Men In America
4:14 pm
Mon August 11, 2014

Why Are Men Leaving The American Workforce?

Originally published on Tue August 12, 2014 11:45 am

There's a long, unfolding story about work in America that often gets overlooked. It's the story of men opting out of work altogether. These are men who have vanished from the labor force — men who don't have a job and aren't looking for one.

To describe this historic development with the context it deserves, we start with the American economy after World War II. It was firing on all cylinders, dominant globally, confident and dynamic. It was a great time to be an American man in the workplace. Hiring was strong for white-collar jobs and factory work. Industries like autos, aviation and steel were booming.

If you were a man in the 1950s, you had a job, says Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. And if you lost it, you started looking for another one.

"If you weren't in the Army and you weren't in jail, you were very, very likely working, and there was probably a good reason for why you were not seeking work and not working if that was the case," Eberstadt says.

But by the 1960s, that started to change. Men, slowly but surely, began leaving the workforce. If they couldn't find jobs, some simply stopped looking. And ever since, more and more men have been opting out of work.

It's a fact that's not in dispute anywhere across the ideological spectrum.

"This has been going on now for just about half a century," Eberstadt says.

Heidi Shierholz, of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, agrees.

"We've been seeing this just long, decades-long decline in men's labor force participation," Shierholz says.

That decline has been relentless, persisting through recessions and even in periods of strong growth and job creation, like the 1990s.

"It's happened during good times, it's happened during bad times," Eberstadt says.

Throughout the 1950s, the proportion of males over 16 who were working or looking for work held steady at around 85 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then, in each successive decade, that number fell, tumbling all the way to 69 percent, where it is today. Some of that decline can be accounted for by benign factors such as men retiring earlier or young men staying in school longer.

But if you strip away the students and the early retiring men, the picture doesn't change much. Men are still opting out. Back in the 1950s, just 3 percent of men in their prime working years (considered to be ages 25 to 54) were out of work and not seeking employment. Last year, that number was 12 percent.

"There are twice as many guys between 25 and 54 who aren't even looking for a job as who are unemployed," Eberstadt says.

As more men have opted out of work, women have streamed into the labor force for several generations now. And at the same time, they have been obtaining more education. Women now receive 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the U.S.

David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says women have responded to an increasingly demanding job market by getting more education, but men haven't followed suit.

"You might say, 'Why haven't men responded more effectively, why haven't they educated better, more, why haven't they moved into higher-wage occupations?' " Autor says. "And that is less clear."

As might be expected, economists don't agree on why so many men have left the workforce. Some possible factors they cite: There's less of a stigma today if a man doesn't work. Union clout has declined. More men are in early retirement receiving disability benefits. New technology has eliminated manufacturing jobs. And competition from abroad moved others overseas.

Autor says many service-sector jobs that remain — in restaurants and retail, for example — don't pay as well as the factory jobs that disappeared.

And with so many men in the prime of life missing from the workforce, it can't help but take a toll on the economy, Eberstadt says.

"The country is going to be less rich. They're going to be less rich. Growth is going to be slower. It's going to have really bad effects on wealth differences in the United States," he says.

So what can be done? Certainly more education and better education would make a difference. But that's a profound, long-term challenge.

Autor says there's one smaller fix that would help — expand the earned income tax credit. It's a subsidy that supports low-income workers when they find jobs and keep them. Right now, it primarily benefits women and children rather than single men.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We've been exploring the changing roles of men and today we hear about men in the workforce. The job market is often portrayed as a snapshot - a brief moment in time. The unemployment rate moves up or down a notch. A single month's job growth is better or worse than forecasters had predicted. But there is a long unfolding story about employment in America that often gets overlooked. It's the story of men opting out of work altogether. Here's NPR's Uri Berliner.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: After World War II, it was a great time to be an American man in the workplace. Hiring was strong for white-collar jobs and factory work. Industries like autos, aviation and steel were booming.

(SOUNDBITE OF INDUSTRY CLIP FROM US STEEL PLANT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To Jim Robbins, making steel for America is a job with a future. Jim, planning for the future, is filled with determination to make way for tomorrow. And the industry in which he serves is also a part of that tomorrow.

BERLINER: That industry clip from a U.S. steel plant expresses the optimism of the times. Nicholas Eberstadt is an economist with the American Enterprise Institute. He says if you were a man in the 1950s, you had a job. Or if you lost it, you started looking for another one.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: If you weren't in the Army and you weren't in jail, you were very very likely working. And there was probably a good reason for why you were not seeking work and not working, if that was the case.

BERLINER: But by the 1960s that started to change. Men began leaving the workforce. If they couldn't find jobs, some men simply stopped looking. And ever since, more and more men have been opting out of work. That's a fact not in dispute anywhere across the ideological spectrum. Here's Eberstadt of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

EBERSTADT: This has been going on now for just about half a century.

BERLINER: And Heidi Shierholz of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: We've been seeing this just long - decades-long decline in men's labor force participation.

BERLINER: That decline has been relentless, persisting through recessions and even in periods of strong growth and job creation, like the 1990s.

EBERSTADT: So it's happened during good times. It's happened during bad times.

BERLINER: The departure from work can't be explained away by factors like men retiring earlier or young men staying in school longer to get more degrees. Back in the 1950s, just 3 percent of men in their prime working years - that's considered 25 to 54 - were out of work and not seeking employment. Last year, that number was 12 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG LEBOWSKI")

DAVID HUDDLESTON: (As Jeffrey Lebowski) Are you employed, sir?

JEFF BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Employed? (Laughing).

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeffrey Lebowski) You don't go out looking for a job dressed like that, do you? On a weekday?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Is this the - what day is this?

BERLINER: That's the ultimate slacker - the Dude in the movie "The Big Lebowski." Obviously, an extreme case - back in the real world, as more men opted out of the workforce for whatever their reasons, women streamed in. And at the same time, they've been obtaining more education. The most recent figures show nearly 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the U.S. are earned by women. MIT economist David Autor says women have responded to an increasingly demanding job market by getting more education - men not so much.

DAVID AUTOR: You might say well, why haven't men responded more effectively? Why haven't they educated better - more? Why haven't they moved into higher-wage occupations? And that is less clear.

BERLINER: As might be expected, economists don't agree on why so many men have left the workforce. Some possible factors they cite - there's less of a stigma today if a man doesn't work. Union clout has declined. More men are in early retirement, receiving disability benefits. New technology has eliminated manufacturing jobs and competition from abroad moved others overseas. Economist David Autor says many service jobs that remain in restaurants and retail, for example, don't pay as well as the factory jobs that disappeared.

AUTOR: The most important factor, I would say, behind declining male employment rates is declining wages for less educated workers.

BERLINER: So what can be done? Certainly, more education and better education would make a difference, but that's long-term. Autor says a smaller fix might help. He suggests expanding the earned-income tax credit. That's the subsidy that rewards low-income workers when they find jobs and keep them. But right now, it primarily benefits women and children, not single men. Uri Berliner, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So as we've just heard, for men working blue-collar jobs, it's become harder to get ahead. On average, they make less money and have far less job security than previous generations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.