Slumping economy: It's a guy thing

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A construction worker works on the roof on a new home under construction last month in Farmington, Minn. American men have lost 700,000 jobs over last six months, mainly in the building and manufacturing sectors.Jim Mone / AP
/ Source: Business Week

They eat from the same dishes and sleep in the same beds, but they seem to be operating in two different economies. From last November through this April, American women aged 20 and up gained nearly 300,000 jobs, according to the household survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, American men lost nearly 700,000 jobs. You might even say American men are in recession, and American women are not.

What's going on? Simply put, men have the misfortune of being concentrated in the two sectors that are doing the worst — manufacturing and construction. Women are concentrated in sectors that are still growing, such as education and health care.

This situation is hardly good news for women, though. While they're getting more jobs, their pay is stagnant. Also, most share households—and bills—with the men who are losing jobs. And the "female" economy can't stay strong for long if the "male" economy weakens too much.

The troubles for the American male worker, while exacerbated by the current slump, are hardly new. The manufacturing sector is in long-term decline, and construction goes through repeated booms and busts. Meanwhile women are graduating from college at higher rates than men. Some analysts even argue that men are less suited than women to the knowledge economy, which rewards supposedly female traits such as sensitivity, intuition, and a willingness to collaborate. "Men have tended to do better in the hierarchies, following orders and relying on positional power," says Andy Hines, a futurist at the Washington, D.C. consulting firm Social Technologies, who previously worked for Kellogg and Dow Chemical.

Problem industries
Whether you buy that argument or not, it's clear that right now men are in a bad spot. The share of all men aged 20 and over with jobs has fallen since last November, when private-sector employment peaked, going from 72.9% to 72.2% in April. For women the ratio rose, from 58.1% to 58.3%. The adult male unemployment rate has risen twice as much as the female jobless rate since November. Those figures from the BLS' household survey are echoed in its separate survey of employers.

To see why, go sector by sector. Manufacturing is over 70% male and construction is about 88% male. Meanwhile the growing education and health services sector is 77% female. The government sector, which has remained strong, is 57% female. The securities business, which is filled with high-paying jobs, is likely to be the next sector to get whacked — and more than 60% of its workers are men.

Men are having a harder time than women getting back on track after losing a job. "For a man to move from a $20- or $30-an-hour union job to being a Wal-Mart greeter is devastating," says Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University labor historian. Men also shy away from some of the growing fields, such as nursing. Only about 10% of nursing students nationwide are male, notes Harriet R. Feldman, dean of the Pace University School of Nursing. Some retired nurses are actually going back to work because their husbands have lost jobs, says Lois Cooper, vice-president for employee relations and diversity at staffing firm Adecco Group North America in Melville, N.Y.

The weakness of the male economy is squeezing people such as Brian Day, 45, a union carpenter in Ossian, Ind., who made about $35,000 in construction last year but only $1,500 so far in 2008. The family of five is living off his jobless benefits and the $35,000 salary of his wife, a supermarket supervisor. Says Day: "I feel guilty about it." Jeff Bainter, 53, a railroad worker in Muncie, Ind., has enough seniority to keep his job but sees younger men getting the ax. He says there's more security but lower pay in what his wife, Cynthiana, does for a living: medical billing.

The Presidential candidates haven't figured out how to play the disparity between men and women. In BusinessWeek interviews, advisers for all three said they want to help everyone. Austan Goolsbee, chief economic adviser to Senator Barack Obama, said: "Because the unemployed are disproportionately men, they may especially benefit from Obama's program to get us out of recession. But gender has nothing to do with the policy's design." Senator Hillary Clinton's economic policy director, Brian Deese, said: "The goal is not to appeal to men more than women."

One reason for the candidates to tread lightly is that even though men have done worse on jobs lately, they continue to earn more than women on average. Over three-quarters of people who earned over $100,000 last year were men, says Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker. In fact, although the pay gap between men and women has been gradually narrowing, it actually widened a bit over the past year. Median usual weekly earnings for men grew 4.6% from the first quarter of 2007 through the first quarter of 2008, vs. 3.1% for women.

That might be evidence that the jobs women are landing aren't necessarily good ones. Says Eileen Appelbaum, director of Rutgers University's Center for Women & Work: "We had an expansion of jobs for home health aides, retail clerks, child-care workers. They're low-wage, they're dead-end, and they don't have any benefits."

Another reason politicians aren't making hay of the plight of males is that they are well aware that women are in no mood for it. Working-class and lower-middle-class women in particular, whether or not their men have jobs, are feeling economically stressed, says Bill McInturff, a pollster for Senator John McCain. He adds, "In focus groups they talk about how 'I'm taking care of my parents, his parents, buying groceries, taking kids to the doctor.' These women are tired."

There's no easy remedy for what ails the male economy. Edward J. O'Boyle, senior research associate at the Mayo Research Institute in West Monroe, La., says part of the solution is reviving manufacturing—a gargantuan task. On construction, he favors financial reforms to even out the booms and busts.

Economists are debating whether the overall economy is in a recession. For men, the evidence is clear.

With Maggie Gilmour and Jing Zhou in Chicago and Jane Sasseen in Washington, D.C.