As the recession continues, it often seems that male workers are bearing the brunt of the downturn. Yesterday's announcement of David B. Kellerman's suicide highlights part of the impact that the economy is having on men, but hints at a societal shift whose effects may linger long after the unemployment crisis ends.
While the Freddie Mac CFO's death has garnered more attention than most, it is indicative of a much larger trend. This year, hardly a month has gone by without the newspapers reporting on a horrific murder/suicide involving an unemployed male. In locales as far apart as Washington state and Maryland, California and Massachusetts, the stories have been remarkably similar: a father is unable to support his family and, in a fit of depression, kills himself and members of his family. In some cases, the man is reported to have had previous psychological problems; in others, not. Most of the men are poor, but many are wealthy. Sometimes, as in the case of Kellermann, they occupy a prominent place in their society.
The rise in male suicide is among the most eye-catching news stories of the recession, but the trend only represents the tip of a very large iceberg. According to the Financial Times, 80 percent of the 5.1 million jobs lost in the recession were previously held by men. Consequently, while the female jobless rate is currently 7 percent, the unemployment rate among men has risen to 8.8 percent.
As in anything that divides the genders, the FT's survey has become somewhat controversial. The paper itself pointed out that a large part of the reason for the disproportionate split is the fact that the industries hardest hit by the recession -- construction and manufacturing -- are dominated by men. More traditionally female jobs in education and health care have emerged relatively unscathed.
Some have used the current downfall of male workers as an impetus to question what they see as "male dominance" in the workplace, as if men had this coming to them. The reasoning here is that, it's only because women were underpaid relative to their male counterparts that they're now more cost-effective and have been able to keep their jobs. Some have even gone so far as to aver that the "hidden sector" of the female unemployed who worked off the grid has skewed reporting, suggesting that the recession is not only robbing women of their jobs, but also of their voices.
However, for those whose analysis is based more on mercy and less on gender warfare, it's clear that the recession has been devastating for the male of the species. While the past 30 years has done a great deal to modify traditional gender roles, many men still feel a strong responsibility to be the primary breadwinners in their families. The inability to do so has has wide-ranging effects that are only beginning to be noticed. On the whimsical side, it has resulted in the "recession beard" trend, in which the recently unemployed assert their masculinity by indulging their ability to grow whiskers. On the darker side, as DF's Jonathan Berr noted yesterday, it has resulted in a spike among calls to therapists and suicide hot lines.
For some men, however, talking to a therapist is yet another sign of weakness, which means that many victims of the recession -- and the economic troubles that underlie it -- have been loath to seek help. Unfortunately, this masculine stereotype is particularly well-entrenched in Wall Street and in low-income communities, two areas that have been especially hard hit. Another "macho" group, military recruiters, has also been struck by a rash of suicides in recent years. Beset by work pressures and encouraged to repress their emotions, it is hardly surprising that so many men have been lashing out in inexplicable ways.
While economic estimates about the next few years vary wildly, it seems likely that the recession will bring about a broad-based reconsideration of vulnerability. As the tragic story of David Kellerman demonstrates, the people who seem strongest sometimes need the most help.