Australia’s unemployment rate may be back to where it was in the late 1970s but the structure of our labour market and our society is very different. For example, in the late 1970s almost 70 per cent of men aged 25 to 34 were married and working full-time. Today it’s less than 50 per cent.
Marriage and work are connected. A consistent theme in the research on marriage is that couples are more likely to marry when they feel economically secure. And the problem for marriage-aged men with low levels of education and skill is that secure full-time work is getting harder to find. According to Bob Gregory and Paul Frijters, 76 per cent of unskilled men aged 25-34 were employed full-time in 1981. But by 2001 this had fallen to 60 per cent
For less skilled, less educated men, the combination of marriage and full-time work is no longer the norm. By the early 1990s, a new pattern had emerged. In 1998 Bettina Arndt wrote about the way the decline in employment opportunities had affected men’s relationships with women and their role in families. Over the next decade, there was some improvement in the proportion of men in full-time employment. But in the recent downturn almost all the gains of a decade were lost. Much of what Arndt observed in 1998 continues today.
The unemployment rate conceals as much as it reveals. The chart below shows the changes in the labour market status of men aged 25 to 34. While the great majority are still working full-time, there appears to be a long term trend away from full-time employment. Watching the trends unfold is like watching tectonic plates shifting. Each recession is a seismic event where the proportion of men in full-time work suddenly falls. And in each recovery it fails to return to its pre-recession level.
Another way of looking at the trend is to graph full-time employment by age group. The chart below shows how full-time employment for older groups recovered during the boom while continuing to decline for younger men.
The shift is unlikely to be the result of voluntary downshifting, an increase in the number of househusbands or a collapse in the work ethic. Something has changed in the demand for labour. As the Productivity Commission’s Ralph Lattimore writes:
With technological change favouring higher skilled jobs and the growth of the service sector, the long-run structure of the economy has shifted away from jobs in which unskilled, less language-proficient, males specialise. For example, blue collar jobs accounted for 63 per cent of male jobs in 1971 and 46 per cent in 2000.
For men, full-time jobs are becoming more demanding — employers are looking for higher levels of skill. But there hasn’t been the same trend for part-time jobs. According to economist Alexis Esposto, the growth in part-time jobs taken by men, shows a pattern of deskilling.
For women this means a decline in the number of men of marriageable age who are able to offer the financial security of stable full-time work. More men are cycling between full and part-time work and some are leaving the labour market all together. In a 2002 paper, Bob Birrell, Virginia Rapson And Clare Hourigan suggest that changes in the labour market may increase the number of single parent families. They speculate that:
From the point of view of the mother, the option of staying single and surviving on the low but stable lone parent and family assistance welfare support package may seem preferable to partnering a man who cannot provide adequate financial support for the family.
The shift in the demand for labour is not about some kind of competition between men and women. When sub-groups of men lose access to secure full-time employment, there are women whose opportunities are also narrowed. For example, it increasingly takes two full-time incomes to save for a deposit and pay off a mortgage.
Policy makers are unlikely to address this problem by intervening in the labour market. What they are most likely to do is crack down on income support recipients (male and female) in an effort to force them into whatever jobs are available. And to help this along, there will be a great deal of discussion about job snobbery and the decline of the work ethic.
Over the past 30 years there has been a profound shift in the labour market — a shift that has implications, not just for men, but for the broader community. If you focus on the unemployment rate alone, you’ll miss the story.
One suggestion raised in the comments thread is that "what might be happening is really an effective sharing of workloads" as women take on a greater role in earning household income.
If this is what’s going on, then why am I portraying the shift in men’s labour market status as a bad thing?
A more effective sharing of workloads would include not just paid work, but unpaid caring and household work. The amount of unpaid work in a household depends heavily on the age of the youngest child. So you’d expect to see coupled men with young children working part-time more often than those with older children and coupled men with children working part time more often than those with no children.
The charts below show that this isn’t the case.