Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lean Years

'Lean Years' is the title of a column by David Brooks which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. It’s highly relevant to our own situation though some of his statements are disputable. It's about unemployment and its consequences.

Talking about the American situation he says 'the biggest impact is on men. Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men who have done so. Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).'

He goes on to say, 'in a powerful essay in ‘The Atlantic’, Don Peck reports that last November nearly a fifth of all men between 25 and 54 did not have jobs, the highest figure since the labour bureau began counting in 1948. We are either at or about to reach a historical marker: for the first time there will be more women in the work force than men.'

It would be interesting to compare our own statistics.

The other group being disproportionally affected by the downturn are young people. Quoting Peck's research Brook goes on to say 'college grads who entered the job market during the recession of 1981 earned 25 percent less than grads who entered when times were good. That earnings gap persisted for decades. Seventeen years after graduation, the recession kids were still earning 10 percent less than the boom kids. Over a lifetime, recession kids can expect to earn $100,000 less than their luckier cohorts.'

This research highlights obvious cultural consequences. 'Men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity. Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. So in areas of high unemployment, marriage rates can crumble - while childbearing rates out of wedlock do not.'

In my own case I saw the effects of the 1930s Depression. Those who enter the workforce during a recession tend to pursue careers that offer security. As Brook says 'they are less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even in pursuit of greater opportunity.'

But he then adds a hopeful note. 'The U.S. endured the Great Depression reasonably well because family bonds and social trust were high.' A contentious statement considering the distress and suffering of the time. But probably a reasonable economic historic fact in terms of relativity.

He continues, 'The country endured stagflation and recession between 1977 and 1983, and rebounded smartly in the 1980s and '90s.' 'That's because people are not passive pawns of economic forces. Recessions test social capital. If social bonds are strong, nations can be surprisingly resilient.'

He goes on to say 'this recession has exposed America's social weak spots. For decades, men have adapted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy. Now they are paying the price. For decades, the working-class social fabric has been fraying. Now the working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction. For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world. Now they are moving back home in droves.'

It appears to me that the trend in America towards individualism has weakened that social fabric. Here too. There are calls for a return to community. But these things cannot be forced. It took a Roosevelt to restore trust and hope in America. In Germany Hitler did the same thing by a vastly different approach. Whatever happens I do not see an easy return to the fat years.

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