The Atlantic: A new jobless era is transforming America

The Atlantic has an epic piece on employment trends in America in this month’s issue.  This is a must-read piece of journalism, not just for the anecdotes and analysis of this particular downturn, but also for its statistics and historical perspective. 

One particular part of the narrative on urban Black males caught my eye. You’ll recall my tongue-in-cheek post Bernanke: “He just out to take everything you own” from Monday.  In it, one of the amateur economists from the Indianapolis Colts suggested that the unemployment rate today was 38% – a number significantly lower than the actual unemployment rate for teenage Blacks in America. The U-3 rate for teenage Blacks of either sex is 43.8%. For black males as a whole it is 17.6%. Neither of these numbers includes underemployment.


So, it was not surprising to see the Atlantic make a direct connection between urban Black male unemployment rates and the de-industrialization of America.  Nicholas Lemann wrote a compelling book in 1991 which chronicled the journey of Black Americans out of the Jim Crow south to “The Promised Land” of blue collar urban industry in the north. The move was as much push as it was pull. The inside cover of the hardback edition starts:

Between the early 1940s, when the mechanical cotton picker went into mass production, and the late 1960s, more than five million African-Americans left the fields and farms of the Deep South and headed for the big cities, where they hoped to find the economic comfort and legal rights denied them under Jim Crow. The great migration changed the United States from a country where race was a regional issue and black culture existed mainly in rural isolation into one where race relations affect the texture of life in nearly every city and suburb.

This was an epic migration that can legitimately be compared to the immigration waves from Ireland or Italy. Unfortunately, just as the great migration ended, the economic impetus for its existence evaporated. America started de-industrializing, leading to an enormous increase in unemployment (and crime) for urban Black males.

In the mid-20th century, most urban black men were employed, many of them in manufacturing. But beginning in the 1970s, as factories moved out of the cities or closed altogether, male unemployment began rising sharply. Between 1973 and 1987, the percentage of black men in their 20s working in manufacturing fell from roughly 37.5 percent to 20 percent. As inner cities shed manufacturing jobs, men who lived there, particularly those with limited education, had a hard time making the switch to service jobs. Service jobs and office work of course require different interpersonal skills and different standards of self-presentation from those that blue-collar work demands, and movement from one sector to the other can be jarring. What’s more, Wilson’s research shows, downwardly mobile black men often resented the new work they could find, and displayed less flexibility on the job than, for instance, first-generation immigrant workers. As a result, employers began to prefer hiring women and immigrants, and a vicious cycle of resentment, discrimination, and joblessness set in.

I see these events and the social problems that result as a sort of preview of what to expect elsewhere in American society due to increasing male unemployment.  The Atlantic, writing how three-fourths of job losses have hit males, takes up this theme.  It points to studies on domestic violence, housework, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce as evidence that male joblessness in America increases economic distress and erodes the social fabric.

I recommend this piece very highly.


How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America – The Atlantic, March 2010

  1. Vangel says

    The unemployment problem among many individuals is a lack of marketable skill sets, not race. A black or white man who is a licensed machinist or diesel mechanic and is willing to relocate will have little trouble getting a job. The problem is that the US educational system has trouble providing young men with the type of skills that are in demand. I know a number of young people who have Masters or PhD degrees in the arts but are working at Starbucks or as bartenders because there is no real market for their specialities. For some reason, they blame themselves and think that there is something wrong with them now instead of realizing that their error came when they were convinced to pursue academic studies that were very unlikely to generate a viable career.

Comments are closed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More