Economy March 2010

How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.
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No young people were present at a seminar for the unemployed held on November 4 in Reading, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar city about 60 miles west of Philadelphia. The meeting was organized by a regional nonprofit, Joseph’s People, and held in the basement of the St. Catharine’s parish center. All 30 or so attendees, sitting around a U-shaped table, looked to be 40 or older. But one middle-aged man, one of the first to introduce himself to the group, said he and his wife were there on behalf of their son, Errol. “He’s so disgusted that he didn’t want to come,” the man said. “He doesn’t know what to do, and we don’t either.”

I talked to Errol a few days later. He is 28 and has a gentle, straightforward manner. He graduated from high school in 1999 and has lived with his parents since then. He worked in a machine shop for a couple of years after school, and has also held jobs at a battery factory, a sandpaper manufacturer, and a restaurant, where he was a cook. The restaurant closed in June 2008, and apart from a few days of work through temp agencies, he hasn’t had a job since.

He calls in to a few temp agencies each week to let them know he’s interested in working, and checks the newspaper for job listings every Sunday. Sometimes he goes into CareerLink, the local unemployment office, to see if it has any new listings. He does work around the house, or in the small machine shop he’s set up in the garage, just to fill his days, and to try to keep his skills up.

“I was thinking about moving,” he said. “I’m just really not sure where. Other places where I traveled, I didn’t really see much of a difference with what there was here.” He’s still got a few thousand dollars in the bank, which he saved when he was working as a machinist, and is mostly living off that; he’s been trading penny stocks to try to replenish those savings.

I asked him what he foresaw for his working life. “As far as my job position,” he said, “I really don’t know what I want to do yet. I’m not sure.” When he was little, he wanted to be a mechanic, and he did enjoy the machine trade. But now there was hardly any work to be had, and what there was paid about the same as Walmart. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can have a job that you can think you can retire off of,” he said. “I think everyone’s going to have to transfer to another job.” He said the only future he could really imagine for himself now was just moving from job to job, with no career to speak of. “That’s what I think,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

Men and Family in a Jobless Age

In her classic sociology of the Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, Mirra Komarovsky vividly describes how joblessness strained—and in many cases fundamentally altered—family relationships in the 1930s. During 1935 and 1936, Komarovsky and her research team interviewed the members of 59 white middle-class families in which the husband and father had been out of work for at least a year. Her research revealed deep psychological wounds. “It is awful to be old and discarded at 40,” said one father. “A man is not a man without work.” Another said plainly, “During the depression I lost something. Maybe you call it self-respect, but in losing it I also lost the respect of my children, and I am afraid I am losing my wife.” Noted one woman of her husband, “I still love him, but he doesn’t seem as ‘big’ a man.”

Taken together, the stories paint a picture of diminished men, bereft of familial authority. Household power—over children, spending, and daily decisions of all types—generally shifted to wives over time (and some women were happier overall as a result). Amid general anxiety, fears of pregnancy, and men’s loss of self-worth and loss of respect from their wives, sex lives withered. Socializing all but ceased as well, a casualty of poverty and embarrassment. Although some men embraced family life and drew their wife and children closer, most became distant. Children described their father as “mean,” “nasty,” or “bossy,” and didn’t want to bring friends around, for fear of what he might say. “There was less physical violence towards the wife than towards the child,” Komarovsky wrote.

In the 70 years that have passed since the publication of The Unemployed Man and His Family, American society has become vastly more wealthy, and a more comprehensive social safety net—however frayed it may seem—now stretches beneath it. Two-earner households have become the norm, cushioning the economic blow of many layoffs. And of course, relationships between men and women have evolved. Yet when read today, large parts of Komarovsky’s book still seem disconcertingly up-to-date. All available evidence suggests that long bouts of unemployment—particularly male unemployment—still enfeeble the jobless and warp their families to a similar degree, and in many of the same ways.

Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, in the U.K., and a pioneer in the field of happiness studies, says no other circumstance produces a larger decline in mental health and well-being than being involuntarily out of work for six months or more. It is the worst thing that can happen, he says, equivalent to the death of a spouse, and “a kind of bereavement” in its own right. Only a small fraction of the decline can be tied directly to losing a paycheck, Oswald says; most of it appears to be the result of a tarnished identity and a loss of self-worth. Unemployment leaves psychological scars that remain even after work is found again, and, because the happiness of husbands and the happiness of wives are usually closely related, the misery spreads throughout the home.

Especially in middle-aged men, long accustomed to the routine of the office or factory, unemployment seems to produce a crippling disorientation. At a series of workshops for the unemployed that I attended around Philadelphia last fall, the participants were overwhelmingly male, and the men in particular described the erosion of their identities, the isolation of being jobless, and the indignities of downward mobility.

Over lunch I spoke with one attendee, Gus Poulos, a Vietnam-era veteran who had begun his career as a refrigeration mechanic before going to night school and becoming an accountant. He is trim and powerfully built, and looks much younger than his 59 years. For seven years, until he was laid off in December 2008, he was a senior financial analyst for a local hospital.

Poulos said that his frustration had built and built over the past year. “You apply for so many jobs and just never hear anything,” he told me. “You’re one of my few interviews. I’m just glad to have an interview with anybody, even a magazine.” Poulos said he was an optimist by nature, and had always believed that with preparation and hard work, he could overcome whatever life threw at him. But sometime in the past year, he’d lost that sense, and at times he felt aimless and adrift. “That’s never been who I am,” he said. “But now, it’s who I am.”

Recently he’d gotten a part-time job as a cashier at Walmart, for $8.50 an hour. “They say, ‘Do you want it?’ And in my head, I thought, ‘No.’ And I raised my hand and said, ‘Yes.’” Poulos and his wife met when they were both working as supermarket cashiers, four decades earlier—it had been one of his first jobs. “Now, here I am again.”

Poulos’s wife is still working—she’s a quality-control analyst at a food company—and that’s been a blessing. But both are feeling the strain, financial and emotional, of his situation. She commutes about 100 miles every weekday, which makes for long days. His hours at Walmart are on weekends, so he doesn’t see her much anymore and doesn’t have much of a social life.

Some neighbors were at the Walmart a couple of weeks ago, he said, and he rang up their purchase. “Maybe they were used to seeing me in a different setting,” he said—in a suit as he left for work in the morning, or walking the dog in the neighborhood. Or “maybe they were daydreaming.” But they didn’t greet him, and he didn’t say anything. He looked down at his soup, pushing it around the bowl with his spoon for a few seconds before looking back up at me. “I know they knew me,” he said. “I’ve been in their home.”

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008. Male-dominated industries (construction, finance, manufacturing) have been particularly hard-hit, while sectors that disproportionately employ women (education, health care) have held up relatively well. In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within the next few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country’s jobs.

In this respect, the recession has merely intensified a long-standing trend. Broadly speaking, the service sector, which employs relatively more women, is growing, while manufacturing, which employs relatively more men, is shrinking. The net result is that men have been contributing a smaller and smaller share of family income.

“Traditional” marriages, in which men engage in paid work and women in homemaking, have long been in eclipse. Particularly in blue-collar families, where many husbands and wives work staggered shifts, men routinely handle a lot of the child care today. Still, the ease with which gender bends in modern marriages should not be overestimated. When men stop doing paid work—and even when they work less than their wives—marital conflict usually follows.

Last March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline received almost half again as many calls as it had one year earlier; as was the case in the Depression, unemployed men are vastly more likely to beat their wives or children. More common than violence, though, is a sort of passive-aggressiveness. In Identity Economics, the economists George Akerloff and Rachel Kranton find that among married couples, men who aren’t working at all, despite their free time, do only 37 percent of the housework, on average. And some men, apparently in an effort to guard their masculinity, actually do less housework after becoming unemployed.

Many working women struggle with the idea of partners who aren’t breadwinners. “We’ve got this image of Archie Bunker sitting at home, grumbling and acting out,” says Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and an expert on family life. “And that does happen. But you also have women in whole communities thinking, ‘This guy’s nothing.’” Edin’s research in low-income communities shows, for instance, that most working women whose partner stayed home to watch the kids—while very happy with the quality of child care their children’s father provided—were dissatisfied with their relationship overall. “These relationships were often filled with conflict,” Edin told me. Even today, she says, men’s identities are far more defined by their work than women’s, and both men and women become extremely uncomfortable when men’s work goes away.

The national divorce rate fell slightly in 2008, and that’s not unusual in a recession: divorce is expensive, and many couples delay it in hard times. But joblessness corrodes marriages, and makes divorce much more likely down the road. According to W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the gender imbalance of the job losses in this recession is particularly noteworthy, and—when combined with the depth and duration of the jobs crisis—poses “a profound challenge to marriage,” especially in lower-income communities. It may sound harsh, but in general, he says, “if men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer.” Two-thirds of all divorces are legally initiated by women. Wilcox believes that over the next few years, we may see a long wave of divorces, washing no small number of discarded and dispirited men back into single adulthood.

Among couples without college degrees, says Edin, marriage has become an “increasingly fragile” institution. In many low-income communities, she fears it is being supplanted as a social norm by single motherhood and revolving-door relationships. As a rule, fewer people marry during a recession, and this one has been no exception. But “the timing of this recession coincides with a pretty significant cultural change,” Edin says: a fast-rising material threshold for marrying, but not for having children, in less affluent communities.

Edin explains that poor and working-class couples, after seeing the ravages of divorce on their parents or within their communities, have become more hesitant to marry; they believe deeply in marriage’s sanctity, and try to guard against the possibility that theirs will end in divorce. Studies have shown that even small changes in income have significant effects on marriage rates among the poor and the lower-middle class. “It’s simply not respectable to get married if you don’t have a job—some way of illustrating to your neighbors that you have at least some grasp on some piece of the American pie,” Edin says. Increasingly, people in these communities see marriage not as a way to build savings and stability, but as “a symbol that you’ve arrived.”

Childbearing is the opposite story. The stigma against out-of-wedlock children has by now largely dissolved in working-class communities—more than half of all new mothers without a college degree are unmarried. For both men and women in these communities, children are commonly seen as a highly desirable, relatively low-cost way to achieve meaning and bolster identity—especially when other opportunities are closed off. Christina Gibson-Davis, a public-policy professor at Duke University, recently found that among adults with no college degree, changes in income have no bearing at all on rates of childbirth.

“We already have low marriage rates in low-income communities,” Edin told me, “including white communities. And where it’s really hitting now is in working-class urban and rural communities, where you’re just seeing astonishing growth in the rates of nonmarital childbearing. And that would all be fine and good, except these parents don’t stay together. This may be one of the most devastating impacts of the recession.”

Many children are already suffering in this recession, for a variety of reasons. Among poor families, nutrition can be inadequate in hard times, hampering children’s mental and physical development. And regardless of social class, the stresses and distractions that afflict unemployed parents also afflict their kids, who are more likely to repeat a grade in school, and who on average earn less as adults. Children with unemployed fathers seem particularly vulnerable to psychological problems.

But a large body of research shows that one of the worst things for children, in the long run, is an unstable family. By the time the average out-of-wedlock child has reached the age of 5, his or her mother will have had two or three significant relationships with men other than the father, and the child will typically have at least one half sibling. This kind of churning is terrible for children—heightening the risks of mental-health problems, troubles at school, teenage delinquency, and so on—and we’re likely to see more and more of it, the longer this malaise stretches on.

“We could be headed in a direction where, among elites, marriage and family are conventional, but for substantial portions of society, life is more matriarchal,” says Wilcox. The marginalization of working-class men in family life has far-reaching consequences. “Marriage plays an important role in civilizing men. They work harder, longer, more strategically. They spend less time in bars and more time in church, less with friends and more with kin. And they’re happier and healthier.”

Communities with large numbers of unmarried, jobless men take on an unsavory character over time. Edin’s research team spent part of last summer in Northeast and South Philadelphia, conducting in-depth interviews with residents. She says she was struck by what she saw: “These white working-class communities—once strong, vibrant, proud communities, often organized around big industries—they’re just in terrible straits. The social fabric of these places is just shredding. There’s little engagement in religious life, and the old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism, violence. I hang around these neighborhoods in South Philadelphia, and I think, ‘This is beginning to look like the black inner-city neighborhoods we’ve been studying for the past 20 years.’ When young men can’t transition into formal-sector jobs, they sell drugs and drink and do drugs. And it wreaks havoc on family life. They think, ‘Hey, if I’m 23 and I don’t have a baby, there’s something wrong with me.’ They’re following the pattern of their fathers in terms of the timing of childbearing, but they don’t have the jobs to support it. So their families are falling apart—and often spectacularly.”

In his 1996 book, When Work Disappears, the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson connected the loss of jobs from inner cities in the 1970s to the many social ills that cropped up after that. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness,” he wrote,

are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods—crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.

In the mid-20th century, most urban black men were employed, many of them in manufacturing. But beginning in the 1970s, as factories moved out of the cities or closed altogether, male unemployment began rising sharply. Between 1973 and 1987, the percentage of black men in their 20s working in manufacturing fell from roughly 37.5 percent to 20 percent. As inner cities shed manufacturing jobs, men who lived there, particularly those with limited education, had a hard time making the switch to service jobs. Service jobs and office work of course require different interpersonal skills and different standards of self-presentation from those that blue-collar work demands, and movement from one sector to the other can be jarring. What’s more, Wilson’s research shows, downwardly mobile black men often resented the new work they could find, and displayed less flexibility on the job than, for instance, first-generation immigrant workers. As a result, employers began to prefer hiring women and immigrants, and a vicious cycle of resentment, discrimination, and joblessness set in.

It remains to be seen whether larger swaths of the country, as male joblessness persists, will eventually come to resemble the inner cities of the 1970s and ’80s. In any case, one of the great catastrophes of the past decade, and in particular of this recession, is the slippage of today’s inner cities back toward the depths of those brutal years. Urban minorities tend to be among the first fired in a recession, and the last rehired in a recovery. Overall, black unemployment stood at 15.6 percent in November; among Hispanics, that figure was 12.7 percent. Even in New York City, where the financial sector, which employs relatively few blacks, has shed tens of thousands of jobs, unemployment has increased much faster among blacks than it has among whites.

In June 1999, the journalist Ellis Cose wrote in Newsweek that it was then “the best time ever” to be black in America. He ticked through the reasons: employment was up, murders and out-of-wedlock births down; educational attainment was rising, and poverty less common than at any time since 1967. Middle-class black couples were slowly returning to gentrifying inner-city neighborhoods. “Even for some of the most persistently unfortunate—uneducated black men between 16 and 24—jobs are opening up,” Cose wrote.

But many of those gains are now imperiled. Late last year, unemployment among black teens ages 16 to 19 was nearly 50 percent, and the unemployment rate for black men age 20 or older was almost 17 percent. With so few jobs available, Wilson told me, “many black males will give up and drop out of the labor market, and turn more to the underground economy. And it will be very difficult for these people”—especially those who acquire criminal records—“to reenter the labor market in any significant way.” Glen Elder, the sociologist at the University of North Carolina, who’s done field work in Baltimore, said, “At a lower level of skill, if you lose a job and don’t have fathers or brothers with jobs—if you don’t have a good social network—you get drawn back into the street. There’s a sense in the kids I’ve studied that they lost everything they had, and can’t get it back.”

In New York City, 18 percent of low-income blacks and 26 percent of low-income Hispanics reported having lost their job as a result of the recession in a July survey by the Community Service Society. More still had had their hours or wages reduced. About one in seven low-income New Yorkers often skipped meals in 2009 to save money, and one in five had had the gas, electricity, or telephone turned off. Wilson argues that once neighborhoods become socially dysfunctional, it takes a long period of unbroken good times to undo the damage—and they can backslide very quickly and steeply. “One problem that has plagued the black community over the years is resignation,” Wilson said—a self-defeating “set of beliefs about what to expect from life and how to respond,” passed from parent to child. “And I think there was sort of a feeling that norms of resignation would weaken somewhat with the Obama election. But these hard economic times could reinforce some of these norms.”

Wilson, age 74, is a careful scholar, who chooses his words precisely and does not seem given to overstatement. But he sounded forlorn when describing the “very bleak” future he sees for the neighborhoods that he’s spent a lifetime studying. There is “no way,” he told me, “that the extremely high jobless rates we’re seeing won’t have profound consequences for the social organization of inner-city neighborhoods.” Neighborhood-specific statistics on drug addiction, family dysfunction, gang violence, and the like take time to compile. But Wilson believes that once we start getting detailed data on the conditions of inner-city life since the crash, “we’re going to see some horror stories”—and in many cases a relapse into the depths of decades past. “The point I want to emphasize,” Wilson said, “is that we should brace ourselves.”

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