How has the pandemic affected male workers? More of them are working, but there’s a problem

This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday January 12, 2022. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.

Since March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I’ve talked about the she-cession because the pandemic upended the usual gendered patterns of recession, and few people were paying attention to what the new patterns meant.

But the untold story of what has been happening to men at work is equally illuminating. Sure, the recovery is more established for men than women, but things aren’t “back to normal.” More men are struggling with too little or too much paid work, and more demands on their unpaid time.

The masculine model of work that even women take for granted is not working; it depends on a reliable breadwinner and someone at home to pick up the pieces. And its assumptions are failing men and women alike.

For decades, the share of adult men in the labour force has been shrinking, even as the share of women has increased.

In 1981, 78.4 per cent of all men in Canada aged 15 and older were in the labour force, either working or looking for work.

After rebounding from historic lows in 2020 due to the pandemic, only 69.6 per cent of adult males were working or looking for work in 2021.

Since the 1970s, a growing number of men are no longer in the labour force for a number of reasons; they’ve been studying for longer, older men have been taking advantage of better retirement benefits; and some male-dominated jobs have simply vanished completely due to de-industrialization and shifts in demand for commodities like coal and oil.

Since the pandemic’s onset, the single biggest factor driving men from the labour force has been accelerating retirements of men older than 65, driven by an aging population, less economic activity and fear of contracting COVID-19.

But there’s a silver lining to this story; when you look at the segment of men in the prime of their lives, between 25 and 54, more of them are now working than at any other time since 1989.

This is good news. But the story about work is not just if you have it or not. It’s about how much of it you have.

There are more jobs now than in February 2020, but one in six men in this prime-age segment (25-54) don’t have even 30 hours of paid work a week. With the exception of the pandemic, the only other time so many men had so few hours of paid work was during the recession of 2009.

While we can’t track individual workers’ trajectories over time, the monthly snapshots from Statistics Canada’s most recent Labour Force Survey from December 2021 revealed that while the number of jobs rebounded, the jobs that came back often offered fewer hours.

The share of men with part-time work grew in the transportation and construction sectors while the share of men with full-time work in those sectors fell.

The reverse phenomenon has occurred for women, where the share of women with full-time work grew as health-care providers and retailers facing labour shortages asked employees to work longer hours in these traditionally women-dominated professions.

The last time the share of prime-age workers clocking in 50 hours or more a week escalated was in the 1990s, when the huge wave of downsizing in large public and private enterprises forced remaining workers to work harder and longer.

After steadily falling since the late 1990s, the number of these workers putting in more than 50 hours a week has been rising for both men and women in recent months, now accounting for 17 per cent of prime-age men’s jobs, and eight per cent of women’s.

These are the very workers we’re asking to put in more unpaid time to provide the child care, schooling and elder care that governments have failed to provide during the pandemic.

Will an aging population now trigger a spate of longer-hours jobs today like austerity did in the 1990s?

As Omicron unfolds, we’ll all be watching the binary metric of who’s working vs. who’s not working in the coming months.

But the story of who’s got too much work and who’s got too little is critical to the storyline, too.

Traditionally, the lowest-paid workers worked the longest hours to make ends meet. That’s changed.

Now low-paid workers have trouble patching together enough hours, while getting to and staying in the top requires utter devotion to your job.

I don’t use the term devotion lightly.

The commitment of time and focus to our careers and employers has become an all-or-nothing proposition for many more workers.

The pandemic hasn’t ended that. Indeed it is amplifying divergent realities of scrambling for enough work at the bottom and trading off life for work at the top.

The lead story in this tale of contrasts is the disaster unfolding in the care economy (health care, elder care, child care and education) since the start of 2022.

While dealing with the fallout is, once again, primarily a woman’s issue, men are also increasingly being challenged to re-evaluate how much to give to their paid jobs because of unfilled demands for unpaid care.

Thus, the pandemic asks of each of us: To what and to whom are you devoted?

The recovery is more of a he-covery than a she-covery as more women are still finding themselves unable to embrace their careers or simply find work. But even for men this recovery is found wanting.

With more men unable to find more than 30 hours a week, and more men and women asked to work longer hours at the same time, pandemic economics could trigger a reckoning about how we value our paid and unpaid work, which defines us, as workers, as humans.

After all, male or female, everyone only gets 24 hours in a day.