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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.