The Changing American Workplace; Women and Post-Recession Society

November 14, 2011

Political economy

Before perusing this post, I would highly recommend reading these articles: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America (If you’re impatient, the section “Men and Family in a Jobless Age” is especially relevant), The End of Men, and Women Power: The Rise of the Sheconomy.

The basic premise of these articles (and a plethora of other op-ed and investigative reports I found while researching this), is that gender roles are rapidly changing in American society, resulting in more women in the work place. For the most part, this sort of trend has been around for the past 30 or 40 years…not particularly exciting. But where it becomes interesting is the scale of the recent changes. For the first time ever in this country, there are more employed women than men. As of October 2009, women constitute 49.9% of all nonfarm labor jobs and 51.5% of high-paying management and  professional positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (see 3rd article above). The effect this is having on virtually every aspect of society, the economy, and politics is overwhelming, but so far it appears there is little we can tell about what the true long-term consequences will be.

Essentially what is happening is that the traditional fabric of society is changing in a way that is very threatening to many people. The solidarity of the 1950’s era family is all but evaporated. Debatably, this has been the case since the challenges of the sexual revolution, and the modern late 10’s recession was the final death knell that sealed the deal. Increasingly, society is becoming more matriarchal and women are gaining more influence in spheres beyond the household and school systems. According to some viewpoints, this is a trend of unprecedented equality. What is interesting here is that the recession, though causing tremendous economic damage and rending abyssal scars into the psychological fabric of society, has also created new opportunity. Like a forest fire that wipes out a dense stand of pine to reveal a rich soil environment for a community of new growth, the decades of stagnation on socioeconomic issues have been ended by the recent crisis. It remains to be seen whether this inferno, far from plunging the country into collapse, will instead initiate a new era of retooling and reorganization in the way we do America. On the other hand, the threat still looms that the wounds caused by the recession will never fully heal, and will cause even deeper divides between the economic and racial boundaries in this country as well as the proliferation of unhappy family situations.

 There are many implications of this issue, but most are not especially relevant to political theory. I think it is relevant to speculate on the direction society is headed, however. Is there a future for the United States? If increasing numbers of people are choosing a career over children, and population growth is achieved solely through immigration (or net replacement anyway), how will the future of our country look? Is there an ideal structure of society in which laws and government are most effective, and does this system rely on the family unit to achieve stability? How do we structure our cities and communities to take into account the change in lifestyle of the modern era away from the 1950’s postwar nuclear family?

I think it goes without saying that many people would simply be happier without children, or else should not have children for some reason (people with genetic diseases come to mind). Clearly the Cold War era tendency to ostracize people who didn’t fit into the stereotypical family mold was substantially flawed. The problem is that modern society is intrinsically built on the assumption that virtually everyone will choose to have children (think of the absurd propagation of new housing). While this is overall not an unwise assumption to make due to the biological inevitability of reproduction for most people, the recent societal trends seem to suggest that more people than ever will probably choose not to have children. The difficulty here is in finding a way to make the material realities of the country meet the expectations of the fickle social climate. It will take decades for the economy to catch up to the social change, a problem that is exacerbated substantially (and caused to some extent) by the recession.

I took a dual-enrollment philosophy class at a local college while in high school in which the change in societal attitudes towards gender distribution in the workforce came up one day. I thought it was interesting to see these people’s viewpoints, especially as it was a relatively conservative, religiously affiliated college. Most of the women in the class (maybe 70%) thought that they would be working, and not housewives. The men in the class all thought that they would have a career later in life. I feel that this question might be equally interesting in the context of a larger, secular, and (especially important) more liberal University setting.

For the sake of simplicity, give your best guess as to your future intentions; obviously it is difficult to tell what your priorities in life will be 10 years from now, but I’m interested mainly in expressed intent at this point, not necessarily what will actually transpire.

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About Brian Hall

I'm a sophomore at UM studying German, Arabic and Linguistics, and am pre-law.

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3 Comments on “The Changing American Workplace; Women and Post-Recession Society”

  1. Jake Weimar Says:

    I agree that the trend of more woman in the workplace is interesting it signifies a shift in the core values of Americans. It is still possible to have children and a career. But now the trend is career comes first and family comes second.

    Most people now just choose to have children later in life after they have already started a career. That is why most parents are older now than they used to be. Now adults are getting educated and starting a career before they have children. Also it can be linked to a higher divorce rate, and an increase in the uses of day cares and nannies while stay at home parents have deceased.

    All of these are signs that Americans now care more about their careers than about family values. A more interesting question would be finding out why the shift in values from family to career and how that will continue to change the nuclear family of Americans.

  2. mrau188 Says:

    I do believe that the change for more women in the workplace is definitely interesting but there are still some major problems to why they are going to be treated different in the workplace. For instance, society still views men as the more dominant sex because of all of the court rulings that have turned out terrible for men in the past. Say I marry a women and she has a job that makes 1 million a year and i only make 100 thousand we have 2 kids and have a babysitter look after them while we are at work everyday. If we end up getting a divorce she is going to get the kids and still be able to keep all of the savings house and everything that her job entitles her to. Where as the man is now not going to be able to have a sufficient enough income to be able to live close to his kids and now will probably have to mov to a place that is much further away and that is and that is bad for the kids. Everyone knows that if it was the other way around the man would still be supporting the wive and she would get all of the assets which is really messed up. Double standards are terrible for the men in this situation because in the end we are always the victim to this whole women power movement. We either need all women to sack up, or there needs to be no double standard.

  3. ksaukas Says:

    Obviously with the increase of women in the workforce there has been an increase of stay at home dads in this nation. I wonder, if this trend continues with more women working then men, if there might come a day where more men stay at home to raise the kids than women?

    It is possible that this may come about, but I believe for the most part that women will maintain the stay at home role more than the man because of the attachment created between mother and child during pregnancy. I know of many female friends who want to have careers, but of those friends who want careers and families most of them want to take a few years off to help in their child’s early development at the very least.

    Yet these recent trends are dangerous signs that the average American may now focus more upon a career then a family. This concern of careers may just be a phase due to the uncertainty of the economic climate, but if it continues long term it could have major impacts upon society. Imagine a day when both parents are don’t stay at home in almost every American household. It is hard to say what the implications would be, but it is not a stretch to believe that all relationships of a generation raised with both parents predominantly working would be much more distant than relationships of generations past.

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