04/14/2013 11:19 EDT | Updated 06/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Men Not At Work: The Upside of Unemployed Dads


"My Dad got fired from his job at a law firm; he's trying some shift work now, but it's not working out so well."

"I hear you. My Mom works in government so she can bank her sick days and that helps a bit. But it's been brutal on my Dad when the bank where he worked sacked his whole department. He's been trying to make it work with a new business, but that's kind of a side thing."

"The consumer insights division of my Dad's company got whacked. He's trying really hard and I feel bad for him. We'll be okay, but it's hard."

"My Dad is unemployed and driving my family into the ground."

These conversations are taking place on university campuses across North America, in coffee shops and pretty much anywhere teenagers and young adults hang out.

Reliable data show the rolling Global Recession is not over. Remember when Prime Stephen Harper told the world in 2011: "Canada remains a bright spot among industrialized nations"? Memo to politicians: you have a duty to tell us the truth.

There's a good case things are getting worse, especially in once vibrant provinces, like Ontario, now a shell of an economy. Ontario's deficit is officially $12-billion and the provincial debt is near $300-billion, more than $22,000 per capita. Ontario's debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 42 per cent in 2015-16; its debt-to-GDP ratio has more than tripled since 1990. Our $48-billion healthcare system is broken. Our insanely expensive higher education system is oblivious to its impending obsolescence.

Despite all the worthwhile attention to the discussion over work-life balance for women led by Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, there's another hidden taboo whose subject used to seldom emerge in public spaces: male unemployment. This is a system shock, particularly on men who often define their self-worth through their employment. The recession has had a devastating effect on these men, causing ricochet effects that include, to name but a few, suicides, stress, angst toward immigrants "stealing jobs," and, on the positive side of the ledger, children with perspective.

The first time I heard a young woman, a 23-year old, talk about her white-shoe law firm Dad-turned struggling solo practitioner was four years ago. The rate of growth in these sorts of conversations has risen sharply. I estimate I've heard the phrase, "My Dad is unemployed" roughly 50 times by people in their 20s and 30s.

I am CEO of a data company, so I am well aware of the limitations of argument by anecdote, but I feel nonetheless that I have stumbled across a predictive indicator: the frequency and breeziness with which young people talk about their unemployed Dads. This is because the extreme taboo of the subject to people over 40 is striking. We remember an era when talking about our Dad's work -- remember that word, "career"? -- was a kind of definitional element of our own being. We were secure in knowing that we were all part of a club where the family unit was safe because Dad kept us safe. Dad was a banker, a stockbroker, or a newspaperman.

No more. It is important for young people, no matter how intelligent or financially secure, to know that work life is not linear, and that one's career will be defined by unpredictability, and by self-taught skill sets that emerge in a turbulent economy. The very awareness of uncertainty -- the ability to converse about this subject openly among peers - -rewards young people with genuine and enduring confidence. Confidence is the DNA of entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic stimulation.

I sense a kind of inter-generational empathy emerging. Dad was once the ATM; he's less absent now, more engaged in family life, and has gained more perspective on what matters. His life is less fragmented, more centered. Soon, corporate policies for parental leave will catch up with the new reality of fathers as caregivers.

As women "lean in" to the workplace and assert themselves, as they should, men are leaning out. This wreaks uncertainty on the economy to be sure, but there is a star of brilliant light looming over the ocean, visible in the ever-rising storm.

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