Dearth of Jobs, Death to the Family?
Sometimes you just want to close your eyes, plug your ears, and hope the economic news somehow gets better. It's too discouraging to hear the somber headlines day after day. If you haven't been laid off, you know someone who has, or someone who narrowly avoided the dreaded call into the boss's office. Worse yet, analysts forecast a "jobless era" to come in America. Is it possible America will never really recover? So warned the latest Atlantic cover story, written by deputy managing editor Don Peck.
"The unemployment rate hit 10 percent in October, and there are good reasons to believe that by 2011, 2012, even 2014, it will have declined only a little," Peck writes. "Late last year, the average duration of unemployment surpassed six months, the first time that has happened since 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that number. As of this writing, for every open job in the U.S., six people are actively looking for work."
Some small level of unemployment is necessary for a growing economy. But America has already passed that low threshold. Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz examines historic models and forecasts 8 percent unemployment in 2014. So we could be dealing with a problem that threatens the ties that bind our society together.
"We haven't seen anything like this before: a really deep recession combined with a really extended period, maybe as much as eight years, all told, of highly elevated unemployment," Shierholz told Peck. "We're about to see a big national experiment on stress."
Indeed, we're about to see a big national experiment on our theology of marriage and gender roles. Unemployment stresses the marital union like few other factors. And economic uncertainty can roil a family's structure, no matter their theology. How might evangelicals meet the challenge?
Sociological studies of the Great Depression reveal how unemployment diminished male authority in the home by costing husbands respect from their overburdened wives and children. As a result, sex lives deteriorated, socializing disappeared, and fathers retreated from their children. Economist Andrew Oswald likens the effects of prolonged unemployment to the death of a spouse. Both losses need to be mourned.
As with the Great Depression, our Great Recession has affected working males more than anyone else. According to Peck, men have lost about three-fourths of the 8 million jobs that have disappeared since early 2008. That's because many more men than women work in the fields that have suffered most severely, namely manufacturing, construction, and finance. Women, more likely to work in schools and hospitals, have fared much better. Peck cites a stunning statistic: Nearly 20 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were not working last November. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics starting documenting these figures in 1948, this unemployment rate has never been higher.
This historic moment will change the family. And the family is particularly vulnerable right now. Divorce rates have declined recently, but no one can be happy with the persistently high number of broken marriages. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, worries about climbing divorce rates as many men lose their identity as financial providers.
"We could be headed in a direction where, among elites, marriage and family are conventional, but for substantial portions of society, life is more matriarchal," Wilcox told The Atlantic. "Marriage plays an important role in civilizing men. They work harder, longer, more strategically. They spend less time in bars and more time in church, less with friends and more with kin. And they're happier and healthier."