Are you ready for She-cession 2.0?
A week before Christmas and the news of the Omicron variant slamming into our lives means so many well-laid plans are now off. Chief among these was the idea that we could celebrate the end of 2021 with a growing sense that pandemic realities were starting to fade.
Over the course of the fall, so much progress was made on economic recovery. Canada caught up with its pre-pandemic (February 2020) job numbers in September. The U.S. is still over 4 million jobs short. That doesn’t mean we are in job heaven. We still have over 1.3 million people unemployed, with half of these unemployed for a year or more; and over 130,000 more people working only half their usual hours.
The pandemic inverted usual patterns of job loss and job recovery. Historically, recessions have meant more men than women initially lose work - usually better-paid - in an economic downturn and more women find jobs first - usually lower-paid - in the initial stages of recovery. Hence “he-cessions” are typically followed by “she-coveries.”
This time everything’s reversed: more women lost jobs initially, and more men got back to work first. The pandemic has also turned usual intergenerational patterns of recovery upside down. (Check my Twitter feed next week for my contribution to Maclean’s Charts to Watch in 2022 for a beauty of a chart on this topic.)
Normally young people get hit hardest, and come back last. That truth held for job losses, but young women have been leading the parade with a higher share of their shrinking population regaining paid work (employment rates). Young men lost work, despite an even more rapidly shrinking population, likely due to the pandemic leading to fewer newcomers.
Among prime age workers (25-54), more men and women are working than before the pandemic hit. The surprise is that it is not driven as much by prime age workers without children, but by parents of young children.
These trends are, weirdly, driven by Ontario. This could be because Ontario is where the greatest proportion of children aged four (87%) and five (90%) go to (no-fee) full-day junior and senior kindergarten. I am grateful to Tony Bonen and Brittany Feor of the Labour Market Information Council for the charts below.
Meanwhile fewer older women have paid work than pre-pandemic. This is another inversion of past patterns which saw older women act as a reserve army of labour, more willing to work at part-time service jobs for low pay when the primary earner lost their job.
So, no, job recovery didn’t mean a full she-covery, though we came so very close by November 2021.
And now here comes Omicron.
Meet the new she-cession. Same as the old she-cession, but we’re all a little less resilient.
That doesn’t mean we can’t turn the inevitable pause on economic activity to good use. We can train people for the jobs already in shortage in the Care Economy (in health care, in eldercare, in early learning and childcare) instead of turning in large part to temporary foreign workers, as has started in Quebec.
We can pay to retrofit public buildings with better air ventilation systems (and more energy efficient heating and cooling systems while we’re at it), greening the economy as we increase our well-being. We can make free rapid antigen testing kits available everywhere, giving ourselves and each other a fighting chance to interrupt contagion.
But will we do it? Like everything else we have learned about containing a contagion, it’s up to us, through our individual behaviour, and through the governments we’ve chosen to represent us.
Based on our track record to date, pass me the screaming pillow.
The Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers is supported by the Atkinson Foundation. Find more information here.