What I Learned While on My First Post-Pandemic Vacation

Beach in Rodanthe, NC – June 3, 2021

I spent Memorial Day week down in the Outer Banks (“OBX”) of North Carolina, with my husband and our dogs, my sister-in-law, and my younger two kids—including the youngest of my four children, my son who just graduated from William & Mary summa cum laude with a double major in economics and business analytics (#proudmama). My daughter brought along her boyfriend, and my son brought along his girlfriend plus 13 more of his teammate friends from the W&M track team, making this first “post-pandemic” beach week for our family also a graduation present to my son.

The vacation turned out to be a learning trip for me, not because I was trying to make it one, but just because it happened that way. Below are a few things my week at the beach told me about what’s been special about all of us living through the pandemic year and how we’re starting to emerge on the other side. The pandemic recession was not just disruptive but enlightening and transformational for the U.S. economy, because of the changes people have made in their lives, and the inability or lack of desire to just get back to the way things were. The OBX provides a vivid illustration, because it is so specialized in certain kinds of economic activity and is geographically isolated (difficult to get to).

Work v. Life became Work & Life. In the OBX, vacation homes have been nearly fully booked up since they reopened last May, even back when local leisure and hospitality business operations were still greatly restricted. With work and school no longer “place based” for many Americans, families were forced to manage on their own under their own roofs, and while some struggled to make it work, others thrived. Collecting usual salaries while avoiding the usual commuting and child care costs, some families had the financial means to move out of their smaller dwellings in the cities to larger homes further out. Even if family-centered “pod” life might have been stressful at first, as the pandemic wore on, many people have decided they like being able to better combine their work with the rest of their lives. Even when offices and schools are fully reopened, it’s not likely that everyone will go back to their pre-pandemic office and school settings.

Leisure/Hospitality jobs disappeared, and the workers moved on. The OBX completely shut down to non-owner visitors at the start of the pandemic, for two months from mid-March to mid-May 2020. Even when they reopened to non-owner visitors in May 2020 (and my family traveled down there at that first opportunity), the few restaurants that had reopened were only offering takeout, as business restrictions dictated. Workers who lost their jobs here had no choice but to go on unemployment, or to move to other places and other kinds of work. The longer the pandemic continued, the more likely it became that OBX leisure/hospitality businesses lost their connections to their previous employees and would not be able to just “call them back” once the pandemic was over. And so it goes in the OBX this summer: restaurants can now operate at full capacity, but they don’t have the staff to handle their usual summer-season volume. The short supply of workers in the OBX is due to both: (i) a lack of an adequate number of “home-grown” workers (there are hardly any young people best suited for leisure/hospitality jobs who live full time in the OBX), and (ii) the ongoing suspension of the temporary work/visit visa programs which bring young worker-visitors over from other countries and are how beach resort areas would normally match the summer surges in demand.

The unleashing of the “cooped-up demand” for going out is happening all over. It’s not just the OBX that is currently experiencing a “supply chain” problem of demand for labor outpacing supply of labor in the leisure/hospitality sector. Locationally-precise Google Trends data illustrate this is happening across the country as a whole, with searches for “restaurants near me” accelerating well ahead of searches for “jobs near me” over the past few months as vaccination rates rose and business restrictions lifted.

Google Trends data on searches for “restaurants near me” vs. “jobs near me” – pulled 6/13/21 for past 12 months

(I’m going to elaborate on this simple indicator of labor demand vs. supply by looking more closely at (and sharing) these trends in Google searches from different local parts of the country in the next couple weeks. The “ground-level” stories are revealing about the “why” these labor shortages and the challenges to alleviating them.)

The “gift” of pandemic quarantine has been like the “Gift from the Sea.” As you’ve heard over and over during the pandemic, the economic recession caused by the pandemic is often called the “She-cession” because of how dramatically it reduced female employment and the wake-up call we’ve received about how participation in the market economy depends not just on what the demand for one’s work is in the market economy, but what the competing demands for one’s time (and unpaid work) at home might be. The pandemic recession forced many women to drop out of or cut back on market work when they took on the “primary caregiver” role at home as schools and daycare centers and eldercare facilities were closed or became unsatisfactory options. Many of these women bore tremendous stress early in the pandemic as they first juggled and multitasked in their work and family roles, but as the pandemic lingered, they gradually recalibrated as they went along. But women having to work so many jobs (whether paid or unpaid) is nothing brand new; the pandemic has just shone a spotlight on it and made others in the family and in the workplace more keenly aware of it. And in some ways this reality has been put on pause or at least slow motion—and has given women more time to be at peace with it, or to get to being at peace with it.

This brings me to the ideas in a favorite book of mine, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which I brought with me to my OBX vacation, re-reading it for the first time in probably 10-12 years. (Written in the 1950s and reprinted in the 1970s for its 20th anniversary, I still own my mother’s hard copy which she bought from Book of the Month Club back when I was only a young teenager.) Spending some intentional alone time away from her usual frenetically hectic life as a (famous) wife and mother, Lindbergh writes in her “Moon Shell” chapter about the need for some solitude and inner reflection in every person’s life:

Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day. How revolutionary that sounds and how impossible of attainment. To many women such a program seems quite out of reach. They have no extra income to spend on a vacation for themselves; no time left over from the weekly drudgery of housework for a day off; no energy after the daily cooking, cleaning and washing for even an hour of creative solitude. Is this then only an economic problem? I do not think so. Every paid worker, no matter where in the economic scale, expects a day off a week and a vacation a year. By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class. They rarely even complain of their lack, apparently not considering occasional time to themselves as a justifiable need…the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation…
…Woman must be the pioneer in this turning inward for strength. In a sense she has always been the pioneer. Less able, until the last generation, to escape into outward activities, the very limitations of her life forced her to look inward. And from looking inward she gained an inner strength which man in his outward active life did not as often find. But in our recent efforts to emancipate ourselves, to prove ourselves the equal of man, we have, naturally enough perhaps, been drawn into competing with him in his outward activities, to the neglect of our own inner springs. Why have we been seduced into abandoning this timeless inner strength of woman for the temporal outer strength of man? This outer strength of man is essential to the pattern, but even here the reign of purely outer strength and purely outward solutions seems to be waning today. Men, too, are being forced to look inward—to find inner solutions as well as outer ones. Perhaps this change marks a new stage of maturity for modern extrovert, activist, materialistic Western man. Can it be that he is beginning to realize that the kingdom of heaven is within?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955

Whether we’ve gone on our own retreat to the sea or not, this past year living through the pandemic has taken us away from the usual nature of our lives where we tend to compartmentalize our roles at home versus at work, and where we tend to lose sight of our “inner springs” when we tap into only our “outer strengths” at work. A forced “pause” in the usual pace and practices of our lives has gone on for so long that it has likely permanently altered our course going forward. Women and men are rethinking how they want to make their work lives more compatible with their personal lives. Employers will have trouble bringing workers back to the same old 9-to-5 office hours away from home.

I’ve personally spent almost a year without a full-time job. I took a “voluntary separation” offer and resigned from my last job in July of 2020, thinking at the time that it would be easy to find a new full-time job that would be a better fit for me than the last. But even the few jobs I interviewed for where I was a “finalist” candidate did not result in any job offer. Although I periodically became quite discouraged, throughout the past year I’ve continued to study and write about issues I’ve cared about, not only despite not being paid to do it, but really because no one had to pay me to do it. Since the last job offer I did not get—a month or two ago—I have both become more ok with not having a full-time job, and have taken on some part-time independent consulting roles that seem ideally suited to my interests and skill set and my internally-generated (rather than externally-directed) perspectives on the pandemic and recovering economy. I view this as a huge personal silver lining of the pandemic for me and my work: that if not for my failure to find the next full-time job quickly, I would not have arrived at the place of peace and fulfillment where I am able to do the work I love to do while living the life I love to live. I suspect that a lot of you out there have similarly found this past year of juggling your work and your personal lives personally enlightening and transformative, and, like me, you might be fortunate enough to have survived and emerged on the other side in a different and better place than you otherwise would have been had the pandemic never happened.

[ADDED 6/14:] And let me close with a couple of the closing paragraphs from Gift from the Sea, the final chapter of the book called “The Beach at My Back” —and it is amazing to recall that this was written in the 1950s about American life more generally, not in 2020-21 about lessons from the pandemic economic experience!

Perhaps we never appreciate the here and now until it is challenged, as it is beginning to be today even in America. And have we not also been awakened to a new sense of the dignity of the individual because of the threats and temptations to him, in our time, to surrender his individuality to the mass–whether it be industry or war or standardization of thought and action? We are now ready for a true appreciation of the value of the here and now and the individual.

The here, the now, and the individual, have always been the special concern of the saint, the artist, the poet, and–from time immemorial–the woman. In the small circle of the home she has never quite forgotten the particular uniqueness of each member of the family; the spontaneity of now; the vividness of here. This is the basic substance of life. These are the individual elements that form the bigger entities like mass, future, world. We may neglect these elements, but we cannot dispense with them. They are the drops that make up the stream. They are the essence of life itself. It may be our special function to emphasize again these neglected realities, not as a retreat from greater responsibilities but as a first real step toward a deeper understanding and solution of them. When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955

Building Back Better the Ultimate “Supply Side” of the Economy

Image from Resilience.org, “A Care Economy” (https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-06-29/a-care-economy/)

Economists are used to talking about treating recessions with policies that generate demand-side multipliers for the interdependent relationships we can see and measure in the market economy. But they never talk about “supply-side multipliers” which are about the interdependent, interpersonal relationships that affect people’s ability and availability and choice to supply labor to the market economy, which are largely invisible because that potential labor is still stuck at home, in unpaid household work, or held back from its full potential in underpaid market work.

Economists don’t know the income and price elasticities that would tell us what kind of policies would draw more of the people who currently don’t work in the market economy into the economy (and into GDP). But there’s clearly something way higher-order and more fundamental/foundational than the normal market sensitivities/responses going on when it comes to the potential role government could play in supporting the caregiving economy, in increasing not just economic activity but our economic potential (as in potential GDP).

If quality caregiving is available and affordable to families, that gives more freedom for mothers (or fathers, or adult children of elderly parents) to choose to stay at home or go to work. Government support of caregiving (subsidies to the “care economy”) should be made unconditional on who provides the care (the family or the market) to qualifying family members—children or elderly or the otherwise infirm.

Because we’ve never seen an economy with all those “supply-side multipliers” on, it’s silly for economists to scoff at the notion of “caregiving infrastructure” or suggest that investing in it would “overheat” the economy. We can’t overheat parts of the economy that haven’t even made it to the stovetop! Economists simply do not know how much our economy is capable of producing when all people could be unconstrained and encouraged by government policy the way white men’s work has always been. The “baseline” built into all our models of the economy is based on the white-male-dominated market economy we are used to seeing. (White people dominate population-based economic measures like the unemployment rate because they’re still the vast majority of the population; white men (and their roles in the economy) dominate dollar-based economic measures like GDP because they earn the highest incomes.) A Politico story on the Biden infrastructure plan highlights this “white man ignorance”:

And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie snickered about the vast federal outlays on child and elder care. “Now the ‘care economy’ is infrastructure,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The care economy. I don’t even know what the hell the care economy is.”

https://www.politico.com/news/2021/04/07/biden-build-back-better-bill-479522

This recession has been like no other due to the adverse effects via the supply side, not just the demand side, of the economy. If we want a robust recovery that actually takes our economy to a better place in the longer run—perhaps even better and stronger than if we had not gone through the pandemic—we need to fire up the “supply-side multiplier“ policies and stop viewing policies that support families as simply the old demand-side stimulus tools.

I recently spoke on a NABE webinar (video link here) about the Biden Administration’s “American Jobs Plan” (aka the “infrastructure” package) and was asked ahead of time to talk about a couple things I like best about the plan and a couple things I don’t like. What I like:

  • The focus on infrastructure spending as something good for expanding the supply-side, productive capacity of the economy and not just a quick way to create jobs and increase demand for goods and services;
  • The recognition that this kind of government spending that has longer-term economic benefits should be worth paying for, either through higher taxes now or higher debt that would require higher taxes later.

And two aspects that I’m less happy about:

  • That the notion of “infrastructure” investment in at least this first part of the recovery and rebuild package is mostly limited to building structures (things) rather than investing in people. This seems stuck on the old economists’ notion that “if we build it, the people will come.” But it’s the “people will come” part that’s been severely curtailed in the pandemic recession. I would have rather seen the Biden Administration lead with the investments in people who are the ultimate source of economic productivity. We have to have human capital before we generate other kinds of capital, and cultivating and moving human capital is far more challenging than attracting financial capital and building (mere) “things.” Could we work on the hard part first, and let the easy part follow?
  • That economists and policymakers are so focused on the main downside of the package being the tax increases that could reduce incentives for private-sector economic activity rather than recognizing the tax increases will pay for public investments with greater positive economic benefit than the tax cuts were. That old-school, old-model view (based on the white-male-dominated economy) is that marginal tax rate increases are bad and public spending has no benefit. But the white-male-dominated parts of the economy are already living up to (or extremely close to) their potential. They are maxed out and cannot do much better. The less successful, more constrained, underserved parts of our society are operating far from their economic potential, where the marginal gains to be had are still high.

In today’s economy, and importantly for tomorrow’s potential economy, investing more in people (and care for kids and elders, no matter how it’s provided) is not just being “nice” to families. It’s being smart about what will take our economy to its full potential. A more inclusive and equitable economy is a larger, stronger, and more resilient economy. In the Biden Administration’s “Build Back Better” plan, it is the emphasis on the investments in people—all people, not just the ones who have been most successful in our economy thus far—that will not just get our economy back to where it was pre-pandemic, but actually to a better place. The pandemic has been a terribly challenging time, but in the process we’ve also learned a lot about how our economy works, or doesn’t work—and how much the market economy (in all times) relies on unpaid or underpaid and largely “invisible” caregiving work.

While waiting for today’s BLS report…

I never posted my tables and charts through the December report (released first week of January) here. In a few minutes we get the January numbers, so here’s the bottom line as of the end of 2020: the so-called “She-cession” with female unemployment exceeding male only still held among *Asian* women as of the end of 2020! Here’s the table which underscores how we can’t generalize about how women vs. men are doing–or how anyone in the economy is doing–based on our usual aggregate and average statistics. I’ll have more to say on this topic of the need for more granular data in the future, maybe even this coming week when I next update employment stats based on the numbers we’re about to see.

From the Last BLS Report of (bleh) #2020

Here are some charts (and one table) I updated today in my employment status by race and gender analysis I’ve been doing since the summer. Crossposted in this (poorly numbered) Twitter thread here. All based on monthly (through November) unadjusted data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics accessible here.

Absolute change in unemployment rates among women by race — comparing the Great Recession with the Pandemic Recession. The largest increases in unemployment have been among women of color–Hispanic and Asian women at the start of the Pandemic Recession, but through November (all groups of) women of color still had experienced larger increases in unemployment than White women.
Unemployment rate for all in the labor force (age 16+), all men (blue), and all women (red), during the Pandemic Recession (Feb-Nov 2020). Note that female unemployment surged past men’s at the peak of the recession in April, but since October, the overall male unemployment rate has exceeded the female rate.
Female unemployment rates by race since January 2019. Before the pandemic, Asian women (blue line) typically enjoyed the best labor market outcomes and experienced the lowest unemployment rates, but in this Pandemic Recession their unemployment has increased the most and they have looked much more like other women of color (Hispanic/Latina and Black women) than like White women. In November, Asian female unemployment was still two full percentage points above White female unemployment.
Male (blue) and female (red) employment-to-population ratios during the Pandemic Recession (Feb 2020 – Nov 2020). Hard to see any interesting differences by gender when everyone is lumped together/averaged out! (Note that men have always had higher E/pop and the male and female levels appear to have moved together during this recession.)
Differences by race (men and women combined) in employment-to-population ratios are clearer. Note that Hispanics started out with highest E/Pop and dropped the most in the spring but have also recovered the most since the spring.
Looking at women by race, we see clear differences in the levels and trends of E/pop. Note that Asian women (in blue) for much of 2019 had the second-highest E/pop (closest to Black women, in green), but looked more like Hispanic women (in red) this recession and as of November had the lowest E/pop among all women by race.
Summary table of unemployment rate levels and changes for all race-gender categories, comparing the Great Recession with the Pandemic Recession.

Top line story is that yes, this Pandemic Recession has been one that’s disproportionately burdened women and especially women of color, but as the months are approaching a year, we’re seeing that even White men will not come out unscathed. With today’s report on the November employment situation–the rise in long-term unemployed, the slowing of the recovery in labor force participation and the employment-to-population ratio as people sit themselves on the sidelines (hunker down at home) and literally “wait” for the public health crisis to end–we can see that the labor market impacts we’ve suffered so far are going to take awhile to recover from.

For economic policy to be most helpful to the labor market recovery, it will have to address all the conditions that are holding back work both at the workplace (the demand side, where certain places and types of work are still not safe to return to) and the home (the supply side, where many parents are now full-time caregivers given school closures). This is truly not a typical economic recession–it is not just dubbed the “Pandemic Recession” but is literally driven by the pandemic. So first and foremost, we need to get the public health crisis under control. (And that means listen to Dr. Fauci’s advice about wearing our masks and avoiding social gatherings as we wait for our vaccine.)

Election-Week Updates on Women and Work

With Joe Biden having won the presidency as of yesterday (11/7/20), the new labor market data that came out the day before was amazingly aligned with voting patterns, which show men more often voting for Trump, women and especially women of color more often voting for Biden, and Trump (vs. Biden) voters more likely to put the economy (vs. the pandemic) as their biggest concern. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report on the monthly employment situation, and their underlying survey data (not all published in the report but accessible here and here) show that while the labor market continues to improve since its worst point this spring, the continued severity of the pandemic continues to weigh on women’s work far more than men’s. The “SheCession” (or is it “She-session” as Heather Long of the Washington Post recently called it… either works to me) is still an acute condition, particularly for women of color.

Below are the latest numbers (in table and charts) on unemployment by race and gender categories and comparing the current Pandemic Recession to the Great Recession. Through September, only Asian women were still at a higher level of unemployment than at the worst point of the Great Recession. As of the latest data for October, all race-gender categories have seen unemployment continue to fall to the point where even Asian women are now (slightly) better off (at 8.3% unemployment) than they were at the worst point of their Great Recession experience (which was 8.4%).

October is the first month since the start of the pandemic that we saw the overall female unemployment rate (at 6.5%) fall below the overall male unemployment rate (at 6.6%). But the differences across race are stark: among Hispanics and Asians, female unemployment still exceeds male unemployment. Factors driving the “SheCession” on both the demand and supply sides of the labor market make the explanations complicated and impossible to generalize. (Further interdisciplinary study–starting with interviews and focus groups, then moving to more detailed surveys and analysis of collected data–is needed.)

The larger toll of the pandemic on working women doesn’t just show up in the unemployment rate measure–which is still nearly double its February pre-pandemic rate and which can be misleadingly reduced when people drop out of the labor force entirely, which reduces the numerator (# of unemployed) by a larger proportion than the denominator (# in labor force = # unemployed + # employed). The “SheCession” also shows up in the employment-to-population (E/Pop) ratio:

And the SheCession shows up in the multiple jobholding data, where working women more commonly than men work two or more jobs (as has always been true because women more commonly work part-time rather than full-time jobs whether by preference or not), but in the pandemic recession have had to piece together and juggle multiple jobs along with their unexpected and unpredictable caregiving responsibilities at home. Note that during the pandemic we have seen the distribution of multiple jobholding among women widen across both race and age categories–with Black women and the youngest women most likely to be working multiple jobs:

Multiple Jobholding Among Women In the Pandemic Economy

To follow up on last week’s post showing how women are still more likely to be working multiple jobs than men (both among the employed and among their total populations), here’s a reminder that not all women are the same. Let’s look at multiple jobholders as a share of employed, across race and age categories.

Black women are substantially more likely to hold multiple jobs than any other race categories of women. Notably, while multiple jobholding fell for all groups in the spring when unemployment peaked (and number of overall jobs in the economy cratered), multiple jobholding as share of employed has already (as of September) returned to a “normal” level for Black women but not for other women.
By age categories, the youngest of working women (ages 20-24) have always been the most likely to hold multiple jobs, because they are most likely to have to piece together multiple part-time jobs (often in the leisure/hospitality sector) to make a living. These women were most likely to lose at least one of their multiple jobs at the start of the pandemic, and regain work as businesses reopened in the summer.

There are many factors that could explain the differences by race, probably most significantly that Black women are more likely to be sole earners in their households (as well as single parents) yet also more likely to earn lower hourly wages. The different trends by age reflect that multiple part-time jobs are often the closest a young adult (even a college-educated one) can come to a full-time job–and that the human-service-intensive jobs many young women work in were the ones that disappeared the most at the start of the pandemic and have not and will not likely fully come back even when the public health crisis eventually wanes. The Pandemic Recession — or “She-cession”– has not just been hard on women because of the severity of the lowest depths of job loss experienced, but because it’s really “jerked around” the women who were already the most economically vulnerable.

Update on Pandemic Recession vs. Great Recession Unemployment by Race and Gender (incl. Asian Women)

10/22/20: Belated UPDATE through September data to charts below, originally shared on Twitter here. (I’ll make future updates here as well in order to keep in one place where some might look thanks to the new Center for American Progress report by Mike Madowitz and Diana Boesch published today.)

Today the BLS released their monthly “Employment Situation” report –and the report’s underlying data (which you can access here), including numbers on Asian women separated from Asian men which are not included in the report. Here’s a small, mostly quantitative update to my original post (with Mina Kim) from last month. First, the bottom-line/main-story bar chart:

… and below, the updated table with detailed unemployment stats by race and gender:

One thing I decided to adjust in the bar chart and add as note to the table is that April 2020 was when the unemployment rate peaked for the workforce overall as well as for most of the race-gender categories–except that the peak for Asians (both men and women) and for Black women (and Black overall but not Black men) happened in May. So the bar chart compares the absolute change in unemployment rate during the (aftermath of the) Great Recession compared with the change from this February to either April or May–whichever was the worst point for each race-gender category.

Some findings worth highlighting (or repeating):

  • Asian women fared the best in the Great Recession in that their absolute change in unemployment rate from the start of the recession to peak unemployment was the smallest of all race-gender categories;
  • From the start of the Pandemic Recession (Feb. 2020) to either peak unemployment in April or May, or to the latest data for September, White men have fared the best (their September unemployment rate is just 2.8 percentage points higher than in February);
  • Hispanic women fared the worst in the Pandemic Recession through this spring (April)–but up through September, Asian women have seen the largest increase in unemployment (+6.7 percentage points);
  • While Asian unemployment peaked in May at 16.6% for women and 13.2% for men, both had failed to recover as much as for other race-gender categories through August. Unemployment rates in August were 11.5% for Asian women and 10.0% for Asian men, still higher than they ever got even in the depths of the Great Recession. By September, Asian male unemployment (at 8.0%) was lower than at its peak in the Great Recession, yet Asian female unemployment (at 9.7%) was still higher than at any time in the last recession–and in fact, higher than ever measured in the BLS data.

As I hinted at in my first post on this subject, there are many different possible explanations for why this Pandemic Recession has been so hard on women (it’s the “She-cession”) and Asian women in particular. The intersection of Asian and female provides a uniquely-focused lens into what’s so different about this recession and how it’s affecting all workers through the roles and demands that Asian women just happen to disproportionately represent. To be continued!

Seeing Asian Women to Better Understand the Pandemic ‘She-cession’

By Mina Kim and Diane Lim (with assistance from Taylor D. Jones), August 2020

This pandemic recession has been like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetime. The U.S. has experienced the largest contraction since the Great Depression. Every week, we eagerly await each data release for any sort of good news, only to be met with confirmation after confirmation of the calamitous impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Economists were quick to point out early in the pandemic that increases in unemployment have been more severe for women than men and more severe for people of color than for White people. But in all the analyses, Asian women have been missing. Given the goal of national representativeness in most surveys, the “invisibleness” of Asian women is understandable. We represent a very small percentage of the population. We are also probably not as responsive to surveys given how 1st and 2nd generation Asian American women are taught to blend in and not stand out. (Both of us reflect on how this “blend in” behavior was reinforced in us very early on in our childhoods, by our teachers, classmates, and even our immigrant parents.) As Asian female economists, we had personal incentive to take a good look at the data—we just wanted to find ourselves there! What we found is that not only have Asian women experienced the largest increase in unemployment during the pandemic recession, but that the case of Asian working women probably best shines a spotlight on how women’s employment depends as much or more on what’s going on at home (and the demands for our time there) than on what’s going on with the market demand for our paid work. What follows is a story of what has happened to women in the labor market during this Pandemic Recession and how this recession is different from the last, made clearer by our ability to dive deeper into details across race categories.

NOTE: For this analysis we used the BLS “One-Screen Data Search” tool here. While the monthly employment reports of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) present breakdowns of the unemployment measure by race and by race-gender categories, they only show data for the Asian category as a whole because of the valid concern that the Asian sub-sample sizes are too small to be statistically comparable with other race-gender categories. But the BLS does publish and make publicly available the data on Asian women separated from Asian men on its website. All data are monthly and unadjusted (not seasonally adjusted), for the populations age 16 and over. The “Asian” category includes only people who identify themselves as (only) Asian on the Census survey, not those who identify as two or more races; it also does not include Pacific Islanders. (A helpful BLS report which explains their categorization of people by race and ethnicity is here.)

  1. The “Pandemic Recession” is a “She-cession” (Figure 1). C. Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, first dubbed the pandemic recession the “She-cession” back in early May in this New York Times story, when it had become apparent that more women than men had become unemployed since February. At the time, the leading explanation was that women make up a disproportionately large share of the workforce in the industries that have been most adversely impacted from the “stay-at-home” orders: the leisure/hospitality sector (think restaurants, bars, sports venues, concert halls, movie theatres), other people-intensive personal services businesses (think beauty salons/barbers, gyms, yoga studios), and non-emergency medical care offices (think general/family practices, dentists, eye doctors).

Now there is recognition of the role childcare (and in-person school), or the lack thereof, plays in affecting the ability of women to work (see Alon, Doepke, Olmstead-Rumsey and Tertilt; Mongey, Pilossoph, and Weinberg; Dingel, Patterson, and Vavra; Modestino, Ladge and Lincoln; and Heggeness). Compared with a typical economic recession that impacts male employment more than female, the Alon et al. paper stresses that the “She-cession” has more severe short-term/cyclical impact on economic activity due to diminished “within-household insurance”—a reduced ability for parents to trade off/coordinate roles at home vs. work—and will also lead to a longer-term (persistent) widening of the gender wage gap even after the recession is over.

Figure 1.
  1. This recession is very different from the last one (Figure 2). The “Great Recession” (left panel) impacted male-dominated jobs in the economy more than the female-dominated ones. Before the start of that recession, goods-producing jobs (particularly in the durable goods/”heavy” manufacturing sectors) had already begun a longer-term loss due to both offshoring and automation. As the economy began its long, slow recovery from the recession (officially in “recovery” by June 2009), unemployment rates continued to rise, peaking for men in early 2010 at a much higher rate than for women. Overall female unemployment peaked later (in the middle of 2010) but remained below male unemployment until the middle of 2011. Many of the men who had been laid off from their manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession never came back to those jobs after the economy recovered. These were disproportionately middle-aged, White men who came out on the other side of the recession saying “well, I guess I’m retired now.” (These were also the White men disproportionately represented in the “deaths of despair” that Anne Case and Angus Deaton revealed.)

This time (right panel) the economic impact was felt suddenly due to a non-market event and has fallen disproportionately on the employment of women. After several years of very low unemployment where women and men switched ranking but stayed very close to each other, female unemployment very quickly overtook male unemployment at the onset of the pandemic and has retained its “lead” thus far.

  1. Pandemic unemployment has been dominated by the laying off and rehiring of largely part-time workers (Figures 3 and 4). The part-time share of total employed fell as unemployment peaked (in April) and rose as unemployment has declined (since May). The timing is consistent with job losses concentrated in the leisure/hospitality, personal services, and retail sectors, where workers are disproportionately young, part-time, and low-wage (no benefits). (This is also why government assistance has been critical for households to be able to maintain basic consumption and prevent a more severe “reverse multiplier” effect on the economy more broadly.)
Figure 3.

While the trends in unemployment of part-time workers impact women more than men across all race categories, Black and Asian women more often work full-time jobs than do White or Hispanic women.

Figure 4.

If pandemic unemployment were mainly driven by occupational and industry factors (layoffs from part-time jobs in the leisure/hospitality, retail sales, and personal services sectors), we might see Hispanic and White women suffering the greatest unemployment, and Asian and Black women, less so. In fact, it’s not that simple…

  1. The “She-cession” story differs across race (Figures 5 and 6). It appears to have come and gone among Black Americans but has persisted for other race categories. By June, Black male unemployment was back above Black female unemployment, while in all other categories female unemployment has exceeded male unemployment since April. In the prior recession, men overall faced more severe unemployment than women, and it was especially severe for Black men. In this recession, Black men have not had as large an increase in unemployment as many of the women, but only because they started so high. Before the pandemic, in February, the Black male unemployment rate (at 7.3%) was the highest of all the race-gender categories. As of July, the Black male unemployment rate (at 15.6%) was still the highest of all the categories.
Figure 5.
Figure 6.
  1. The “She-cession” experience has had biggest impact on Asian women (Figures 7 and 8). Among all women, Asian women had the lowest unemployment rate in February, yet their unemployment rate has been above average and in line with the unemployment rate of other women of color during the pandemic. In terms of the change in unemployment rates during this pandemic recession so far, Asian women have experienced the single worst change in unemployment through July—not just among women but across all the race-gender categories. (Hispanic women suffered the largest increase in unemployment from February to April; besides figures below, see details in the Appendix Table at the end.)
Figure 7.
Figure 8. (Note: Worst point in the Great Recession is going to differ for each race category. See the Appendix Table for the exact dates.)

Caveats, Take-Aways, and “To Be Continued”s:

  • We’ve provided a one-step-more-granular analysis here, simply by including Asian females in our look at employment outcomes by race and gender. But this still doesn’t include everyone! “Asian” doesn’t include those who identify as only part-Asian (of multiple races), nor the “Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacific Islanders” who also tend to get left out of the “Asian” category in analyses by race—due to even smaller sample sizes than that of Asian females.
  • Yet, this race-gender intersectional analysis is still meaningful in that we do see clear differences in employment outcomes across both race and gender and all the race-gender categories. The analysis “works” because as broad as these race-gender categories are, and as heterogenous as the characteristics of the populations within each category, there are still enough characteristics that are common (or prevalent) within each category yet distinct enough from those in other categories. We suspect, for example, that the “Asian Female” category contains a sizable group of women who have relatively low educational attainment and work relatively low-skilled and low-paid personal services jobs (think nail salon), which would partially offset whatever we see that is driven by the high-skilled, higher-paid Asian women working in professional service jobs. Yet the average characteristics and outcomes within the Asian Female category still put the group as a whole in higher-skilled occupations and higher-paid jobs compared with women in the other race categories.
  • And those distinct characteristics and outcomes are not merely random differences. Race is a social construct, and that’s why it is useful in studying social and economic behaviors, influenced by social and cultural norms. Asian women look “special” in this analysis of unemployment during the Pandemic Recession because their roles in the labor market and at home and the resulting tradeoffs they face in making decisions about work vs. home are likely different enough from other women. For example, Asian women are less likely to experience the gender wage gap, probably because of their high educational attainment and occupational choices—and that’s a plus for holding onto jobs during this pandemic. (Distinct from other women, Asian women are more likely to work high-paid professional service jobs than low-paid leisure/hospitality or retail jobs.) But Asian women are also more likely to be in a traditional family structure, married with children, and married to a man who has even higher market-earning power. (We hope to do a follow-on piece on the family structure and marriage/”assortative mating” factors later.) So, as highly productive as an Asian woman might be in her job, she is likely to be the household’s “secondary earner” and also the household’s “primary caregiver.” This is why a deeper study of what’s going on with Asian women in this pandemic recession would shine a light on the struggles of all working mothers, who all face demands on their time at home with the kids. Those demands (regardless of the financial opportunity costs) too easily tip the scales in favor of staying at home and cutting back on or quitting their paid work.
  • For Asian women, the cultural factors influencing our labor market decisions are perhaps stronger than for other women. (See this paper on “Babies, Work, or Both?” by Mary Brinton and Eunsil Oh.) Many working-age Asian women are immigrants or children of immigrants. Diane’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea (dad) and the Philippines (mom, of Chinese ethnicity) in the 1950s, both to pursue PhDs in Chemistry. Diane’s mom finished her PhD in 1962, just months after Diane was born, and spent nearly a decade staying at home with Diane and her younger sister Janice and was never able to make up for that lost first decade of her career. Mina’s parents immigrated from Korea in the 1970s to pursue a PhD in Physics (dad) and a Masters in Nursing (mom). Mina’s mom put her career on hold to take care of her and her two sisters when family could not help. Yet both moms constantly coached their daughters to “do it all”: to both stay ever-active in the workforce and take primary responsibility for the proper care of the kids on the home front.
  • This “first look” at Asian women’s employment outcomes has underscored the importance of considering how social and cultural expectations about the roles of women at home vs. at work influence female employment outcomes, especially in this pandemic with kids learning from home and daycare and elder care facilities closed or downsized (or viewed as undesirable/unsafe by families). It also suggests that the increased demands placed on women’s time on the home front does not just force women who earn relatively low wages (below the cost of child care) to give up their paid job, but is likely causing many higher-earning women (who can afford to pay for child care even as it has become scarcer) to cut back on or even drop out of the labor force, even when the financial and economic opportunity cost of doing so is high.
  • Further investigation is needed, going still more granular and down to more household-level data, to better understand what truly drives women’s choices and outcomes concerning work. These are questions fundamental to the study of Economics and requires research methods that have largely remained outside the Economics profession. Further research should: (i) start with interviews and focus groups; (ii) use these findings to develop surveys; and (iii) field the surveys to intentionally oversample the population subgroups that best represent and emphasize the decisions we are trying to better understand.

Appendix Table: detailed unemployment rates and changes, comparing previous to current recession