It's hard to know the WHY behind these numbers but it is an interesting discussion on gender, money, and power. The terrible bottom line of last Friday's job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not surprise many people - there were many fewer jobs in December 2008 than in the previous month.
Much less noticed, however, was Friday's breakdown by sex of employment declines before December. Is it possible that one legacy of this recession is that women become a majority of the work force for the first time in American history?
Years ago, women were a small percentage of the work force (outside the home). During much of the 20th century - especially the 1970s and 1980s - women's share of the labor force increased. By 1990, the work force was 47 percent female and 53 percent male, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many view this as one of the most important and desirable social and economic transformations of our lifetimes.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and until this recession, women remained less than 49 percent of the work force. However, that percentage has now passed 49 percent and may cross the 50 percent threshold for the first time.
In November 2008, the female work force shrank more in percentage terms than it ever has in any one month - and more than ever over any single year - since 1964, if not longer. Nevertheless, the drop in the number of women working so far in this recession is smaller than the decline for men - even when measured in percentage terms - as has been the case in previous recessions.
There have been three distinct recessions - 1990-91, 2001 and today. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recessions began in July 1990, March 2001 and December 2007. The first two ended in March 1991 and November 2001. Two notes: First, nobody knows when this recession will end, and second, the most recent data for which the the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports employment by sex is November 2008.
During the first recession, male employment fell 2.0 percent, while female employment hardly fell at all (less than 0.05 percent). In the other two recessions, the percentage employment loss for men exceeded that for women by a factor of 3 to 5 (interestingly, although women still have a small minority of each recession's employment decline, the female share of the decline has increased from one recession to the next, indicating that jobs held by women have become more sensitive to changes in the business cycle).
As a result of the larger male jobs losses, women's share of the work force has increased 0.5 percentage points in each of the most recent recessions. For example, the 0.5 percentage point increase that occurred in the 8 months of the 1990-91 recession is more than occurred for the 10 years that followed, or in the 6 years that followed the 2001 recession.
If the pundits are right that this recession will be long and severe, then women may gain the 0.9 percentage points from November 2008 that would push them past the 50 percent milestone. Important milestones will remain to be achieved, but women's surpassing 50 percent of employment is something that historians will note for years to come. [Econmix]