Why Calgary's downturns tend to be 'mancessions'

The recession struck and average male income plunged by $20,000. Here's what that means for men whose sense of identity is tied up in being a breadwinner.

The recession struck, and average male income plunged by $20K

Male-dominated fields like oil and gas and construction were hit hard by the recession in Alberta, both in terms of job losses and income reductions. (Left:, Right: Associated Press)

It's not always easy to get men to talk about their feelings — let alone their failures — but Deborah Kieran has made a career of doing just that.

Looking back over her 13 years as an employment counsellor, the story of one man in particular has stuck with her.

It's a story that may sound familiar to many people in Calgary.

He was a young man with no high school education but had nevertheless found a good job. Actually, it was a great job, says Kieran. It was tough manual work, but he earned "excellent money" at it — money he used to support his wife and two children. The family had "all the toys" and plenty of bills to pay, but it was no problem on his salary.

Over time, though, he got older and his back wasn't what it once was. Then a recession hit, and he was let go from his job. Even with years of retraining, no job prospect he could find offered anything close to the income he had once made.

And still, there were the bills.

"They had the boat, and the cottage, and the two cars and everything else," said Kieran. "And when that income was gone, there was an increase in fighting, and arguments and division between him and his wife. And it was too much for this individual to bear."

In the end, he died by suicide.

His death, says Kieran, is an extreme example of what can happen in such situations. But, she says, many of her male clients have faced the same kinds of challenges — especially during economic downturns.

And things were especially tough during Alberta's latest recession, which technically ran from late 2014 to late 2016.

Of course, this was a hard time for a lot of people, regardless of gender. But take a look at historical income data and you'll see how men's incomes in Calgary, on average, peaked in 2014 and then cratered over the next two years. Women's incomes also dipped, but not nearly as much, and then they started to recover. Looking at the numbers, we can see similar income trends during previous economic downturns, too.

One Calgary economist even has a word for the phenomenon: "Mancession."

It's all relative

Now, it's important to acknowledge that, on average, men still make more money than women — and men in Calgary continue to be better paid than men in the rest of the country. Guys in this city (again, on average) still have it better than virtually anyone else, anywhere else in Canada.

But most people don't see themselves relative to economic bell curves measured at a national level. They tend to compare their current situations with their past situations, and with the situations of the people around them.

And for many men — including Kieran's client — being laid off from a high-paying, breadwinning job means more than a loss of income. It's also a loss of identity.

"For him, it was like, who I am, as a man, has been taken away from me," she said.

Take a look at aggregated income data in the chart below and imagine how many similar stories played out in Calgary from 2014 to 2016.

The lines on a chart like this represent real changes in real people's lives. The broad trends accrue from the experiences of millions of individuals.

As you can see from the top line in the chart, men in Calgary had it quite good, for quite long. They enjoyed two solid decades of income growth through the 1990s and 2000s. By 2014, they were making nearly $30,000 more per year, on average, than Canadian men as a whole.

But then, the recession struck, and average male income in this city plunged by nearly $20,000 in just two years.

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe recently highlighted how young men, in particular, suffered some of the most severe job losses during the downturn and many are still struggling to find work. But it goes deeper than that.

Men of all ages who maintained full-time employment during the recession also saw their incomes fall by 16 per cent, on average, from 2014 to 2016.

It's a pattern that has been observed before.


Ron Kneebone, an economist at the University of Calgary's school of public policy, has been studying data like this, both locally and across the country, and he sees a persistent trend.

"It's an increasingly recognized result that recessions are increasingly 'mancessions,'" he said.

"Recessions — especially in Alberta — are hitting men harder than they do women."

'It's an increasingly recognized result that recessions are increasingly "mancessions,"' says Ron Kneebone, a professor of economics at the University of Calgary's school of public policy. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Similar to what Calgary men saw from 2014 to 2016, Kneebone notes there were similar plunges in male income during the recession that struck the city in the early 1980s, and again during the downturn of the early 1990s.

Recessions also have an effect on the gender gap in income.

Men have historically made more money than women, but that gap has been narrowing fairly steadily over the past 40 years across Canada. In Calgary, however, it has narrowed in fits and starts.

During boom times, the gap has actually widened. But during busts, it closes quickly. This indicates men are experiencing the ups and downs of our roller-coaster economy more dramatically than women.

The big swings in men's fortunes aren't surprising when you consider the types of industries they tend to work in, says Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB Financial.

"The big, big drop in male income in Calgary is largely due to the fact that the sectors that got hit the hardest are sectors that are dominated by men."

Men made up 75 per cent of the workforce employed directly in Alberta's oil and gas sector in 2016. In construction, it was 87 per cent male.

Those are some of the highest-paying industries in the province, but they're also among the most susceptible to economic swings. During the latest recession, lucrative jobs in both fields disappeared by the tens of thousands. Many of them may never return.

Conversely, two of the fields that were largely immune to layoffs or wage reductions throughout the downturn are female-dominated.

Women account for 69 per cent of employees working in education and 83 per cent of those in health care and social assistance. These fields tend to pay less than the male-dominated industries but experience fewer fluctuations.

So, men find work in high-risk, high-reward jobs while women opt for more stable and secure positions. Sound like old-fashioned gender stereotypes?

Well, through her counselling, Deborah Kieran thinks there's still something to that.

'Part of our cultural makeup'

Today, Kieran works as associate director of counselling initiatives at the Calgary Counselling Centre and says many of those traditional gender roles persist.

While society has changed a lot over the years, she says a lot of men still struggle with the idea of not being a household's primary breadwinner. It can be difficult for many guys, she believes, to accept a situation where they are out-earned by their wives.

"Even in this day and age, these roles are still an important part ... of our cultural makeup."

Deborah Kieran, a registered psychologist and associate director of counselling initiatives at the Calgary Counselling Centre, says while society has changed a lot over the years, a lot of men still struggle with the idea of not being the primary breadwinner. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

At the same time, though, Kieran believes evolving gender roles can be helpful in making people more psychologically resilient to tough times.

Households in which the perceived responsibility for providing for the family is shared more equally between spouses are often better equipped to deal with a loss of income, she says. But those men who see the amount of money they make as fundamentally tied up with "who I am as a father, who I am as a husband," are more likely to struggle in those situations.

"It takes up more of their self-definition of who they are."

But, says Kieran, while some men face particular challenges over the loss of a job, it can also spark self-reinvention.

Her own father, now long retired, was once one of the lucky few to survive a deep round of layoffs at his old workplace. At a company reunion years later, Kieran says her father was surprised to find that few of his former co-workers were bitter about the experience.

"The vast majority said, in hindsight, they were kind of thankful, because it allowed them to go and risk and do something different.

"It might have taken them a while to recover both financially and in their self-definition, but they were able to get to the point where they were able to say: 'You know what? That was hard. But now, I'm even stronger. I'm even better.'"

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling toll-free 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645 or chatting online with Crisis Services Canada.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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