‘Beached White Males’: The downturn’s true victims?

Zachary Roth

Are "BWMs" -- Beached White Males -- the real victims of our struggling economy?

Newsweek's new cover story laments the plight of college-educated white men, a traditionally comfortable group hit hard by the Great Recession and its aftermath. "Can manhood survive the lost decade?" it asks.

No doubt, the travails of the BWMs are great. But a broader look at the story of the last few years suggests the special-case sympathies are misplaced.

Newsweek's Rick Marin and Tony Dokoupil report:

Through the first quarter of 2011, nearly 600,000 college-educated white men ages 35 to 64 were unemployed, according to previously unpublished Labor Department stats. That's more than 5 percent jobless—double the group's pre-recession rate. That might not sound bad compared with the plight of younger, less-educated workers and minorities, but it's a historic change from the last recession, when about half as many lost their oxford shirts.

That's true. Past downturns have been far kinder to college-educated white men (fine, we'll call them BWMs). But Newsweek seems to see a broader threat. It touts an "exclusive poll" of unemployed men, finding high levels of depression, fatigue, and even (the shame!) willingness to give one's wife a backrub if she comes home grumpy.

Yes, BWMs have taken a real hit in the job market this time. As Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) told Newsweek: Middle-aged BWMs are "doing worse than they have at any time since the Great Depression."

But here's the thing: So is everyone. When we called Shierholz to drill down a bit further, she told us that BWMs are "definitely doing better than any group of racial and ethnic minorities, and groups with lower education."

Indeed, unemployment data suggest not only that BWMs are prospering more than most other groups in absolute terms, but also that the downturn hit non-whites harder than whites and those without college degrees harder than those with. In other words, as in past recessions, the groups that were already struggling bore the brunt of the blow.

First, let's consider the absolute terms. Per Newsweek, the jobless rate for BWMs between 35 and 64 is more than 5 percent. But the overall jobless rate is 8.9 percent, meaning unemployment for non-BWMs is likely twice what it is for BWMs. So the numbers don't sound that bad.

But even if BWMs are advantaged over other segments of the population, they might still have taken a bigger hit during the Great Recession and its aftermath. If so, it would perhaps be worth singling them out as cause for special concern.

However, that doesn't seem to hold true either, at least when you look at each BWM sub-group individually.

Let's look at whites first. In the first quarter of 2007 -- before the Great Recession began -- 64 percent of whites were employed, according to numbers compiled by Shierholz and EPI, using Labor Department data. By the first quarter of this year, that had dropped to 59.4 percent, a decline of 4.6 percent. Sounds bad. But in the same period, the equivalent numbers for blacks went from 59 to 52 -- a decline of 7 percent. And Hispanics went from 65.5 to 58.9 -- a drop of 6.6 percent. So not only do blacks and Hispanics have higher current jobless rates than whites, they've also done worse during the downturn.

It's a similar story when we consider education level. Looking at the same set of numbers (though these stats exclude those under 25), 77 percent of workers with college degrees were employed in early 2007. By this year, that had fallen to 73.4 percent, for a drop of 3.6 percent. Again, that's cause for concern -- but not for as much concern as the equivalent rates for those with only a high-school education. There, we went from 60.2 employment down to 54.5 -- a decline of 5.7 percent. So  when the recession started, workers without degrees lagged behind workers with degrees. And today, they lag even further behind.

Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution has looked at similar numbers and come to the same conclusion. "During the Great Recession, employment dropped much less steeply among college-educated workers than other workers," he wrote in a November 2010 study.

The only BWM sub-group that offers any support at all for the anxiety over BWMs is the M part: that is, males. Thanks to layoffs in the man-heavy financial and computer industries, employment for men has declined from 70.2 percent to 63.9 percent -- a drop of 6.3 percent. Women, meanwhile, have seen a less sharp drop: from 56.9 to 53.3, or 3.6 percent. So it's true that men have been hit harder than women by the downturn. But even so, they're still doing a whole lot better. It's just that the gender gap has narrowed somewhat.

To be sure, it's newsworthy that BWMs saw significant job losses during this recession, when previous downturns had been kinder to them. That tells us something important about the Great Recession: that its effects have been felt across the board, not just among workers who traditionally are the most vulnerable.

But the magazine seems to argue that the job woes of the BWMs deserve more widespread concern than the job woes of other groups:

It might be tempting to snark at these former fat cats suffering lean times. But when Beached White Males suffer, so do their wives and children. Lives, marriages, and futures are at stake. Examining who these guys are, and what washed them up, is not an exercise in schadenfreude. It's a cautionary tale. To quote Arthur Miller on the most famous Beached White Male, "Attention must be paid."

This is unpersuasive, to say the least. There's no doubt that an unemployed person's family suffers with them, so no one's snarking at anyone. But that's likely just as true when the unemployed person is a woman, or is black or Hispanic, or lacks a college degree. And as the data show, those groups are actually suffering more.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the focus on the plight of the BWMs has more to do with cultural assumptions about who should be on top--or at least who always has been--than it does with any actual socioeconomic issues.

In short, if we're going to worry about joblessness -- and we've argued at length here that we're not worrying about it nearly as much as we should -- it would make more sense to worry about the groups that have actually been hit the hardest.

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)