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It comes as no surprise that men have borne the brunt of this Great Recession. While female-dominated labor markets, such as education and health care, have held strong and even grown over the past few years, those typically dominated by men, such as manufacturing, have been ravaged. A New York Times blog recently rehashed this fairly old news with a few important new thoughts.
Thoughts to consider
First, as we limp toward recovery, it's becoming clear that men are not only a disproportionately large segment of the unemployed population, but that they also occupy or occupied jobs that are not likely to reappear soon. Sectors that experienced the most significant destruction, including manufacturing, real estate, and construction, aren't rehiring in any meaningful capacity now, and they don't seem to be planning to rehire any time in the near or medium future. Cyclical though these industries might be, one has to wonder what kind of future we have as a nation in any of these sectors, specifically manufacturing. Therefore, it's worth asking what the people -- mostly men -- who worked in these industries will do.
Second, assuming that answer is "nothing" or close to it: What are the effects of long-term, male-heavy unemployment and underemployment? What are the effects of those effects? I'm not merely talking about the economic implications, but also the social and psychological ones. This fairly massive shift in the American way of life is occurring right under our noses.
More than just a trend
The rise of the American woman in recent decades has, in some senses, coincided with the decline (or, at least, the stagnation) of the American man. I doubt both genders exist within some sort of zero-sum environment, where one's gain guarantees the other's loss, but it's nonetheless interesting to consider the timing.
The sun has been rising steadily over female empowerment since suffrage, but recently it has taken on a whole lot of momentum. From an education perspective, girls have long outperformed boys in standardized tests in grade schools. Women have also been the dominant gender at American universities for more than 25 years, again outperforming their male counterparts while there by a significant margin. But now, in the working world, unemployment discrepancies between the two gender gaps have never been so significant.
For the first time, this country may be facing long periods defined by large numbers of men with very little in terms of a professional future, standing directly alongside women with plenty in terms of career prospects.
New trends emerge
At the highest levels of education, women for the first time earned more Ph.D degrees than men in 2009, and they're earning roughly 60% of masters' degrees. Half of all law students are female, as well as 42% of MBA students, and both ratios are rising quickly. And in 2003, women became the majority population at American medical schools.
Obviously, none of this is a bad thing per se, and there are still significant concerns facing women in the form of wage discrimination and glass ceilings. Still, there must be some interesting consequences to this shift awaiting us in the future.
As we eyeball this country through the lens of the relative success of each gender, it's also a bit terrifying to see the massive inequity that exists in employment levels when broken down by education. According to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who appeared on 60 Minutes the other night, if you have a college degree, the rate of unemployment is a mere 5%. If you have a high school degree, you're facing a 10% unemployment rate. So if women are the dominant gender at institutions of higher learning, and graduates of higher institutions are doing significantly better than those that haven't graduated from college … you see where I'm going here.
The effects of the effects
I'm certainly not a sociologist (merely a curious investor), but I wonder how this will eventually manifest itself within our nation's consumption-based economy. Considering women's incredible inroads into the institutions of American higher education and other places, it's no surprise that four in 10 mothers have now become the primary breadwinners in their families. Isn't it reasonable to believe that as this trend continues to intensify, consumption habits will profoundly change as well?
For example, according to Mint.com, men spend an average of $522 per year on alcohol, versus $233 for women. What happens to Diageo (NYSE: DEO ) and Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD ) if men's purchasing power decreases dramatically, while women's increases? Will the companies be able to make up for it by selling more booze to women?
According to the same survey, men spend $701 per year on electronics, compared to the $536 that women spend. That's not such a huge differential, but I have to imagine that men are dominating certain categories like video games, while women participate more fully elsewhere. Even among brands, there are significant consumption differences. According to a survey from Nielsen, men had strong preferences for Google's Android, while women preferred Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone. There are an infinite number of these scenarios to consider.
Where we're headed
None of these theoretical changes in consumption will manifest themselves overnight. And no matter what happens, it's totally ridiculous to think that men will never buy cell phones or beer again. But the power of the purse is an important tool to wield in this country. Pending unforeseen innovations and developments in our nation's labor markets, it's worth thinking about how your stocks might be affected by this slow-moving shift in power.
Beyond consumption, it's also very interesting to think about how these changes will affect our society at large. I doubt we'll be able to feel these changes in real time, but over a given generation, it's likely to be pretty darn noticeable.