Nicholas Eberstadt headshot with Men Without Work book cover

Where are the 5+ million prime age men missing from the workforce?

A small segment of men out earn everyone else, but that’s not the dominant story of the American economy of the last 50 years: Men are falling out of the economy.

Overall: Higher rates of education, a sprawling prison population and antisocial-like behavior (despair) seem to account for at least five million missing prime-age men from the workforce.

% of Prime Age Men Without Work

The unemployment rate as an indicator entirely misses the crisis of labor-force participation among prime age men — because waves of men aren’t even trying to get formal work anymore. It’s ignored for many reasons, one of which may be that it doesn’t fit a progressive priorities, so it’s largely been voiced by conservatives — with a few exceptions. This is not happening in any other rich country save for Italy; This needs to be an issue of national and bipartisan interest.

That’s the main theme of Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, a book by demographer Nicholas Eberstadt. The book was first published in 2016, though I read an updated pandemic version published in 2022 amid dramatic economic shifts.

I’ve backed into this sort of trend-reporting when I covered how tenure rates have changed over time, and I’ve come across Eberstadt’s work elsewhere. I took his new pandemic release asa reason to read his full work. It’s urgent and nuanced and interesting and important.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • “New misery” of Depression era unemployment for men
  • In 2022, the American economy was $6t smaller than if it kept its 1950-2000 trend
  • Between the eve of WW2 and the 1960s, Prime age men work rates averaged 94%; from 1965 onward rates declined. Today, Prime age men without work
  • In March 1940: 13.6% of prime age men (25-54) had no paid work; it’s been like that since 2000s, a depression era level of non work that doesn’t appear because our depression era obsession with unemployment rate (NILF not In labor force)
  • Not since 1992 has there been a single month of more unemployed men than NILF men (Not even in the pandemic nor Great Recession were there exceptions)
  • This is not happening in any other rich country save for Italy
  • Not demand but supply side: Disability insurance funds alternative work for prime age men though government programs do not talk to each other; prison too
  • His 2016 book put felon population at 19.5m, 17m ex cons mean 1 in 8 men had a felony conviction in 2016, today higher, maybe 1 in 7
  • Keith Finlay and Michael Mueller-Smith : those with felonies are less employed than high school dropouts
  • In 2021 PA NILFs (Not in Labor Force) 2/5 had some college and 1/5 had college
  • Covid was a UBI test; argues LFPR remains below trend (look at FRED)
  • NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) are NILFs without full time students
  • 2010 the low point
  • This is not just due to aging
  • Employment to population ratio, aged men, 20 to 64
    • 1930: 88.2%
    • 1940 81.3
    • 2015; 78.4
  • 20-54
    • 1930: 91.2
    • 1940: 86.4
    • 2015: 84.4
  • 10-plus Million American men 20-64, or 6-7 million aged 20-54 should be working if work rates held constant from even just 1965, though author notes education is more prevalent today . Maybe 1 million more men are full time students than the 1965 share , so not everyone
  • Overall: education, prison and Call of Duty really do seem to account for missing men
  • “Dog not barking” riddle: why aren’t men protesting? More women in workforce and slow steady generational change
  • Americans that do work do it more than other rich countries but fewer men are a part
  • Dora Costa’s paper in 1998:
    • In 1880s Americans worked six 10-hour days a week.
    • By 1920s six 8-hour days
    • By 1940 five 8-hour days
    • PTO and holidays have reduced to less than 8 hours
  • United States has a more robust economy, more flexible and dynamic labor market and more limited welfare than France and Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIGS) but worse make PA NILF (save Italy): why?
  • Americans work more as they get richer unlike rest of rich world
  • Juliet Schor’s 1991 book: The Overworked American
  • Keynes famous economic possibilities for our grandchildren essay
  • Who are they? Black and Native American more than Hispanic
  • Some graduate school : 3 times likely to work; without high school diploma : 2 times likely to be unworking (Stoll in 2015, 2/5 of Prime Age NILF had some college and 1/6 had at least bachelors
  • Married men: 3/5 of PA workers but 1/3 NILF; with children weee twice as likely paid than not working
  • Foreign born in 2015: 1/5 of Prime working and just 1/6 non working
  • All male groups worsened work participation over time except foreign born (grew from 1994-2015)
  • Educational attainment lessened as the work rate fall (as did growing immigrant totals) but falling marriage and kids rates brought it down
  • No matter how you slice it: men across races and backgrounds are less likely to work than at any time in US history, a steady decline that began in the 1960s. Although all groups have seen declines, educational attainment, marital status and foreign/native born identity all predict how bad the fall has been. Work rates for white men today are lower than they were for black men in 1965; married black men aged 25-54 are more likely to be working than never-married white men in the same age group. Married men with only a high school diploma outperform never-married men with only some college credits.
  • The book argues: School, prison, drugs and video games.
  • Difference in what non workers do: “leisure refines and elevates; idleness corrupts and degrades”
  • Josef Pieper: leisure is the basis of culture
  • Max Weber: “ waste of time is this the first and principal the deadliest of sins”
  • William Beveridge in 1942 Beveridge Report: “idleness even on an income corrupts”
  • 68% of Prime age men out of the workforce in 2014 were out for full year per CPS ASEC; in 1994 only half
  • Just 15% say it’s because they couldn’t find work
  • Just 4.6% men say caring for children in 2013 SIPP data. (39% for out of work women in 2004)
  • “Care chasm”
  • College educated men work more, more kid care and more chores than high school degrees (since 1965, leisure time shrank for former and grew for latter) Aguiar and Hurst (leisure inequality)
  • Non working men use 5.5 hours a day on TV and screens
  • 2016 Council of Economic Advisors: 1) supply, 2) demand and institutional
  • Demand includes economic changes and international hiring but author prefers supply side (desire) and institutional (ability like prison). His argument: state and regional differences and how immigrants and women joined workforce, and how other countries (like Japan) have kept male labor force up even while women joined, growth slowed) suggest not only demand/economic shifts
  • Demand: if we lost lots of men but needed them, wages would have soared, but low wage declined for years
  • Alan Kruger: “The monthly rate for transitioning from out of the labor force to back in the labor force is unrelated to the business cycle.”
  • Welfare and disability payments are a big part of survival; living with family another
  • We have “no information” on those men working off the books
  • In LBJ’s Great Society of 1965, author argues the Immigration and Nationality Act was timed with the beginning of a national crime wave
  • Imprisonment is the key explanation of the loss of prime-age men
  • 1965-1985 crime wave: we’re today back to early 1960s crime levels but 5 times the prison population
  • 14 of 20 million Americans with felonies were adult males in 2010; could be 17 m of 23m in 2016
  • Chance of incarceration by race before turning 35 (for men born 1957-1964) (via Bruce Western and Becky Pettit)
    • Non Hispanic white men with 12 years of education: 5%
    • Those without high school degree: 18%
    • Non Hispanic black with high school: 25%
    • Black dropout: 58%
    • Latino dropout: 23%
  • Man who had been in prison three times as likely to be out of labor force than non
  • “It’s important, however, not to over emphasize the role of criminality in the decline of male work over the postwar period. It was just one factor, and an important, typically overlooked factor, but still just one factor. We should also remember that the great male flight from work had already been underway for more than a decade and a half before the US male population of ex-prisoners the next large felons began to soar in the early 1980s, and that coincides, curiously enough, the explosive growth of that “criminal class “after 1980 seemingly did a little or nothing to speed the pace of decline for prime age male LFPRs over the following 3+ decades..”
  • “Politically, this death of work seems largely to have meant the death of civic engagement, community participation, and voluntary association for un-working men, too. Thus, we witness a still-growing phenomenon of American men in the prime of life who are not only disengaged from civil society, but also who require that same civil society’s indefinite larggesse to pay their way through life. This state of affairs may not quite be the “custodial democracy” my colleague Charles Murray warned of a generation ago, but it is uncomfortably close to it nonetheless.’”
  • Solutions broadly: American business and its job-generating capacities (?); reducing disincentives in social welfare; bring felons back into economy
  • He references Ian Hathaway and Robert Litan on declining business dynamism
  • Raven Molloy and Fed Reserve: decline in “labor market fluidity”
  • Hudson Institute Marie-Jose Kravis: “ almost 3 decades of slower turn in the flow of business formation in business deaths, of less dynamic labor markets in a flat income growth point urgently to the need for better policy.” (Did any policy change what happened when business boomed?)
  • He says 20 years ago a welfare reform worked to bring millions of unwed mothers back into workforce (is this true?)
  • We don’t collect good data on success of reentry programs
  • We put millions of ex convicts back into society in 1990s and early 2000s and crime remained low
  • Henry Olsen retort: author overestimates cause of welfare and underestimates economic changes. Loss of male employment to population rate speeds after twin recessions of 1970s and is more about economic changes than entitlements
  • Olsen: work sucks more now for men than in past so they opt out. Early 2000s recession: 2m apps for SSDI a year after but never before; new high of 3M after Great Recession
  • Olsen: military draft from 1948-1972 employed another million young men
  • Jared Bernstein: demand side explanation is shift from male heavy manufacturing to women led healthcare. This is less flight from work and more work flight from men
  • Bernstein: Kathy Ruffing argues disability insurance doesn’t dissuade workers; and generally welfare is more work incentivizing not less
  • Bernstein: weak labor demand could push disability insurance (as men misuse it as longterm unemployment) rather than more disability insurance being a sign of weak labor supply
  • Author: Welfare didn’t cause male flight problem, “it financed it”

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