Mapping the Economy's 'Man-cession'

Analysts didn't have to scratch very far beneath the surface of the government's July 2 report on the employment situation to find troubling news.

While the disappearing workforce and "lackluster" private sector job growth got most of the ink and bandwidth, what caught my attention was the renewed spike in the unemployment gender gap.

As recently as 2005, as seen here, the average unemployment rate for 20-and-over men was a bit lower than the rate for women (4.4% vs. 4.6%). During the next two years, those rates were virtually identical.

As seen here, after small differences during the first half of 2008, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for men first exceeded that of women by over a half-point in July of that year. It just so happens that this was the first month of the recession as normal people define it and the first full month of what I have been calling the POR (Pelosi-Obama-Reid) economy since its inception.

By August 2009, the unemployment gender gap had grown to 2.5 points. It basically stayed there for the next three months, and then began to fall slowly. But in June, it widened again to 2.1 points (9.9% for over-20 males vs. 7.8% for over-20 females) from May's 1.7 points (9.8% vs. 8.1%). Given what happened when the rates first significantly diverged two years ago, the resurgence of the gender gap may foreshadow the double-dip recession so many observers have begun to fear, even on the left.

While the degree of the male-female unemployment divergence is without precedent, it builds on a 30-year marketplace trend.

From 1948 to 1981, with only rare and tiny exceptions, the unemployment rate for women exceeded that of men, even during economic contractions. That changed during the recession of the early-1980s. In 1982 and 1983, average 20-and-over male unemployment bumped up against 9%, while female unemployment rose to just above 8%. Male-female differentials of similar size reappeared during the next two downturns in 1991-1993 and 2001-2003 even though they were far less severe. But in each case, the rates returned to rough equality when the economy improved.

At its worst, the “man-cession,” the informal term for the male-female unemployment differential, has often been 2-3 times as big during Obama's term as any gap previously seen. It seems to be heading in that direction again.

Why did this happen?

In this recession, many of the jobs which were lost and in many cases disappeared forever were in male-dominated sectors like the automotive industry and construction; free but unfair trade and the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac-driven housing bubble have been key contributors to their respective declines. Meanwhile, certain fields which have traditionally had a higher percentage of women, including education and health care, continued to experience job growth or at least didn't contract.