The era of high joblessness is just beginning; it will likely change the life and character of Americans everywhere. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It will cripple marriage as an institution and it will plunge many people into a terrible despair. Ultimately, it will warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society.
The unemployment rate hit 10 percent in October, and there are good reasons to believe that by 2011, 2012, even 2014, it will change only minimally. Late last year, the average duration of unemployment surpassed six months, the first time that has happened since 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that number. As of this writing, for every open job in the U.S., six people are actively looking for work.
All of these figures understate the magnitude of the jobs crisis. The broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment (which includes people who want to work but have stopped actively searching for a job, along with those who want full-time jobs but can find only part-time work) reached 17.4 percent in October, which appears to be the highest figure since the 1930s. One recent survey showed that 44 percent of families had experienced a job loss, a reduction in hours, or a pay cut in the past year.
The worst effects of pervasive joblessness-on family, politics, society-take time to incubate, and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure. This era of high joblessness will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men-and on white culture. It will change the nature of marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution. It is already plunging many into despair and dysfunction.
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. 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. Children described their father as "mean," "nasty," or "bossy," and didn't want to bring friends around, for fear of what he might say.
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.
THE HORROR OF DOWNWARD MOBILITY
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 THE CURRENT JOB CRISIS
White male anger is growing.
"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.
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.
Joblessness corrodes marriages, and makes divorce 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.
More than half of all new mothers are unmarried.
The stigma against out-of-wedlock children has by now largely dissolved in working-class communities-more than half of all new mothers are unmarried. We already have low marriage rates in low-income communities 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. 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.
"We are headed in a direction where life is becoming 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."
Jobless men take on an unsavory character
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. The old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism and 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. 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.
In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, the economic historian Benjamin Friedman argues that both inside and outside the U.S., lengthy periods of economic stagnation or decline have almost always left society more mean-spirited. People become more jealous of their status relative to others. Anti-immigrant sentiment typically increases, as does conflict between races and classes; concern for the poor tends to decline.
This period of economic weakness has reinforced class divides, and decreased opportunities to cross them. Signs of looming class warfare and racial conflagration are in evidence. Seeds of discontent are slowly germinating. The town-hall meetings last summer and fall were contentious, uncivil, and given over to rage. One National Journal poll in October showed that whites (especially white men) were feeling particularly anxious about their future and alienated by the government.
A remorseless assault on the identity of many men; the dissolution of families and the collapse of neighborhoods; a thinning veneer of national amity are the social legacies of today's faltering economy.
We are in a very deep hole. We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that is staining our culture and weakening our nation.
God bless you all!
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