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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.