In Tough Times, Jobless Men Embrace Housework
TUESDAY Aug. 23, 2011 -- From factory workers to bankers, some of the jobless men in what's been dubbed the "mancession" are redefining their masculinity by doing more housework as they support their working partners, a small study suggests.
University of Kansas researcher Ilana Demantas and her colleagues conducted intensive interviews of 19 recently unemployed men. She and her team found that many had redirected their identities as breadwinners into tasks that still allowed them to think positively of themselves -- embracing domestic chores such as child care and housework.
"They totally took what we would consider women's work and made it men's work," said study co-author Kristen Myers, an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University. With a female partner still in the workforce, the men "were also so grateful to have these women in their lives," she added.
For a variety of reasons, including generally higher salaries, men's jobs have been axed disproportionately in the ongoing recession. The disparity was even greater in November 2010 (the time the study was conducted), Myers said. At that point, the male unemployment rate was 10.4 percent vs. 8 percent for women.
The study is scheduled to be presented Tuesday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Las Vegas. Research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Of the 19 men interviewed, 68 percent were white Americans, while 21 percent had emigrated from other countries in hopes of improving their economic prospects. Participants' ages ranged from 26 to 60 and their lost jobs spanned white collar, blue collar and service sector positions.
Annual wages had ranged from $15,000 to $200,000, with most previously earning between $40,000 and $50,000. Twelve of the 19 had a female partner with whom they shared a household, and all but one lived in the Chicago area.
Myers said that while the study authors understood their research wasn't representative of the entire United States, it was intriguing to learn that the men in their sample held no animosity toward their working partners, instead voicing gratitude that the women were employed and supporting them.
Comments from participants ranged from, "It's a blessing that my wife works and makes good money. If I was living on my own, I would be in serious trouble," to "If I was really stressed out and we weren't making a lot of money [from his wife's salary], I think I'd just be a wreck."
Still, many of the men expressed deep shame over having lost their jobs, and Myers said it was clear they struggled with losing the power and sense of self-worth that comes from employment. Rather than shunning housework in response to their job loss, however, some began doing more in hopes their domestic contribution would make up for their lost wages and the increased burden on their partners.
Myers said her colleagues hope to eventually interview hundreds of men in similar circumstances, and possibly women as well. She called the results a "silver lining" during a bleak economic period.
"It was kind of a nice surprise," she said. "This recession is going on much longer than anyone thought. A lot of these guys will find jobs -- probably with less money and authority. We'll see if their coping mechanisms change."
Nancy Naples, a professor of sociology and women's studies at University of Connecticut, said the study reminded her of research she undertook in the 1980s during the Iowa farm crisis that explored how men's gender dynamics changed in response to employment status.
"Men had to do a lot of that [domestic] work and think about how they understood their relationship to the breadwinner role when they weren't technically the breadwinner," said Naples, also director of the women's studies program and former chairperson of the American Sociological Association's section on sex and gender. "So I think these dynamics are not particular to just the mancession."
For more on coping with unemployment, go to the American Psychological Association.
Posted: August 2011