For fully half a century, a quiet calamity has been unfolding in our nation, very largely unbeknownst to and unrecognized by our talking and deciding classes. That calamity is the post-war collapse of work in our society. The collapse of work lies close to the heart of many modern American maladies: slower economic growth, widening income and wealth disparities, growing dependence on government, mounting budget deficits and public debt, fraying family structures, declining social mobility, weakening civil society. And by all indications, this collapse of work is still under way.
Over the course of the 21st century, the work rate for adult women — more technically, the employment-to-population ratio for females in the civilian non-institutional population (i.e., neither in the military nor behind bars or in other forms of institutional care) of those 20 years and older — has fallen by nearly three percentage points. This means roughly 3 million fewer paid jobs for U.S. women today than if work rates in 2000 still prevailed. But the collapse of work for men has been even more dire: It has been under way far longer, and its magnitude is much greater.
Work rates for American men have been heading downward since the mid 1960s. If the U.S. still enjoyed 1965-era male work rates, nearly 10 million more men today would have paid work — and this reckoning takes account of both our aging population structure and the increase in the number of adults who are studying rather than working. Indeed, in 2015, work rates for American men ages 20–64 were almost three percentage points lower (78.4 percent vs. 81.3 percent) than in 1940, the tail end of the Depression. For men in the critical 25–54 group, the cohort conventionally described as “men of prime working age,” work rates were two percentage points lower in 2015 than in 1940 (84.4 percent vs. 86.4 percent) — and 1940, recall, was a time when the general unemployment rate exceeded 14 percent. So, despite all the happy talk in financial and political circles these days about America’s re-attaining “near-full employment,” the plain truth is that the ongoing collapse of work for men in the United States today ranks as a Depression-scale disaster.
Future historians will no doubt be mystified by the genial, enduring indifference that America’s best and brightest accorded our men-without-work crisis, even as the problem festered and worsened from one decade to the next. How could such a grave social ill ever be permitted to “hide in plain sight” for generations, much less in an information-saturated, big-data-driven era?
Part of the answer may have to do with the growing gap separating the elites (of both political parties) from the “little people” they preside over. Yes, American prognosticators and decision-makers really have been that out of touch. In part, it may be an ill-fated collision of inconvenient facts with a world of ideas increasingly poisoned by political correctness. Working-age men, after all, are not a designated victim class. But surely one of the reasons such an enormous problem could escape attention for so very long is that the men in question are for the most part socially invisible. The collapse of male work has not occasioned mass protests, or riots, or political convulsions. Quite the contrary: The continuing collapse of work for men has been a quiet social dislocation, insofar as the decline of male employment in modern America has mainly been a voluntary phenomenon.
Arithmetically speaking, almost all the collapse of work in adult male America over the past half century is due to the rising numbers of men no longer seeking jobs. Between 1965 and 2015 the work rate for U.S. men 20 and older fell by a bit over 13 percentage points. Over those same years, labor-force-participation rates — the proportion of those working or looking for work in relation to the total population — for U.S. men 20 and over fell by more than twelve percentage points (from 83.9 percent of the civilian non-institutional population to 71.5 percent). Thus, exit from the work force — including early retirement — accounted for almost all of the drop in employment levels for adult men as a whole.
America’s declining male labor-force-participation rates, however, are not mainly, or even largely, a matter of population aging and early retirement: A headlong “flight from work” is also evident among men of prime working age. The drop in labor-force-participation rates also accounts for the overwhelming bulk of the work-rate decline for prime-age men. Among men 25–54, work rates dropped by 9.8 percentage points (from 94.1 percent to 84.4 percent) between 1965 and 2015. Over that same half century, labor-force-participation rates among prime-age males fell by 8.4 points (from 96.7 percent to 88.3 percent) — meaning that the mass departure of such men from the labor market accounted for fully seven-eighths of the work-rate decline for all adult men between 1965 and 2015. Note that only a tiny minority (today, just about one in seven) of prime-age men who have left the work force report that a lack of jobs is the main reason for their departure.
Thus the past half century has witnessed a steady and indeed relentless increase in the numbers of American men who are neither working nor looking for work. These un-working men, indeed, were by far the fastest-growing component of the prime-age male population, increasing at over three times the tempo of the prime-age male cohort as a whole.
There was a time when able-bodied non-farm prime-age men were expected to be either working or looking for work. Today there is a third option: a wholesale retreat from the labor force, neither working nor looking to do so. Un-working prime-age men have come to outnumber their unemployed counterpart — and vastly so. Today there are three un-working prime-age men for each counterpart formally unemployed. It has been nearly a quarter century since the unemployed have outnumbered the un-working among prime-age men, even for a single month. Even during the darkest days of the Great Recession back in 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that more men 25–54 years of age were neither working nor looking for work than were out of work and seeking a job. (The rise of the no-work lifestyle for what would in the past have been described as working-age men, incidentally, has meant that the old-fashioned “unemployment rate,” still the most widely used index of U.S. labor-market conditions, has become a progressively less reliable index of the true employment situation in modern America.)
At this writing, the BLS reports that roughly 7 million prime-age civilian non-institutional men are out of the labor force. Increasingly, these men are long-termers: Once out of the labor force, men tend to stay out for at least a full year, and often much longer.
But who are they? As one might expect of an army of 7 million, this un-working contingent includes some of pretty much every demographic from all across American society. Yet certain groups are clearly over-represented: the less educated (especially high-school dropouts); the never-married and those without children at home; the native-born, as opposed to immigrants; and African Americans (although, interestingly enough, among people of color, Hispanics have labor-force-participation rates above the national average).
Such a thumbnail sketch of the demography of the modern American un-worker perforce suggests that there are powerful social influences on whether a man in the prime of his working life will be in the work force at all. Such a formulation, however, can also run perilously close to the social-determinist fallacy — to assuming that human beings are helpless objects entirely at the mercy of overarching social forces, with no agency in affecting their own life outcomes. Yet hard facts clearly show that they are not.
Consider first the matter of race and ethnicity. Many would agree that America is not a wholly colorblind society, even if it is much closer to this ideal than it was 50 years ago. The residual legacy of prejudice might seem to explain why prime-age male work rates and labor-force-participation rates are lower today for blacks than for whites. But they cannot explain why labor-force-participation rates for white men today are decidedly lower than they were for black men in 1965, near the end of the Jim Crow era. Nor can they explain why the labor-force-participation rates of married black men 25–54 years of age are higher than those of never-married white men of those same ages.
Consider next education. It is widely accepted today that educational attainment determines one’s work prospects in America. But, important as the advantages of education unarguably are, we can see how behavior and choice also affect labor-market outcomes for men with any given level of education attainment. Among prime-age men with less than a high-school degree, for example, labor-force-participation rates today are roughly 20 percentage points higher for the married than the never-married. So consequential are the correlates of marriage and the factors associated with marriage that labor-force-participation rates for prime-working-age men in contemporary America are essentially indistinguishable between married high-school dropouts and never-married college graduates.
As for the question of nativity: Foreign-born prime-age men today are more likely to have a job or to be in the labor force than are their native-born counterparts. This is true for every major ethnic group in our country. Nowadays foreign-born prime-age men exceed their native-born counterparts in labor-force-participation rates by nearly three percentage points among white Americans, by over three points among Asian Americans, and by a striking ten points among black Americans. (Note that prime-age native-born white American men are now less likely to be in the work force than are their black immigrant counterparts.) There is also a major difference — about six percentage points — between labor-force-participation rates of prime-age males who are foreign-born and those of native-born Latinos.
Further, with the perhaps curious exception of college graduates, among whom the labor-force-participation rate of prime-age males is higher for the native-born, immigrants outperform native-born Americans today at every level of educational standing as far as labor-force participation is concerned. For prime men with some college, the edge for the foreign-born today is marginal (less than one percentage point). But for those with high-school diplomas but no college, immigrant rates were nearly eight percentage points higher than native rates, and for those without a high-school diploma, the difference is an astonishing 25 percentage points (92 percent versus 67 percent). That means these foreign high-school dropouts today have workforce-participation rates very close to those of the highly advantaged cohort of native-born male college graduates, with whom they arguably share very little save their exceedingly low odds of being out of the work force. For the most part, the foreign-born high-school dropouts in question are Latino. (Labor-force-participation rates for poorly educated Hispanic immigrants are slightly higher than for foreign-born high-school dropouts as a whole). Many of these men have limited English proficiency — and many are illegal entrants to the United States. Even though they may live in the shadows, on the whole they seem to have had no difficulty in becoming part of the American labor force. Suffice it to say that one of the critical determinants of being in the work force in America today is wanting to be in it.
Redressing the collapse of work in America promises to be one of the most important challenges confronting our nation in the years and decades ahead. Meeting that challenge will of course require much more than a summary description of the social characteristics of our un-working male population. We — concerned citizens — need a much better understanding of the patterns of daily life for those who are not working; of the dynamics of structural and macroeconomic changes as they affect the demand for labor; of the role of social-welfare programs in general, and of disability programs in particular, in inadvertently subsidizing or financing America’s rising, alternative no-work lifestyle; and of the barriers to work that face the 20 million Americans who are not currently incarcerated but have a felony in their background — these include more than one in eight adult men today. More than anything else, though, Americans of both political parties must commit to recognizing this immense and terrible problem for the affliction it is — for if we avert our gaze it is sure to continue, and likely to worsen.
– Mr. Eberstadt, who holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, from which this article is adapted.