The Social Consequences of a Prolonged Downturn

Drake Bennett has a thought-provoking piece in the Boston Globe about what a real depression would look like in the contemporary United States. The key thing to remember, as he points out, is that even substantial shrinkage in American GDP and a prolonged period of high unemployment wouldn’t actually bring back the specific conditions that existed in the 1930s — the United States in 2007 was a much richer country than the United States in 1929, so a big fall-off still leaves in a very different situation.

One particular thing that I think is worth drilling into, though, is the potentially large social implications of a prolonged downturn. People don’t think about this much, but there was a kind of false dawn of feminist progress in the 1920s. The teens were an important time of women’s suffrage activism and the 19th amendment came into law in 1920. In the twenties you had a lot of women participating the workforce, and various shifts in sexual mores. Then came the Depression, which threw huge numbers of people out of work and led to a big drop in the divorce rate as people were too economically insecure to split up. The New Dealers had a lot of maternalist ideas, and the policies they put in place in the 1930s were specifically designed to reconstruct the economy on around an ideal of stay-at-home moms. And that’s what you saw emerge when the country emerged form the Depression during and after the war.

Flash forward to 2008 and Americans work an unusually large number of hours per day and of days per year. And part of the story here is that a lot of the American economy is dedicated to facilitating long working hours for busy people — you have various forms of child care, prepared foods, paid housework, etc. One thing you could expect to see in a downturn would be families working fewer hours and having less money and, consequently, paying for fewer of these services and doing more of it themselves. That could, however, play out in a bunch of different ways. You could imagine a world in which the disemployment spreads around at random and you have an equal number of two-earner households in which the man loses his job or is forced into part-time work as you have two-earner households in which this happens to the woman. In that case, you can expect to see further evolution of gender norms in which newly unemployed or underemployed men wind up shouldering more of the burden for cooking, cleaning, and childcare as their newly-poorer households need to cut back on expenditures. Alternatively, you could see a scenario in which the reduction in total hours worked comes disproportionately in the form of women doing less paid work. Then you’d see existing imbalances in the amount of domestic labor exacerbated and existing, but fading, gender norms further re-enforced.

Of course hopefully we’ll avoid a prolonged downturn and none of this will come up.