Before I learnt to read I made sense of the world by conjuring up images in my mind, particularly for abstract concepts. I could count before I could read and had an image for each number. Many of them were onomatopoeic, so six, for example, was person being sick. My mental images for morning, afternoon and evening must have come from early memories of someone saying the words to my mother. The images and voices for morning and evening were male. But for afternoon it was a woman’s voice. This is not surprising because it reflected the pattern of the day.
In the mornings of my early childhood, there were lots of men about. Sometimes we would go to the shops and there would be men serving, like the butcher and the greengrocer. The mornings were also when men came round and did things. The men who lived on the road went off to work but then other men appeared. The postman, the milkman, the dustbin men, delivery men, tradesmen and workmen. In the evening, the men came back from work. The afternoons, though, were almost entirely female. The only man who came round in the afternoon was the ice cream man. My abiding memory of the afternoons of my early childhood is of women and children walking along the road, or standing talking together. I remember one afternoon when a friend’s bike got stolen, groups of indignant women out in the road. It must have been another child that stole it though because a man would have stuck out like a sore thumb. There just weren’t any of them around in the afternoon because, of course, they were all at work.
My mental image for the word ‘work’ was of lots of men getting into small cars, usually Minis, and driving off. Like many people, my parents moved out of the city in the 1960s to a newly built housing development. The availability and affordability of cars allowed people to live further away from where they worked. People who, a decade or so earlier, might have walked, cycled or got a bus to work were now able to drive. Yet, despite the modern feel of my childhood world, with its new houses, wide roads and a car in every drive, the structure of employment was very similar to that which had persisted for most of the century. The men went off to work, in full-time jobs, usually for some sort of organisation, be it large, small, public or private. Although my father became self-employed sometime in the 1970s, he was in partnership with three others and he still went off to work every day. These were what people thought of as ‘dad jobs’. They were full-time, relatively long-term, for some sort of organisation and you went somewhere to do them. And they were what men did.
But even as I stood in the window, at the tail end of the 60s, watching the men drive off to work, things were starting to change. From the early 1970s, the male employment rate began to decline, slowly at first and then steeply in the 1980s.
This decline hasn’t reversed with economic recoveries. The male employment rate fell below 80 percent and stayed there.
Even this doesn’t tell the whole story though because the type of male employment has changed too. Last summer’s labour market report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills showed that there are fewer men in full-time employee jobs now than there were in 1981, even though there are 3 million more working-age men. UKCES didn’t expect that number to change by much over the next decade.
The recovery of full-time male employment after the recession was slow. It was not until the end of 2014 that the number of men in full-time employee jobs returned to its pre-recession level and it’s not that much higher now.
Chart by Resolution Foundation, 15/02/2017
Last month’s report on inequality by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that the shift away from full-time work has been most pronounced at the lower end of the male earnings distribution. The lower wage deciles have seen the largest fall in the number of hours worked and the greatest increase in part-time employment.
The Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission report last month found that, in each generation, a greater proportion of men is spending longer in part-time employment.
It also found that, as the middle level jobs in manufacturing and administration have disappeared, more young men are finding themselves in lower paying jobs. The hollowing out of the jobs market seems to have affected young men more adversely than young women.
As Daniel Tomlinson comments:
Between 1993 and 2015-16 there has been a 40 per cent reduction in the number of young men (aged 22-35) doing routine manufacturing jobs and a 66 per cent fall in the number of young women working in secretarial roles.
So what are they doing instead? Employment growth amongst women has been overwhelmingly found in higher-skilled jobs. However for men the growth is much more evenly split between higher and lower paying occupations.
Zooming in on the two lowest paid occupational groups of sales and basic service jobs, we can see that the employment growth here is based on increases in the number of young men working in these two sectors. Part-time work has driving much of this increase. In fact the number of men working part time in these sectors has increased four-fold since 1993, while the number of women (both younger and older) working part time has fallen.
Data from the US suggests that British men may have adapted to the changing labour market more quickly than their American counterparts who are proving reluctant to accept low-paid service sector jobs that have traditionally been done by women. Many men seem to have simply dropped out of the workforce. (America’s female labour force participation has also fallen over the last decade or so, though not as steeply.) As in most other advanced economies, the skilled manufacturing jobs have declined and the employment growth is in lower-paid service sectors.
The historic numbers I could find for other major developed economies suggest that the direction of travel is broadly the same, although, as with the UK, Germany’s fall in male employment came earlier than America’s and Japan has held up relatively well.
Throughout Europe, female employment rates proved more resilient after the recession, while male employment took longer to recover.
Now to put all this in context, a job in the UK is still more likely to have a male full-time employee doing it than anyone else, it’s just that there are not as many of them as there used to be and, as a proportion of the workforce, they are declining. This trend will probably continue. It is very unlikely that Donald Trump, Brexit, curbs on immigration or anything else will ‘bring the jobs back’. Manufacturing work might be re-shored but much of it will most likely be done by robots. Automation is likely to change our labour market beyond all recognition in the next couple of decades.
But even though we know all this, a lot of us still think of dad jobs when we think of work. I still do, unconsciously, and I’m someone who pretends to know about this stuff. A few of years ago, Gallup found that what most people wanted, all over the world, was a secure full-time job. That, after all, is the way most people get enough money to live on. It is understandable, therefore, that the erosion of long-standing employment patterns should cause anxiety and resentment. The British Social Attitudes Survey found marked increase in feelings of insecurity at work over the past decade, particularly among older workers. Against this background, talk of bringing back jobs and taking back control was always likely to win votes. A lot of us, men and women, grew up thinking of male full-time jobs as real jobs. It’s no wonder that many find the decline of the dad job so unsettling.