'Mancession': Economy Is Bad for Men and Women

The term "mancession" began quaintly enough. Coined by an economics professor this spring, it described the growing gap between male and female unemployment. The novelty of men of all races and ages being in a position of economic distress startled people. By mid-July, several media outlets from Foreign Policy to The New York Times took the term one step further, calling it the death of the macho, or the he-cession. If you Google mancession now, it'll turn up 13,500 hits.

Clearly, the 2.5 percent gap between the male and female unemployment makes for an interesting set of data points. It's the largest gap since World War II, and economists blame it on the huge layoffs in manufacturing and construction, where men made up roughly 70 and 85 percent of the workforce. For guys like Marty Addison, 39, the trend hurts no matter what you call it. The South Carolinian and former Marine lost his assemblyman job a month ago when the telecommunications company that he worked for shut down. Now he is enrolled in school to become an emergency medical technician because, he says, those "jobs don't seem to run out."

But while it's true that the "Great Recession" has hurt guys like Addison, these aren't exactly boom times for women. True, women have suffered fewer job losses than men, but overall they still earn only 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to Center for American Progress. Much of their work is concentrated in lower-paid industries such as retail, hospitality, education, nonprofits and health care.

The jobs that women are holding on to typically lack benefits, retirement savings plans, or pensions. "The strong part of women's participation in the labor force is also the weak part. Their salaries are limited," says Heidi Hartmann, an economist and president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Women tend to choose a path that's less risky, that's more secure for their families." When asked about the mancession, Hartmann then scoffed a little. "It becomes a problem when white men start to suffer."

The great hope of labor economists who study this trend—and they're mostly women—is that the mancession will prompt employers to raise women's wages and open up more lucrative fields such as high tech and finance to greater numbers of women. The wage gap between the genders has largely been stagnant during this decade. Still, roughly 35 percent of women now bring home at least half of their family's income.

College-educated women without children have made the largest advances in terms of closing the income gap, but women with less schooling and those with small children still earn substantially less than men. "Maybe this will be an opportunity for people to rethink paid employment, particularly now that families are dependent on the earnings of the wife," says Eileen Appelbaum, an economist and director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. "A lot of the jobs out here for women are in nursing or as home health aides. Those are not jobs that pay family-sustaining wages."

That's true for Greg Jimmie's family. Jimmie, 44, lost his job in late December as a vice president at a medical manufacturing company. His wife works as a cardiovascular nurse at a hospital. While he says he's lucky that she has a stable job, she earns about half of what his former job paid. As a result, they've cut back on all discretionary spending such as home improvement, eating out, and other frivolities until Jimmie finds a job.

In the meantime, he has taken over most of the housework. That's the other hope for academics studying the mancession trend: that the drop in male employment may cause a more equitable distribution of labor at home. Now Jimmie does the laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping, in addition to driving around the couple's teenage son. "It's been a shift for us," he says. "When my son was young, my wife worked three days a week. Now, I'm the token dad."

But Jimmie is the exception. Once the economy reverses, the division of labor may revert. In past recessions, economists say men's more cyclical, lucrative jobs returned once the economy rebounded. "I don't expect much of a departure from that," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

While the media may have latched onto the gender gap in unemployment, the mancession's rank and file aren't buying in. "My job at this point is to get a job," says Dan McKnight, a 56-year-old, who previously worked in operations and administration for a large bank in New York. "Whatever the stats are showing, it's not important to me."