Why isn't male unemployment an issue?

The last time the male unemployment rate was lower than female was September 1980. Ever since then, men have been more likely to be unemployed than women. At times, like in the boom of the late 1980s, the difference was small -- just 0.1 percentage point between them. Other times, it was enormous. In the early 1990s, male unemployment rocketed to a high of 12.8 per cent, up 5.7 points in a little under two years, while female unemployment was almost unchanged, increasing by just 1.5 points.

Indeed, for men, the unemployment crisis under John Major was actually worse than under Thatcher, peaking 0.4 points ahead. Both recessions hit men worse than women, but under Thatcher the base was better.

This great recession, like the previous two, has also undeniably hit men harder. Trough to peak, the unemployment rate increased by 3.6 points for men and 2.9 for women. True, this is the worst female unemployment for 19 years, and only the worst male for 16 years; but that says less about this recession and more about the disproportionate impact of the last.

Recently, this macro pattern has started to reverse. The six months has been worse for women than men, with the Fawcett Society estimating in March that 80 per cent of the job losses in the previous three months had come from women. But this just represents an expected patterm. As Betsey Stevenson, visiting economics professor at Princeton University, told PolitiFact about similar statistics in the US, "it’s a historical pattern that has held in previous recessions." Just like the other historical pattern that has held: overall, men are hit worse.

All of which makes it strange that, when gender is brought into the unemployment question, it is through headlines like:

Female employment hit by public sector cuts and childcare costs

Women told: your place is on the dole

Female unemployment highest for 15 years; outlook bleak

It's not that there ought to be headlines and leaders declaring David Cameron to have a men problem. For a number of reasons, the broader accusation that this government isn't very friendly to women is accurate. But unemployment isn't one of those reasons. Men were hit earlier, faster, and harder, yet there has been scarcely a mention of that fact.

The problem is, men doing badly isn't politically interesting. No-one gets accused of sexism if it occurs; no-one propses gender-targeted intervention, and no-one really suggests that the problem is distinguishable from overall unemployment. There are two possible ways to read this. One is that, as James Ball comments today, whereas talk of "sisterhood" is a positive image, self-affirming and strong, talk of "brotherhood" is "not nearly such a positive image, reeking of conspiracy and cabal". But I'd suggest it's a different reason: men are perceived by society at large as "normal", while women are still relegated to "minority" status, despite making up half the population.

Usually this phenomenon is seen as anti-women. Look, for example, at the recent furore when Lego announced "Lego Friends", or Lego for girls, turning what had previously been a gender neutral toy into a boys toy by default. But it can hurt men just as much.

We need to be more open about gender in every area of society,  so let's talk about men.

Two men enter a jobcentre. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.