Fifty-eight-year-old Dean Canaris spends much of his time growing beets, potatoes, and other produce. A stark contrast to how he used to spend his time, this former quality engineer was laid off without severance. Canaris was featured in a USA Today article, but his story is not unique. He is just one of many white men finding themselves unemployed after years of being at the top of the professional heap.
White men. Often respected, revered, even resented by non-white men for their seemingly fixed position at the top of the social and corporate ladder. For decades, diversity and inclusion practitioners and champions have struggled with making a case to said men—highlighting the importance of creating an inclusive work environment for marginalized employees. But, in the wake of one of the most devastating recessions our global economy has seen, white men’s position at the top has been shaken to its core.
Consider the figures: the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that during the first quarter of 2011, nearly 600,000 college-educated white men between the ages of 35 and 64 were unemployed. That means that almost five percent of white men were without a job. And while that pales in comparison to black men—a population that has long flirted with double-digit unemployment—that is double the unemployment rate for white men before the recession hit.
And it’s not just white men who have been laid off who are affected. Many who weathered the recession storm are now faced with having to work later into life. Matt Carmichael, director of information projects at Advertising Age says, “Because of the recession, 401Ks and retirement funds have been slammed. What white men intended to have is no longer available, so they are stuck working later into life because their nest-egg is smaller than it was five years ago.”
But why has this happened to white men? Why now?
One reason white men seem to have been smacked by the recession is because of the industries in which a fair number of them were employed, Carmichael points out. Many male-dominated industries are at the greatest risk of being outsourced as our economy continues to be played out on a global level. According to Carmichael, skilled jobs have been hardest hit, causing a decline in the presence of men in the workforce on that front.
As skilled jobs decline, so do the jobs in corporate offices that once profited off of them, leading to an overall decline in the presence of white men in the workplace—even those with college and advanced degrees. When the real estate market crashed, job opportunities for architects, engineers, developers and builders dried up rapidly. White men statistically dominate all of those industries.
But if much of white men’s privilege in society is linked to their ability to amass and distribute capital, can we assume that the rapid loss of jobs necessarily means a decline in their power and influence? In a way, the answer is yes. A huge part of privilege is linked to wealth and access to employment. The rapid dissipation of wealth and decline in white male employment comes as a major jolt to the very foundation of privilege as we know it.
Changing Demographics: The Perfect Storm
The recession is not the only thing that has rattled the foundation of white male privilege. A shift in social demographics has also called assumptions of power into question. For example, women are outpacing white men in obtaining college and advanced degrees.
Census data from 2010 indicates that 37 percent of employed women have college degrees or higher, compared to 35 percent of men. When the demographic data is narrowed to men and women between the ages of 25 and 30, the gap widens—36 percent compared to 28 percent. And 100,000 more women than men hold master’s degrees.
”Education and income are pretty directly correlated,” says Carmichael. “The growth of women in this area will mean a greater presence of women in the workplace and in leadership positions.”
While women are still underrepresented in several fields, and a wage disparity favoring men is still prevalent, an influx of qualified women are entering the workplace at the same time that white men are losing their jobs—marking a dynamic shift in how company leadership looks, and how wealth and influence are distributed.