The volatile economy has had huge effects on the American job market. Now, a new study finds that the 2008 recession may have also triggered subtle shifts at home.
In-depth interviews with a handful of men who lost their jobs during the recession reveal that these unemployed men are proud to take on domestic chores while their wives bring home the bacon. The findings, while not generalizable across all men, suggest shifts in the way men think of masculinity, said study researcher Ilana Demantas, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas.
"It changes how men think of themselves," Demantas said in a statement. "Usually men see themselves as supporters of the family, and since a lot of them are no longer able to do that alone on their income, they have to construct their identity in a new way to allow them to still think positively of themselves." [10 Things You Should Know About a Man's Brain]
The recession that started in December 2007 hit male-dominated industries such as construction harder than female-dominated industries. As a result, men's unemployment was slightly higher than women's, hitting 10.4 percent in November 2010 compared with 8 percent for women.
That disparity led to the media dubbing the recession the "mancession." The term is somewhat misleading, Demantas wrote in her report, presented Aug. 23 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas. Women have suffered unemployment too, Demantas wrote, and they are often left carrying the financial burden when their spouses or partners become unemployed.
Recent economic numbers have also revealed that job growth for men in 2010 outpaced job growth for women by a wide margin. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men gained more than 1 million jobs in 2010, while women gained 149,000.
Nonetheless, men who lost their breadwinning position in the family have reported feeling shaken, worthless and less manly. To investigate the phenomenon, Demantas interviewed 19 men whose employment had been disrupted during the downturn. Before they lost their jobs, the men were construction managers, bankers, welders, restaurant managers, truck drivers and factory supervisors, among other professions. Most had earned between $40,000 and $50,000 a year.
From breadwinner to domestic god
The men told their stories in interviews lasting from one to two hours. The study was not quantitative, but qualitative, meaning that the researchers were more interested in individual responses and narratives than statistics. It also means that the results may not hold across all men.
Nonetheless, the researchers saw parallels between the men's experiences. Some became emotional while talking, even weeping. Many referred to feelings of worthlessness or a loss of dignity after losing their jobs. Depression was common. After his interview, a former restaurant co-owner mentioned an "overwhelming sense of loss and failure" before pouring himself a large glass of bourbon, recalled study researcher Kristen Myers, a sociologist at Northern Illinois University. [Read: Record Unemployment Fuels Depression]
"I was mortified, because I'm thinking, 'I literally have driven him to drink,'" Myers told LiveScience. "But it was just the act, he laid himself bare."
Masculinity was another common theme.
"Whether we like it or not," a former college educator told the researchers, "we are still living in a man's world. The assumption is that men are the breadwinners. So if you are not a breadwinner, you feel uncomfortable."
But the men's discomfort with being dependent on wives and girlfriends did not translate into resenting their partners, the researchers found. One said he'd be sleeping in a car without his wife's income to pay the bills. Another expressed his gratitude that his wife had a job and insurance.
"It's a small study, but we haven't seen this before," Myers said. Earlier research had suggested that no matter what the changes in employment, traditional gender beliefs remained very stubborn, she said.
"None of these men would say they're feminist, but they're doing the best they have with what they have," Myers said. "They see it as fairness."
In fact, these men took pride in taking on child care and domestic chores to contribute to the household, the researchers found. One man got up early to make coffee for his working wife. Another man boasted of finding a good deal on coffee filters and flavored creamer at the grocery store.
The men's responses suggest that economic pressures may blur traditional gender lines, making domesticity an appealing way for men to feel control, Demantas said.
"Working was a way to sort of say, 'I'm the man,'" she said. "But now, managing the family is a way to see themselves as men. So they've actually used 'women's work' to see themselves as contributing to the family. This seems to be a silver lining in a very bleak recession."
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.