The Crisis of America’s Nonworking Men

Based on the official unemployment rate—which held steady at 4.9 percent last month—America’s labor market has fully recovered from the Great Recession. Indeed, many prominent economists, including Federal Reserve officials, believe we have reached  “maximum” employment or something very close to it.

Based on another indicator, however, America’s labor market remains stuck in a long-term crisis—a crisis that has gotten significantly worse since 2008.

Simply put: There are millions of American men in their prime working years who have dropped out of the labor force.

This is more than just a drag on the U.S. economy; in a deeper sense, it represents a tremendous squandering of human potential, and a tragic unraveling of our national ethos. American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, author of the forthcoming book Men Without Work, has called it “a grave social ill” and “a quiet catastrophe.”

To put the catastrophe in perspective: As of August, the labor-force-participation rate (LFPR) among men aged 25 to 54 stood at 88.3 percent—down from 90.5 percent in August 2006, 92 percent in August 1996, 93.8 percent in August 1986, 94.3 percent in August 1976, 96.5 percent in August 1966, and 97.2 percent in August 1956. Before December 2008, the rate had never once fallen below 90 percent. It has now been below 89 percent for more than five years straight.

According to a June 2016 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the only OECD member countries with a lower LFPR among prime-age men are Italy and Israel. And apart from Italy, no OECD country has experienced a larger decline in prime-age-male participation since 1990.

If we look at the total nonemployment rate among this demographic—that is, if we include prime-age men who are unemployed but looking for work—America compares a bit more favorably with its fellow OECD members. Still, as of 2014, the United States had a higher prime-age-male nonemployment rate than countries such as France, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Norway, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Japan.

“Benchmarked against 1965,” writes Eberstadt, “when American men were at genuine full employment, the ‘male jobs deficit’ in 2015 would be nearly 10 million, even after taking into account an older population and more adults in college.”

Again, this is a long-term, structural problem that will not be solved by an uptick in the business cycle. In fact, the LFPR among prime-age American men was higher during the 1981–82 recession than it was during the Clinton-era tech boom—and it was higher during the Great Recession (2007–09) than it is today.

What explains that? Conservatives often blame the perverse work disincentives baked into America’s social programs and tax policies, along with misguided regulations that make it harder for people to find jobs. Liberals tend to focus on the consequences of deindustrialization, wage stagnation, and “mass incarceration.” Everyone seems to agree that technology and foreign trade have played a role in displacing low-skilled workers, and that better educational outcomes would improve things. How to achieve those better educational outcomes is much less obvious.

Given the duration and magnitude of the crisis, policymakers need to think bigger and bolder than they have in the past.

Apprenticeships deserve particular attention. Both in America and in Western Europe, they have a proven record of developing skilled workers and setting people on a career path at a relatively young age. In fact, writes Urban Institute scholar Robert Lerman, there is compelling evidence that “the rates of return to apprenticeships far exceed alternative training methods for middle-skill jobs.”

This can be seen in countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, all of which have much larger vocational-training systems than the United States. In today’s Wall Street Journal, economists Edward Lazear of Stanford and Simon Janssen of Germany’s Institute for Employment Research point out that the German system has delivered real benefits to workers without a college degree:

Although Germans are about half as likely [as Americans] to go to college, more than 85% of private-economy workers without college degrees have had vocational training and an apprenticeship. . . . Germans with vocational apprenticeships earn about 92% of the average German wage; American high-school grads earn only 70% of the average American wage. Germans with vocational apprenticeships are considerably better off than their American counterparts. Data show this to be true for nearly 15 years.

Who are America’s nonworking men? As Eberstadt observes, they “tend to be: 1. less educated; 2. never married; 3. native born; and 4. African-American. But those categories intersect in interesting ways.” For example, “Black married men are more likely to be in the workforce than unmarried whites.”

The decline of work is indeed closely related to the decline of marriage among Americans with less education and fewer skills. As University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax has emphasized, “Marriage causes men to become more industrious, law-abiding, and sober.” By the same token, delaying or avoiding marriage makes it easier for men to delay or avoid becoming responsible adults.

At root, work is about pride, dignity, and purpose. It’s about shedding the frivolities of youth and assuming the burdens of maturity. And it’s absolutely critical to family stability, civic engagement, and broad-based prosperity. Eberstadt is correct in describing the labor-force exodus by prime-age men as a quiet catastrophe. Let’s hope more people start noticing it.



21 responses to “The Crisis of America’s Nonworking Men

  1. Simply put: There are millions of American men in their prime working years who have dropped out of the labor force.

    Think of that as Equality In Action. There have always been millions of American females in their prime working years who have dropped out of the labor force and expect men to support them.

  2. “Based on the official unemployment rate—which held steady at 4.9 percent last month—America’s labor market has fully recovered from the Great Recession. Indeed, many prominent economists, including Federal Reserve officials, believe we have reached “maximum” employment or something very close to it.”

    The ‘facts’ will be made to conform with the narrative.

  3. I’ve had a good life in the trades. Plumbing has been good to me. Service Plumbers always work. Just an idea.

  4. All of this is to distract from the low 4.9 unemployment rate that Democrat policies have engendered in a manner reticent to Republican mistruths spread by them to literally deny the first black President any success whatsoever. Unlike the vile lies of the archcriminal Trump, minorities have never had it better in this country, with opportunities that never had before Mr. Obama became President.

  5. No. Work is not about pride, dignity, and purpose. It is about productivity. Hunter produces food for the cave-family. Roman legionnaire produces conquest for the Empire. American industrial man produces durable goods for use by others. Industrialization has made unskilled labor worth less than the tax it pays to keep that labor fed and housed. Not all have the ability and connections to be a part of the post-modern economy.

    In previous historical epochs this caused great disruption, but there were other lines of work that took over. Farming peasants give way to factory workers. Iron puddlers and lace makers lose their skill to automation and machinery but take up work in other trades.

    But what trades will replace the ones lost? Or does the efficiency follow the historical example of the highly efficient latifundia of late Imperial Rome = massive agriculture systems that sustained the population, much of which became beggars in the large Roman cities? Invading barbarians of strong will and cause (for the Romans: goths and vandals, for us today: the Islamic Supremacists) do not care for this efficiency and do not have the skills to maintain them.

    I have no answers, merely an amateur historian’s eye for decline and an American’s hope for renewal.

    1. You’re not far off. It’s not in our nature to sit still. We want to create, and if that impulse is stifled, we will destroy instead.

      1. Quite so. It’s remarkable how the demiurge moves from place to place over time on our world. It seems to be leaving the a United States however for more amenable attitudes elsewhere. Driven out by Gaia worshippers? Let’s hope it can be coaxed back.

  6. This is a result of workplace feminization. Not only are women pushing men out of work but we have installed them as gatekeepers to every entry function in society. I have written extensively on this topic and you can begin your journey with this practical essay :

    How to Crack HR :

    It also has links to the upcoming book by Jeb Kinnison titled “Death by HR”.

  7. Gosh, I can’t imagine why American men would delay or avoid marriage when American women are so pleasant and chaste.

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