The Lean Years
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: February 15, 2010
Financial crises stink. In their wake, public debt explodes. Nations default. Economic growth falters. Taxes rise. Unemployment lingers.
The current financial crisis is no different. The U.S. will have to produce 10 million new jobs just to get back to the unemployment levels of 2007. There’s no sign that that is going to happen soon, so we’re looking at an extended period of above 8 percent unemployment.
The biggest impact is on men. Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men who have done so. Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).
So men have taken an especially heavy blow during this crisis. The gap between the male and female unemployment rates has reached its highest level since the government began keeping such records.
In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Don Peck reports that last November nearly a fifth of all men between 25 and 54 did not have jobs, the highest figure since the labor bureau began counting in 1948. We are either at or about to reach a historical marker: for the first time there will be more women in the work force than men.
Young people are the other group disproportionally affected by the downturn. High school and college grads are entering a miserable job market. In his Atlantic piece, Peck rounds up the academic research on what happens to people who enter the labor force in hard times.
College grads who entered the job market during the recession of 1981 earned 25 percent less than grads who entered when times were good. That earnings gap persisted for decades. Seventeen years after graduation, the recession kids were still earning 10 percent less than the boom kids. Over a lifetime, recession kids can expect to earn $100,000 less than their luckier cohorts.
It’s pretty easy to take these economic facts and draw stark cultural consequences. Long-term unemployment is one of the most devastating experiences a person can endure, equal, according to some measures, to the death of a spouse. Men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity. Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. So in areas of high unemployment, marriage rates can crumble — while childbearing rates out of wedlock do not.
Young people who enter the work force in a recession, meanwhile, are psychologically altered. They are less likely to get professional-level jobs throughout life. They are less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even in pursuit of greater opportunity. But there’s also reason not to be too despairing. The country endured stagflation and recession between 1977 and 1983, and rebounded smartly in the 1980s and ’90s.
That’s because people are not passive pawns of economic forces. Recessions test social capital. If social bonds are strong, nations can be surprisingly resilient. If they are weak, things are terrible. The U.S. endured the Great Depression reasonably well because family bonds and social trust were high. Russia, on the other hand, was decimated by the post-Soviet economic turmoil because social trust was nonexistent.
This recession has exposed America’s social weak spots. For decades, men have adapted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy. Now they are paying the price. For decades, the working-class social fabric has been fraying. Now the working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction. For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world. Now they are moving back home in droves.
The economic response to the crisis is everywhere debated, but the social response is unformed. First, we need to redefine masculinity, creating an image that encourages teenage boys to stay in school and older men to pursue service jobs. Evangelical churches have done a lot to show how manly men can still be nurturing. Obviously, more needs to be done, and schools need to be more boy-friendly.
Second, antipoverty programs have long focused their efforts on inner cities, but now there also is great vulnerability in working-class places like central Pennsylvania and rural Michigan. Many social workers are not exactly comfortable in socially conservative areas, but if the working class disintegrates, then look out.
Third, Facebook is great, but social networking sites do not by themselves create support networks when jobs disappear and poverty looms. Somebody has to provide institutions for unaffiliated 24-year-olds.
There’s no sign that government will nimbly repair these social gaps. It will probably be up to social entrepreneurs to take a midcrisis look at their priorities. Somehow there must be a way to use the country’s idle talent to address freshly exposed needs.