Men suffer as the economy changes

The dramatic shift away from repetitive, simple jobs to those entailing more human interaction has sapped men’s satisfaction with their lives, according to a new US study that compares how men and women feel about their jobs.

Women are moving into occupations that produce more happiness and meaningfulness for them. “The different results for men and women arise not only from the differences in how the distribution of occupations has changed but also from differences in the feelings men and women report in the same occupation,” the authors say.

“The overall improvement for women appears to be driven by their shift into professional and managerial work and out of factory work … The overall decreases for men appear to be driven by their shift out of farming and factory work and into professional and service occupations.”

This isn’t some two-bit study but rigorous analysis of survey and employment data by economists Greg Kaplan and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl from the University of Chicago and the US Federal Reserve, respectively. All this could explain some of the disaffection among less educated men, even those with jobs.

Compared with women, men appear to like being machine operators, assemblers and inspectors — jobs that have steadily vanished — not Deliveroo drivers, social workers or retail assistants. On the other hand, women like professional, social assistance and service jobs — the sorts of jobs that are proliferating — more than men do. In Australia, women have filled more than three-quarters of the 700,000 rise in full-time health and social assistance jobs since 1990.

The study was based on three surveys in the US in 2010, 2012 and 2013 that invited respondents to rate how their jobs made them feel.

Jobs have changed dramatically. In Australia the employment share of the manufacturing sector has shrivelled steadily from almost 30 per cent in the 1960s to less than 10 per cent. Agriculture has dropped from 22 per cent in the 1930s to barely 2 per cent. The service sector has grown to almost 80 per cent.

Since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, economists have recognised that the “agreeableness of disagreeableness”, as he put it, of particular jobs would affect the level of pay. But they have always assumed work itself causes a disutility for the worker. That is, monetary compensation is necessary to elicit any effort.

“It is becoming more evident that the loss of psychological benefits of work may be an important component of the overall costs of changes in employment,” the study’s authors say, referring to rising rates of substance abuse and suicide among unemployed men.

Women dominate public sector employment, too, where pay and conditions have improved faster than in private enterprise.

Their overall participation rates — the share in or looking for work — have been soaring while men’s have collapsed. Perhaps the gender satisfaction gap matters more than the so-called gender pay gap.

Economics Editor
Adam Creighton is an award-winning economics journalist with a special interest in tax and financial policy. He spent most of 2016 at the Wall Street Journal in Washington DC. He won the Citi Journalism Award for Excellence in 2015, and was runner up in the internationally recognised Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2014. He started his career at the Reserve Bank of Australia and studied economics at Oxford, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar. In 2017 he was appointed to the National Archives of Australia Advisory Council.