Women and the Economic Recovery

News media coverage of the 2008 recession and the subsequent recovery has focused on changes in total employment and movements in the overall unemployment.  Although the change in the total number of jobs is an important economic indicator, a focus on overall employment and unemployment can mask important changes in the composition of the workforce.  I look beyond changes in total employment to illustrate why the 2008 recession is unlike any in U.S. history.  Job losses in recessions previously were concentrated in traditionally male-dominated jobs.  The 2008 recession was different.  Women lost jobs in record numbers and women have seen small job gains during the recovery.  This stands in stark contrast to previous recessions and recoveries.

The following graph illustrates changes in the full-time equivalent employment (a part-time job is counted as ½ of a full-time job) of men.  Four years after total employment started to decline, men’s employment recovered and grew to 4 to 5% above the pre-recession peak in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but only about 1% above the pre-recession peak after the 1990 and 2000 recoveries.  The recovery over the past two years has been especially weak.

The U.S. labor force changed dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s.  The labor force participation rate of women increased from 43.3% to 57.5% between 1970 and 1990 but has leveled off since then.  The widespread reallocation of women’s human capital from household activities (not included in GDP) to paid market work had a profound impact on measured employment and GDP.  Employment and GDP increase, even though the same work is being done, when house cleaning and lawn care tasks are completed by paid service workers rather than by family members.

Cyclical employment fluctuations look very different for women.  The robust labor market recoveries of the 1970’s and 1980’s were fueled by the entry of women into the labor force.  Women’s employment grew by 15% between 1974 and 1978, and by 10% between 1981 and 1985, despite the deep recessions.

Job losses during recessions were largely confined to men until the 2008 downturn.  Women’s employment never fell by more than 1% in any recession prior to 2008.  In contrast, women’s employment fell by 5% between January 2008 and December 2009, and is still 4.6% below the pre-recession peak.

Future economic recoveries are unlikely to exhibit the robust employment gains that occurred during the 1970’s and 1980’s as millions of women moved from unpaid household work to jobs in the market sector.  This type of transformational change is unlikely to occur again.

The 2008 recession is unique because of the magnitude of employment losses sustained by women (although still smaller than for men) and the sluggish growth in women’s employment during the recovery.   In the past year both employment and labor force participation declined for women but increased for men.  Despite the labor market gains achieved by women over the past forty years, women face a somewhat new challenge – coping with substantial job losses in an economic downturn.

Why This Recession was Different

It has been four years since private sector employment peaked.  Last week’s jobs report was the best we have seen in months and yesterday’s new jobless claims figures were promising.  It’s a good time to take a look back at the last four years and compare our current situation to previous recessions.

Construction projects and durable goods purchases are delayed in a recession which greatly reduces the demand for workers in these sectors.  From the 1970s through 2008 more than 70% of the jobs lost in recessions were in construction and durable goods.

Only one in 7 jobs heading in to the 2008 recession were in construction and durable goods.  Even though many of the jobs most vulnerable to a downturn were either outsourced or replaced by robots over the past few decades we still lost 8.8 million private sector jobs, or 7.6% of total employment, between January 2008 and February 2010.  Most of the jobs lost were in sectors that previously had been immune to recessions.

The graph below compares employment changes in the construction and durable goods manufacturing sectors in five recessions and recoveries.  In the recessions before 2008 employment in these sectors fell by 10% to 15%.  In the 1970s and 1980s employment recovered after one year of decline.  In the 1990 and 2000 recessions employment fell less sharply for almost two years and only a small fraction of the lost jobs were added back during each recovery.  The 2008 downturn combines the worst features of both types of recessions.  Employment fell sharply for two years until 22% of construction and durable goods jobs were lost.  In the two years since the recovery began job gains have been modest.

The next graph compares employment changes in the rest of the private sector.  In the recessions prior to 2008 employment fell by no more than one or two percent.  It is troubling that employment growth has been less vigorous with each ensuing recovery.  The 2008 recession is different because employment outside of construction and durable goods fell by more than 5% and remains 2.5% below the pre-recession peak two years into the recovery.

The depth of the 2008 labor market downturn is surprisingly severe when one considers the small fraction of jobs in construction and durable goods when the recession began.  More than one in five jobs in construction and durable goods have been lost since 2008, more than in any recession since the Great Depression.  Job losses in recessions used to be concentrated in these sectors and employment used to snap back as the demand for construction projects and durable goods recovered.  If the pattern of recent recoveries holds true few of the durable goods manufacturing jobs that were lost will return to the US.

The 2008 recession is unique because 6 of 10 jobs lost were in relatively recession-proof sectors, such as services, trade, and information.   Increases in durable goods orders will likely restore a small fraction of the jobs lost since 2008.  I expect the labor market to recover slowly over the next few years.

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