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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.