Monday, September 19, 2011


Thoughts on "Pinched"

Pinched, by Don Peck, makes me jealous as a writer. (Michael Lewis and Adam Gopnik have that effect, too.) It’s a discussion of the cultural impact of the Great Recession in the United States, with a particular focus on the middle class, but its major contribution is its discussion of masculinity and class.

Peck notes that the Great Recession is best understood as the culmination of a series of longstanding trends. Automation and offshoring, for example, didn’t start in 2008, even if they picked up steam then. The productivity gains made possible through technology and offshoring have come largely at the expense of the former middle and working classes, and have been almost entirely to the benefit of a small elite.

That’s pretty well-established stuff. Peck’s contribution in the middle of the book is his portrayal of the impact of those changes on everyday life.

He points out that divorce rates dropped when the economy crashed, noting that divorce is expensive. But marriage rates dropped even more. The disparate impact of the Great Recession by gender -- it hit male-dominated industries first and hardest -- has rendered great numbers of men effectively unmarriageable. Men who don’t have steady jobs with decent incomes tend not to marry, since women won’t consider them. They’ll have children with them, but they won’t marry them, so in some geographic areas early single motherhood has simply become a cultural norm.

In married couples in which the man has lost his job, relationship strains are often severe. While the culture has adapted with remarkable speed to women in the workforce, it’s still having trouble with men being outside it. The men don’t know what to do with themselves, and the women want as little to do with them as possible. Peck notes that the percentage of working-age men in the paid workforce is the lowest now since the government started keeping records in 1948.

Worse, Peck notes that sustained unemployment is both psychologically and economically corrosive. In many states, employers openly discriminate against the unemployed, creating a vicious catch-22 for applicants. Over time, sustained unemployment frequently leads to skill obsolescence, social isolation, and even substance abuse. What may have started as an unreasonable prejudice gradually becomes self-justifying, as the unemployed slowly become the unemployable.

As economic fault lines become cultural fault lines, a geographic division slowly emerges. The cities with the highest concentrations of people with graduate degrees -- New York, Boston, San Francisco -- also tend to be female-heavy. People with credentials move to where the opportunities are, and people with credentials are disproportionately female. Men without options get left behind.

Class becomes geography, which reinforces class. Peck:

The increasing segregation of American communities by affluence and educational attainment has doubtless reinforced the divergence in the personal habits and lifestyle of Americans who lack a college degree and those who have one. In highly educated communities, families are largely intact, educational ideals strong, connections between effort and reward clear, and good role models abundant. None of these things is a given anymore in communities where college-degree attainment is low. The natural leaders and role models of such communities -- the meritocratic winners who do well in school, go off to selective colleges, and get their degrees -- generally leave them for good in their early twenties. (p. 136)

Peck goes on to cite Christopher Lasch on the difference between meritocracy and fairness. Assuming that we open all careers to talent, what does that mean for those without talent? And to the extent that ‘talent’ is a function of the richness -- in every sense -- of one’s background, in what sense does ‘merit’ make any sense at all?

Peck asks the painfully obvious question. Why don’t more men adapt to the new economy? If education is the way to arm yourself, why hasn’t the percentage of men with college degrees budged since 1980? Why do guys continue to cluster into shrinking fields like manufacturing, and snub available options that would make them more marketable to both employers and women?

(Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much of an answer to this one. But it’s absolutely the right question.)

Most of the employment growth that has occurred has been in the female-dominated “eds and meds.” I can attest that the community college world is female-dominated, and women are making great inroads at the more prestigious levels of academia as well. Eds and meds have real value, but they’re both pretty much confined to domestic production -- they don’t export much -- and they’re largely immune to productivity increases, meaning they’re getting more expensive in real terms. As employment shifts from export-oriented industries with high productivity growth to domestic-consumption industries with low productivity growth, it’s easy to see a real problem developing.

Peck concludes with some pretty anodyne policy recommendations that really don’t do justice to the issues he has outlined. (You could lop the last chapter off and not really miss it.) The tyranny of the happy ending claims another victim. But looking at the cultural impact of the Great Recession through a specifically gendered lens offers real value. It’s scary in the way that truth can be, and worthwhile in the way that truth is.

The question of why men don't go for more education caught me. None of the ideas below are in any way evidence-based (except the last one), so I offer them up as a mix between musings and free paper-or-thesis topic ideas.

* Men in two-parent-with-kid families are still, to a great degree, the breadwinners. They're busy with job and kids, and either a) not taking on education because they don't plan to be unemployed or b) just too busy keeping their jobs and meeting their family responsibilities. When the hammer drops, it's already too late.

* To admit that you need to learn more is to admit weakness, men can't show weakness, therefore... This falls back on gender stereotypes perhaps even more than the first point, but it's worth at least a passing thought.

* Academic (and particularly grad school) schedules are more supportive than many private-sector employment situations to child-rearing. I don't mean the dirt-poor never-have-a-day-off, slave-to-your-chair part, but part where the day is largely unstructured reading and research time and there are few hard commitments (e.g. classes and meetings). That makes for a supportive environment for women to excel, and presents an opportunity as well.

Looking back at these, they reek of traditional family roles and gender constructions, which I find a little unsettling. That said, as a relatively new father in a very progressive city, I see an awful lot of families with this arrangement, so can't discount that.
Why do guys continue to cluster into shrinking fields like manufacturing, and snub available options that would make them more marketable to both employers and women?

I don't think most men from blue collar middle class families see education as empowering - they see nerds and geeks as weak. Men in med jobs at the low end (nurses, CNAs, techs) are often assumed to be gay. When you're already struggling, why would you engage in an activity or train for a profession that makes people question your strength and heterosexuality? Immigrants have an easier time with this in my experience as they are constrained less by the American ideas about masculinity and get more social credit for supporting their family and getting educated. None of the men that I work with in the hospital in the "requires only HS" jobs are native born or white. Ironically, many of those jobs are "good union jobs" that pay $25-$30 per hour, include an annual bonus, pay increase, pension and good benefits.
I wonder what you thought of Peck's other great discussion in Pinched -- that about the young generation, including the creative, educated ones, who get wounded by beginning their working lives during this period. Peck suggests that the whole generation now in their twenties may find their whole lives blighted.

My brother, in his late fifties, with an A.S. degree, has been out of work for nearly two years after decades of working as a store manager. It is wrenching psychologically, but as even my brother says, at least he had years when he made good money -- comparable to what I earned in academia -- and he was prudent enough so that he can get by okay.

What will happen not to the group of men you are talking about but to the kids with bachelors degrees from "good" colleges who don't seem to be able to find decent jobs at good wages?
"Why do guys continue to cluster into shrinking fields like manufacturing, and snub available options that would make them more marketable to both employers and women?"
Do we have any evidence that such fields actually make them more marketable to women?
At the end of the day, some level of financial stability probably makes one more marriageable. But I'd guess that for the heteronormative traditional gender role endorsers, if all else is equal it's easier to find a wife if you are in manufacturing than in nursing. Or maybe it's just easier to find a wife who will be happy with the more traditional gender roles if you are in manufacturing. Do you want a 1/5 chance of a job, and a 1/2 chance of getting married, or a 1/2 chance of a job and a 1/20 chance of getting married?

"What will happen not to the group of men you are talking about but to the kids with bachelors degrees from "good" colleges who don't seem to be able to find decent jobs at good wages? "
With any luck, they'll become disillusioned with the idea of meritocracy and embrace the principle that society should be judged by how the least among us lives.
Why do men stay in manufacturing instead of getting more education? Because they can often earn, without education, the same as a woman with a BA and a teaching credential. These jobs do not seem to be available to women in the same way. Therefore a woman's ONLY opportunity for advancement is tied to education.

These issues show that it's not the plight of men so much as an issue, it's the problem of a whole generation who will never know steady employment. Educating men to become kindergarten teachers will not solve our economic problems.
I have more contact with working class men than most academics, because I play rugby. The perception of education as marking a man as weak is spot on. The guys I play with generally went into the armed forces for a few years after high school, then came out and got jobs in manufacturing or the trades. They're all divorced or permanently single.

I'm accepted among them because I can sort of talk the talk (granddad was a carpenter, but dad went to Harvard), but also because I'm willing to knock the teeth out of anyone who questions my manhood. But it's a completely different society than where educated Americans live. You drink hard, you fight, relationships are unstable, These are not guys who are about to go off to community college to become nurses or teacher's aids- they'd die first.
Also, keep in mind that the explicit purpose of our current economy is to loot the nation and suck the marrow out of its bones. So it's not a question of adaptability; at some level, it doesn't matter how much you adapt. The screws will tighten harder.

No unions, no labor protections, no middle class. Simple as that.
Does education mark a man as weak? Not in my experience(I'm a civil servant who actually uses his grad degree in day to day labors, with teaching on the side). OTOH, before I turned to crime, I was a roughneck and before that a truck driver, so maybe I enjoy a bit of residual "cred."

Like anonymous, I too worry about the young men and women who exit good schools with what were until yesterday considered "eating degrees," yet can't get a dance with HR offices or corporate recruiters or collegiate hiring committees. An awful lot of creativity and productive potential is thus put on the shelf and devalued, to be hired at discount some day. There are a couple such in my street, doubling up with their parents or grandparents during their enforced leisure. I talk with them, encourage them, look for job leads-and remind them that in these days, joblessness isn't rare or a disgrace, except to the larger society and economy.
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