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Lessons from Past Recessions

Lessons from Past Recessions

By Michael Kimmel, Courtesy of Just for Men

In the current recession, jobs are tighter and competition is fiercer than ever. Finding and holding a good job feels like clinging to a life raft on stormy seas.

In addition, this is the most "gendered" recession in memory. Hardest hit have been manufacturing and commission sales jobs -- jobs traditionally held by men. Indeed, four out of every five jobs lost since December 2007 have put men out of work.

Sure, pundits are going to offer some tactical maneuvers drawn from the past to minimize the recession’s effects. And if they tell you to carry less credit card debt, save more, downscale your ambitions and pay off loans, then they’re probably right. But since we’ve been here before, what else can current job seekers learn from the experience of past recessions? Here are the main points to keep in mind: 

  • We’re More Than Our Work: In pioneering research in the early 1930s, sociologist Mirra Komarovsky found that many men experienced unemployment as a massive blow to their identities as men, a dramatic crisis of masculinity. Men in the 1920s and 1930s defined themselves exclusively by their capacity to be breadwinners and family providers. If they were unable to provide for their families, they felt they were worth nothing.

    Men today are far less likely to feel that way. Their wives are far more likely to work, so they are not the sole breadwinners. What’s more, while we are told repeatedly of the slumping economy and rising unemployment figures, we are also told, just as often, about timetables for recovery. Few unemployed men consider their unemployment a “state of being” -- most consider it a temporary blip on the radar screen of a career. 
  • We Draw Support from Our Families: During the Great Depression, Komarovsky also found that men withdrew from their families, curling up into little cocoons of emotional and psychological depression to match the economic contraction. Unemployed men spent less time with their children and often withdrew socially.

    Not so today. Men today are far more connected to their families, and many take their unemployment as a temporary respite from focusing on their careers to spend even more time with their families. This is especially true when their wives have careers, of course. 
  • We Know Networking Is Key: Today’s temporarily unemployed man also knows that the key to his next job is networking. We live in a networking society, in which time spent on Facebook and various other networking sites is seen as crucial to landing the next job. 
  • The Workplace (and You) Has Changed: Perhaps the most important lesson from the past is this: This isn’t your father’s workplace. It’s far more diverse, fast-paced, and both internally fragmented and globally connected than anything he’d recognize. And you’re not your father either. You’re more involved with your kids, more likely in a dual-career couple and far more mobile, both geographically and socially.

So this isn’t your father’s recession. And that’s good news. The best way for you to stay in the game is to use the opportunity to take a good look at yourself and make whatever changes are necessary to help you exhibit both the energy you feel and the experience you’ve earned.

[Professor Michael Kimmel is a sociologist who is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today and the author or editor of more than 20 volumes, including his latest, Guyland.]

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