They Were Expendable

As the recession drags on and on, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend about the face of the jobless: singles far outnumber marrieds on the unemployment line.  According to the US Department of Labor’s most recent statistics (, the monthly average unemployment rate for single, never-married women is 11.5 percent.  For married women, the figure is 5.4 percent.  A similar point spread is true for single and married men.

Shocking, isn’t it?

Well, maybe to you, but not to me.  Singles have been the fall guys and gals in times of economic distress for decades—maybe forever.  If the powers-that-layoff must decide between a married woman and a single one?  You’ve seen the stats, so you know who’s most likely to get the boot.  But why is this true?  Are we to suppose that all HR managers are cowards, terrified that the woman with the husband will send her brawny mate to the office so that he may go postal on her behalf?  Or perhaps the boss’s boss—his very own little woman—has given the marching orders: Fire those single temptresses! They’re only at work to bag somebody else’s husband!

I wish that the truth were this lurid, or at least the product of considered thought.  I am convinced that in workplaces experiencing layoffs (I’m thinking specifically about small, non-union organizations) letting single women go first is the default decision.  I know this because I have sat in endless budget-cutting meetings in which “everything is on the table,” “resources must be prioritized,” “profit centers must produce more,” and—my personal favorite—“care must be taken to keep job performance out of the lay-off decision.”  During these meetings hands are wrung, expressions of compassion abound, and generally no decision is taken.  Because, in fact, it has already been determined: get rid of the old maids.  Since the start of the recession, I have watched in sadness as friends and colleagues—all single, all women, all over 50—have gotten pink slips.  Somehow my married friends and colleagues have managed so far to avoid this fate.  I am happy for them but I wonder if they know they are members of a protected class.

The ugly truth is that single women are expendable.  After all, the thinking goes, lacking family responsibilities, singles are carefree.  Without all those bills to pay, it’s a safe bet singles’ve got a tidy stash of cash for a rainy day.  Why, cutting them loose is actually doing them a favor: they can move on with their lives!  I am not making this up.  I have heard it all—and from people who would be astonished and indignant if you called them on their lack of empathy.  It does not ever occur to them that while all of the above may be true, it is nevertheless indisputably true that all singles operate in the world without a safety net.  A scary world when times are tough.

So what’s a wee woman alone in this man’s world to do when she becomes a statistic?  First, she needs to know she’s in great company. Next maybe she needs a stiff drink. And then she’ll do what she’s always done: figure out what’s next by herself.  She’ll be fine.

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