The "Mancession" Will End. Will the "Woman-cession"?

Before I get cranky, let me be sentimental: I loved Obama's speech last night. It was big. It was bold. It was inspiring. Here's the part I loved most:

Where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together.

To me, that's what it means to be an American: We're part of a shared venture. And I loved hearing the president articulate that point not just as a political reality but as a moral imperative as well: Human beings are in this life together, and we're not going to have a shot at a decent world if we act as if we're all in it just for ourselves. That's especially true in a recession as destructive as the one we're still dragging through, where only the plutocracy has any real rest from anxiety.

So here's the crankiness: the "mancession." You've heard that this recession hurt men first and hardest. Fourteen million people are out of work. African American and Latino workers are suffering disproportionately, as ColorLines vividly shows in black, brown, and white. According to Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress, if you break it down by the numbers, there's a "lower share of men working today than at any point since the Great Depression." Whether or not that pattern is unusual is contested; various observers say that jobs in male-dominated industries like construction are always the first to go when the economy sputters and the first to pick up when it gets moving again. Lynn Parramore of the Roosevelt Institute argued in Alternet that the only thing new was the label "mancession."

Here comes the "but," and let me be careful about how I say this: Men lost more jobs and are still disproportionately out of work when compared to women. At the same time, men are starting -- albeit just barely -- to regain those jobs. Jobs disproportionately held by women, on the other hand, are not coming back. The Center for American Progress's interactive graphic shows this by industry; click on "job losses" and then "play the timeline." One reason: many "women's jobs"* are government-funded. That includes teachers but also home health aides, nurse's aides, child-care workers -- all the jobs that make it possible for working families and single parents to show up for their swing shifts without locking the kids in the car for eight hours or leaving grandpa alone at home with a bedpan. Those jobs are paid for by state and local governments, which are still laying off workers. As Parramore puts it, "Women are the shock-absorbers for government budget cuts."

There's another reason, according to Bryce Covert and Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute, that men are getting rehired and women are not, not just in the public sector but across private industries as well: office-support jobs are disappearing. Covert and Konczal say "support staff" positions often held by women -- call them secretaries, office managers, administrative assistants -- are being eliminated and not replaced. It's part of the great speed-up: The rest are supposed to book our own travel, answer our own e-mails, schedule our own meetings. That leaves many office workers frantic -- and a lot of women out of work.

So while this may or may not have been a "mancession," a "womancession" threatens to linger. There are good reasons that Obama mentioned both construction workers and teachers -- not only does the U.S. badly need to invest in both infrastructure and education if we are going to remain competitive but we need to keep both men and women employed if today's families are going to stay above poverty level.

But that brings me to another small *crankiness: the fact that, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination by sex, we have to talk about "men's jobs" and "women's jobs." But Boushey persuaded me that it's not a useful time to go off on that problem. She's right. It's a topic for another time. I'm just saying.

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