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Male Unemployment Rates At Or Near Post-War Highs

Posted by: Michael Mandel on May 08

Overall, this morning’s labor report was not fun reading. Overall, the unemployment rate rose to 8.9%, and the number of jobs dropped by 539K. Manufacturing jobs dropped by 149K, somewhat slower than the previous 2 months but still harsh.

But the real news is that in every age group, the male unemployment rate is at or near the post-war high. For example, the unemployment rate for men 55 years and older is 6.7%. That matches the post-war high of 6.7% set in 1949! Yowza!

Another example is the crucial 45-54-year-old age group (crucial because I am in it, natch). For males, the unemployment rate of 7.1% over the past two months exceeds the previous record of 7% set in 1983. No wonder things feel tough….for men, the labor market pain is now into uncharted territory.


By contrast, the unemployment rate for women in most age groups is well shy of post-war highs. For example, in the 25-34 year old age group, women have an unemployment rate of 7.9%, compared to a postwar record of 10.3%. In other words, for women this is a bad recession, but nowhere near the worst.


The difference in the pain being absorbed by men and women is astonishing, and may have long-term social and political implications.

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Reader Comments

Brandon W

May 8, 2009 11:09 AM

This is likely because of the difference in how industries are being hit. Male dominated fields like finance and manufacturing are being hit much harder than female "leaning" fields like health care and education.


May 8, 2009 12:21 PM

Thirty or 40 years ago, one could have made a similar statement about "long-term social and political implications" regarding the difficulty that women were having getting positioned for good jobs and winning equal treatment in the workplace. They have not succeeded 100% even now. Among older workers especially, many women simply don't have the tenure of their male colleagues, which suggests a more innocent explanation for any lower wages than intentional discrimination. It has taken all these years for women to become nearly half the workforce.

All other things being equal, a business that is forced to let someone go will be tempted to choose the higher paid person, and that is still for whatever reason more likely to be a male. In other words, men may be experiencing now the implications of the pain and failures of women's past struggles. It ought to give us pause regarding every circumstance where a group struggles unsuccessfully to win equitable treatment.

Though I think my argument has merit, I don't think it holds up for younger workers. The distortion there is indeed alarming. Someone ought to ask business management directly what the heck is going on. I can only make wild guesses: Women statistically play a far greater consumer decision role than men -- keeping them employed would therefore tend to support more spending. Young women statistically are beginning to outperform young men in school, and the explanation and implications for that are quite worrisome and difficult to discover.

The Mad Hedge Fund Trader, San Francisco, CA

May 8, 2009 03:40 PM

The May nonfarm payroll came in at minus 539,000, better that the consensus of minus 650,000, taking the unemployment up to 8.9%. The improvement was caused by temporary hiring of government workers for the 2010 census. A peak above 10% now looks like a chip shot. Including discouraged workers, we are now at 15.8%, moving towards the great depression peak of 25%. In several industries, like autos, real estate, and construction, conditions are already worse than the thirties. It is clear that not a drop in stimulus money has led to any appreciable hiring yet. This may be the last really terrible number in this cycle, but you can expect continued hemorrhaging for a while.


May 8, 2009 04:21 PM

Men are often hired for their muscle rather than their brains. Construction is down, retail is automating their warehouses, and the military is full. Where's a dude to go?


May 8, 2009 05:01 PM

IN the old days folks would have just grabbed their pitch forks and dropped by the homes of their rulers for cake


May 8, 2009 05:04 PM

Its about time this happened. Maybe now men will understand how women and minorities have felt all these years.


May 8, 2009 05:56 PM

Looks to me like men and women are suffering relatively similar unemployment, with woman in slightly worse shape. This only looks good compared to historical numbers because women are better integrated into the workforce than previously.


May 8, 2009 06:40 PM


A 1984 study of male/female unemployment did project higher unemployment rates for men than women in future recessions, a situation that was seen in 1982 for the first time since 1947, with the industry effect that you highlight being a large factor. They also projected that the male unemployment rate would trend below female in growth periods, and made some interesting points about poor worker mobility between industries.

They did not project beyond the 1990's, but conditions seem not that different today. If I understand their points, it is not so much the male/female 'leaning' of certain industries but just a side-effect of the growth of women's participation tending to pull them into the higher growth industries that also tend to suffer less in recession.

Now that we've more or less hit the 50/50 mark, I think that effect should be lessened in the future and actually ought to already be disappearing for the youngest workers, so I still can't understand what's happening with young men. This article would make one think that they would have been likely to enter the higher growth industries and thus had more recession immunity.


May 8, 2009 06:59 PM

When have men not been predominant in cyclical industries? There is a pay advantage and greater tendency for self employed opportunities there.


May 8, 2009 09:32 PM

Sigh, the journalistic drive to hype up statistics in misleading ways is alive and well at this blog. Men are more resilient because they can always get work humping drywall, which women cannot do mostly, so it's better that men take the unemployment burden. In fact, these unemployment stats probably reflect that fact, that it's easier for men to pick up temporary work off the books. Also, as Brandon notes, women tend to dominate in the highly govt-regulated sectors that are doing better now. Those sectors will be decimated next by the information revolution, just as Mike's publishing brethren are today, but it won't be as bad for the women then as the economy will be growing at that time. As for extrapolating long-term implications from these stats, I can neither think of any nor do I think we have to bother, as the pace of change has accelerated so fast that this stat won't matter. The coming shift can be compared to a pinball machine: when the plunger first hits the ball, we can figure out how fast it's going and where it's going to be based on the speed of the plunger. Once the ball hits the playfield however, it's very hard to forecast where it's going to be at any moment, as it gets batted all over the place. Well, we're entering the playfield in the coming years because of the information revolution. It's not that you can't make some predictions in the playfield, it's just that it's much harder because the pace of change has accelerated.


May 8, 2009 10:25 PM

40 years ago a guy could get a job at a plant when the construction jobs, which paid better than factory work, shut down. Now the plants are in China and Poland so guys have nowhere to go for employment. Worse, due to the surfeit of housing and commercial property extant, construction jobs in numbers adequate to employ the poorly educated portion of the male workforce are unlikely to return. The implosion of the construction boom unmasked the fading emloyment prospects for the poorly educated american male.


May 9, 2009 01:59 AM

LAO: "many women simply don't have the tenure of their male colleagues, which suggests a more innocent explanation for any lower wages than intentional discrimination."

No, this lack of "tenure" and denial of advancement is the very mechanism how the discrimination takes place. Lack of tenure is largely a consequence of preferential hiring, retention, and promotion of men in or into "prime" jobs.


May 9, 2009 02:19 AM

Ajay: "Men are more resilient because they can always get work humping drywall, which women cannot do mostly, so it's better that men take the unemployment burden. In fact, these unemployment stats probably reflect that fact, that it's easier for men to pick up temporary work off the books."

This is bunkum, and it's also non sequitur.

Aside from that, I think the sectoral explanation along Brandon's lines has something to go for it. At least the concept that male-dominated sectors are hit harder than female-dominated ones (if there is such a thing at all) is intuitively plausible. Which doesn't prove anything of course.


May 9, 2009 05:42 AM

High male unemployment is very typical of 3rd world/underdeveloped countries.

I imagine a lot of you have traveled to such countries.


May 9, 2009 10:36 AM

Hiring and firing is done by managers. Female managers will tend to hire, promote, and retain female employees out of a sense of solidarity. Male managers will retain female employees either because they like looking at them or because they're afraid of discrimination lawsuits. In both cases, there's plenty of sexism by both male and female managers. And the end result is that more men are being cut then women.

While it's true that men are now just getting a taste of what women put up with for decades, women should be careful about celebrating this "victory". If your plan to achieve greater rights for one gender comes at the cost of the other, then all you've done is maintain the same system of inequality. And the cycle of abuse will just keep on rolling. The victim becomes the victimizer.


May 9, 2009 10:43 AM

It is alarming to see the level of unemployment among younger males (15+% below 25 years). Could it result in social unrest? It has happened in other countries.

Joe Cushing

May 9, 2009 12:24 PM

Since we already talked about the differences between male and female employment on this blog; I thought Branden's point was to be assumed.


May 9, 2009 12:42 PM

Its more edifficult to fire women, and people in hiring positions at large companies have explicit mandates to hire more women.


May 9, 2009 03:59 PM

Scraping together government data on age 16-24 wage earners as best I can, I would estimate that there about 2.4 million unemployed young women and 3.4 million unemployed young men. In the construction industry, I would estimate that there are about 1.25 million unemployed.

It is easy to imagine that the 1 million "excess" unemployed young men all came from construction. If not for these numbers, I would not have believed it, because it does not correspond to my anecdotal reading or my local observations -- former carpenters who quit because pay has not gone up in 20 years, crews of independents with no access to unemployment insurance and sometimes lacking any home other than the site where they are working, etc. It is not where any college bound student I've encountered in years has earned his tuition. If this is really the fate of 1 million young men, then I think it is an indication of an economy that has not been functioning properly for some time.


May 9, 2009 06:43 PM

Gee - that's the spirit, Ginny. Kick 'em when they're down. Who gives a flying flip about their wives or children? 'Bout time those wicked male oppressors got their comeuppance.

(sarcasm alert)


May 9, 2009 07:00 PM

Let the women do all the hard work and pay the taxes to support the rest of us.

It's about time they learned how it feels to be a man.


May 9, 2009 07:03 PM

Education, Health Care, and Government Work are largely immune from cuts during bad times, particular with high welfare spending Liberal governments. All are dominated by women and have high barriers to entry to particularly, Straight White Men. Government hiring positively discriminates against Straight White Men, a goal confessed to in Congressional hearings by Obama advisor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (re the Spending Stimulus Bill being structured to avoid jobs and money going to Straight White Men). Education for example has a built-in bias against hiring Straight White Men, out of fear of sexual harassment and over PC/Multicultural attitudes infecting the workplace which creates a bias against those who are Straight and White Men.

The social implication is obvious: Straight White Men get punished by the Welfare State, get nothing from it, don't get hired by it, pay for it in good times with taxes, in bad times suffer wage loss and unemployment. This means an ever wider Gender Gap in politics and support for the Welfare State. Which has it's own dangers.

Women will support the Welfare State, because they benefit from it, but what if they have Sons? Then their own interest, particularly if they want Grandchildren, is to at least partially dismantle the Welfare State. Since the Obama Economy discriminates against their sons. A full 80% of all Obama-era layoffs are men, as Obama seeks to protect his voters (Single Women voted for him 70-29). A winner (women) and loser (men) class creates a massive incentive by the losers to simply overthrow the whole environment.

Not the least of which is sex. You have a whole class of guys in their sexual prime mating years finding a sudden drop in income/employment and thus mating opportunities. Post-war highs for 20-24, 25-34, 35-44 Men! For them, Obama and Social Welfare means being poor and alone on Saturday Night. We now have a whole class of men who's rational primary objective would be to rejigger the system to make THEM rich and employed, and women poor and dependent not on the social welfare system but on THEM as a "beta male provider," maximizing their chances at mating and sex.

The trick of spoils politics is to always make the cuts of the pie so that almost everyone is better off than the alternative of destroying the whole system and starting from scratch. Social policy guarantees many men will be heavily invested in tearing down Welfare, and social spending, and redoing it to their exclusive benefit. They are likely to gain allies among women with sons.


May 9, 2009 07:34 PM

The unemployment dynamic is an interesting one. I'm pretty sure it is an established fact that people who lose their job generally end up getting a lower paying job when they reenter the labour market. Large scale job losses will tend to result in large scale reductions in the standard of living for the country as a whole. Put this on top of the stagnant wage growth Mike has noted for the last ten years and I think what we are witnessing is an accelerating social/economic trend that needs to be looked at very carefully by government.
I posted previously expressing the view that debt might be an issue that impacts on individual freedom. The reason I make this link is that I believe the proper role of government is defending individual freedom and national sovereignty - not "looking after the economy". The enormous growth in private and government debt might therefore be a fundamental drag on the freedom that makes capitalist economies work. On this basis the GFC was actually a good thing, as it originally threatened to wipe out the overgrown asset prices that were a symptom of the underlying "debt crisis". In my view it is the "debt crisis", not the "bankers crisis" of the GFC, that should be exercising the minds of the Obama administration.
On the gender issue I think unemployment hurts regardless of gender. However, I tend to think that unemployed males are a riskier proposition for social cohesion - all that testosterone can tend to encourage dangerous behaviour. I note that China now has a significant oversupply of males as a result of its population policy. I can't imagine that having large numbers of unpaired, underemployed males around the world is a good thing.


May 9, 2009 09:04 PM

Wow, it is surprising to see how much you all stress social stability, which is largely overdone. Unemployed young males may have caused problems in other countries but it won't happen here because the situation is different. First, we're so rich that the people who're working, parents or friends, can afford to take in or help the unemployed till they find something. No formerly employed person will starve, which is a big difference from many other countries. Second, the US labor market is still highly dynamic, with millions of jobs lost and gained every year. That's unlike other countries, like France, where idiotic and inflexible labor regulations or other societal rigidities systematically exclude parts of the populace from the workforce. In fact, by taking a lot of smart minds off the often worthless financial work that they were doing during the last boom, we are likely to see them come up with new ways of bringing in money. Remember, necessity is the mother of invention. This bust was a market signal that many people were wastefully employed in construction and finance, which covered up other waste in the automotive and other sectors too. Now, we can get to work redirecting resources where they're actually needed. These corrections are why freer market economies succeed, unlike more socialized economies where the response is to bury your head in the sand and hope the problems go away, like we see the European banks doing today when they don't register the hundreds of billions of dollars of losses they will have to admit to someday.


May 10, 2009 12:07 AM

Ginny: "Its about time this happened. Maybe now men will understand how women and minorities have felt all these years."

Since the men losing their jobs have nothing to do with past events, and probably have nothing to do with hiring and firing in any case, your statement is that of a bigot and sexist.

You should be ashamed, but I doubt that you have that capacity.


May 10, 2009 02:23 AM

Millions of undereducated, youthful men good with their hands suddenly unable to find work?

What could possibly go wrong!


May 10, 2009 11:39 AM


You are right about the downward pressure on earnings that results, on the average, from job loss. Here is one study that demonstrates an effect even 6 years later:

Are you prepared to sacrifice your job or business in a hands off transition to a more nearly debt and credit free environment?

Jim D

May 11, 2009 05:18 PM

How odd that noone mentioned that the unemployment numbers that are being compared aren't directly comparable (i.e., historical vs. current unemployment figures).

As almost anyone who follows this knows, changes to unemployment calculations happened in a big way during the Clinton administration. (Just like every administration changes econ stats to make themselves look better - not calling out Bubba in particular, it's just that the U3 number mods happened on his watch.)

That those changes made the unemployment numbers "better" is also not in dispute.

So, if you're going to be talking about "record" anything, you should probably note that the numbers from previous years are probably off, when comparing them to current years.

The upshot? We're already at record high numbers.

Really, this is Stat 101 - you don't compare disparate data sets, even if they do have the same name. Doing so is just dishonest.

Oh, and I'll agree that Ginny's a sexist bigot. But any number of comments above are as well - it's just that she's the only identifiably female bigot to have posted above.


May 12, 2009 12:44 PM

Jim D,

I hope you didn't mean me ("any number of comments above"). I was merely trying to tease out of the data the possibility that the current situation is merely a side-effect of history, and cataclysmic interpretation is what you would expect from people in the midst of it. It doesn't make the cataclysmic view the correct one, but neither does it lessen the pain and fretting of individuals.

Being a career woman myself, I can't honestly say whether women's progress has been slowed by anything other than women's own reluctance to join the fray with the required fierce dedication, and I wouldn't dare offer any opinion involving mothers and children.

I stick by my notion that any group making slow progress today, for reasons of their own making or of others, will similarly be more likely to find themselves the survivors in future recessions, and there is a grave danger that it could be interpreted as something other than what it is. It is a red flag to the rest of society to try to remove the obstacles, because during economically stressful times, it is the rest of society that statistically is more likely to suffer inordinately. Just consider the pressure on highly paid CEO's, for instance. I would really like to see the dialogue raised to this higher level, where we consciously consider the implications of getting what we think we want or of simply allowing things to play out to our own seeming meritorious advantage.

It was also a case of finding hindsight much easier to discuss than future implications.


May 22, 2009 10:57 PM

Anthronesia took the words right out of my mouth. Exactly!!!

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Michael Mandel, BW's award-winning chief economist, provides his unique perspective on the hot economic issues of the day. From globalization to the future of work to the ups and downs of the financial markets, Mandel-named 2006 economic journalist of the year by the World Leadership Forum-offers cutting edge analysis and commentary.

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