and race. And year to year, recession to recession, the results stayed remarkably consistent. 

Here are their findings in short: Employment for men, minorities, young people, and those with less education is the most sensitive to the business cycle -- the periodic ups and downs of the economy. That means they suffer the most when recessions hit. Women, Caucasians, older workers, and college grads suffer less. 

This first graph illustrates those patterns based on age, sex, and education. The higher up a point is on the chart, the more that group's unemployment level tends to be affected in a downturn. Specifically, the chart tracks how each demographic responds to a 1 percent increase in their home state's unemployment rate. Blacks and hispanics fare worse than whites. Women fare better than men in all three groups. The more education you have, the safer your job. 

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This second graph tracks unemployment by age. Again, young folks clearly are more at the mercy of the business cycle than the middle aged. 

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The study also offers a direct comparison between the Great Recession and the back-to-back economic contractions of the early 1980s. There were some noteworthy differences. For instance, joblessness among Americans with less than a high school degree increased less this last go around than in the 1980s. But overall, the broad demographic patterns stayed consistent. For instance, men's unemployment grew by 6.47 percentage points in the Great Recession, compared to 3.59 percentage points for women. The story was similar three decades ago: Men's unemployment rose 5.79 percentage points, versus 3.73 percentage points for women. 

Why are the patterns so consistent? The groups which suffer most tend to work in industries that are more exposed to the vagaries of the business cycle. The mostly male world of construction is a good example -- people and businesses cut back on building when the economy sours. But so are industries like retail, with its hoards of young, diploma-less workers. After all, when consumers don't feel confident, they don't go shopping. 

If we're noticing the impacts of the last recession on specific demographics moreso than in past economic busts, it's likely because of the magnitude of the downturn. After all, the Great Recession was the worst economic catastrophe to befall the United States since the Depression, and everything about it was magnified. But when it comes to who got the worst of it, it wasn't particularly special. Remember that next time you see the phrase "mancession." 

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*Before anybody asks regarding the headline, yes, I realize the recession officially ended in 2009. But the Passover humor was too tempting. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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