Economy & Business

Men at Work . . . or Not

Labor-force participation is declining because the family has declined.

We’ve heard a great deal this campaign year about the plight of the working class. The Left tells a story about the middle class being destroyed by predatory millionaires and billionaires who are soaking up 99 percent of the “income gains” (as if national income were one giant Big Gulp and the 1 percent managed to nab the biggest straws).

Donald Trump tells a different story. The jobs that once provided a stable middle-class income have been outsourced. If people are unemployed, it’s because the factories are all in Guangzhou or Juarez. Trump promises that he will bring those jobs back.

Of course, neither Trump nor anyone else can bring those manufacturing jobs back because they weren’t lost primarily to foreign competition. Manufacturing jobs (as opposed to manufacturing outputs, which continue to rise) have been in steep decline since 1947, mostly due to automation and efficiency. Service jobs have been increasing, and as AEI economist Mark Perry notes, the U.S. trade surplus in services vis-à-vis the rest of the world (including China, Japan, Mexico, and the EU) has shown a 450 percent increase since 2005 and continues to grow. (He winks, “Are we killing them and laughing at them?”)

You would imagine that if people were unemployed because the one percenters have hoarded all the wealth, or because foreigners have absconded with all the factories, the unemployed would express a desire to work. Yet a report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) finds that only 16 percent of prime age (25–54) men who were not in the labor force in 2015 said they would like to be working. Many are living off relatives and disability payments.

Most adults are in the labor force (88 percent of men and 75 percent of women). But particularly for men, the labor-force participation rate has been declining steadily. It was close to 98 percent in 1955. As the CEA reports, non-work is associated with a host of troubles: “Job loss is connected to increased body weight. . . . Unemployment is also associated with lower overall well-being and reported happiness. . . . For parents, job loss is associated with negative consequences for children . . . and increased reliance on Unemployment Insurance and social assistance in the long term.”

So far, so good. The president’s economists are identifying the worrying trends in non-work among lesser-educated men. These findings follow other scholarly work such as that by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who published a paper last fall showing that death rates among white, middle-aged Americans with high-school educations have increased over the past 15 years, while the death rates for other ethnic groups have declined. Alcohol and drug poisoning lead the causes.

While men’s employment and wages have been declining, women’s have been increasing.

What the CEA does not grapple with is the fact that while men’s employment and wages have been declining, women’s have been increasing. Women’s labor-force-participation rates have declined since 2001, but not nearly as much as men’s. As David Autor and Melanie Wasserman of MIT have shown, women at every level of education except high-school dropouts have seen their wages rise since 1979. But men in every category except college graduates have lost ground.

It’s likely that the decline in brawny jobs due to automation has hurt men more than women. But these trends have been very long term and don’t explain why men have not been as adept as women in adjusting to changes in the jobs landscape. It also does not explain why women are outpacing men at every level of education from high-school graduation on up. This is new.

In Wayward Sons, Autor and Wasserman, unlike the president’s CEA, have looked beyond the usual explanations (de-unionization, globalization, automation, immigration) for what ails American men and examined the biggest change of the past 50 years — family life. While growing up in single-parent homes handicaps both girls and boys, it’s more devastating for boys. They lag in school, are less ambitious, and are less likely to be gainfully employed when they reach adulthood. A significant number also commit crimes and wind up in prison.

With more young men failing to thrive, the pool of marriageable men for young women to consider thus becomes smaller, and the pattern of women raising children without fathers is repeated in a pernicious spiral.

Unsurprisingly, the CEA offers Democratic boilerplate: infrastructure-spending projects, expanding paid family leave, increasing the minimum wage, and reforming the criminal-justice system.

There is no silver bullet for a problem as complex as the fading fortunes of men. But every proposal should start with the question: Will this discourage or encourage family formation and stability? That clearly is key for men’s well being — which in turn affects women, and the next generation.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More