Forget the new tie or power tools. For American men the appropriate present on Father's Day might be a life vest.
By any measure, the heavy weather of the Great Recession has battered men more fiercely than women. Most of the hardest-hit sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, are dominated by men. Education and health care, the areas that best withstood the storm, are dominated by women. By last August, the unemployment rate among men was 2.7 percentage points higher than the rate among women -- the widest disparity since World War II. Through 2009, the unemployment rate was higher for men than women among African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and whites with or without college degrees. This year, the unemployment gender gap has narrowed somewhat as male-tilting occupations, such as manufacturing, have revived. But since December 2007, men have lost more than twice as many jobs as women.
Since the 1970s, inflation-adjusted hourly wages have, incredibly, declined for men without college degrees.
All of this is tough enough for men. But a chorus of analysts says that just it may be the economy's new normal. This month's Atlantic (a sister publication of National Journal) posits on its cover that the recession is crystallizing "The End of Men." "What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?" author Hanna Rosin asks provocatively before strongly suggesting that the answer is "yes, it is."
"The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men's size and strength," she continues. "The attributes that are most valuable today -- social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus -- are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true."
It's at best premature to declare men dethroned in the workplace. As Rosin notes, men still rule the corporate executive suite. More broadly, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that among full-time workers, men earn about a third more each week than women with the same amount of education.
But the trend lines favor women. Since the 1970s, according to the Economic Policy Institute, inflation-adjusted hourly wages have increased for women at every education level -- modestly for those with only a high school education and robustly for those with four-year college or postgraduate degrees. Since the 1970s, inflation-adjusted hourly wages have, incredibly, declined for men without college degrees as blue-collar occupations have withered. Wages have increased for men with four-year college degrees, but women with equivalent credentials have enjoyed bigger increases: Since the 1970s, the EPI analysis shows, only men with postgraduate degrees have gained ground faster than women at the same education level.
Equally important, in an age when more schooling equals higher wages, women's educational levels are rising faster than men's. Already the share of working women with college or postgraduate degrees (nearly one-third) slightly exceeds the proportion of men. That gap will likely widen because women, who collected only one-fourth of college degrees immediately after World War II, now earn about three-fifths of them. That ratio appears to be stabilizing. And it helps explain why women in the past four downturns have been unemployed at lower rates than men, notes Mark Perry, a University of Michigan finance professor.
The political impact of this heightened male vulnerability is filtered through race. Polls show that African-American men support President Obama as overwhelmingly as black women do. For much of 2010, Obama's approval rating among Hispanic men in Gallup polls has run slightly below his showing among Hispanic women, although those numbers reversed (perhaps temporarily) in May. White men these days radiate dissatisfaction: In Gallup's latest weekly average, Obama's approval rating stood at a meager 41 percent among white men with college degrees and a microscopic 30 percent among noncollege white men, a group pounded by the recession. White women without degrees, the so-called waitress moms, aren't much more enthusiastic (just 36 percent approve), but Obama's approval rating remains a solid 50 percent among college-educated white women. The latter, who tend toward liberal social and foreign-policy views, were his strongest supporters among whites in 2008, and they are the group that has probably weathered the recession best. (Their unemployment rate averaged just 4 percent last year.)
The recession may widen the long-standing political divide between college-educated white women, who lean Democratic, and the rest of the white electorate, which bends Republican. In the same way, the downturn seems likely to reinforce the shifting workplace fortunes of women and men, a dynamic that will reverberate from the shop floor to the kitchen table for years.
This article appears in the June 19, 2010, edition of National Journal.