There is an unseen crisis in America today: tens of millions of men, in the prime years of their working lives, have dropped out of the labor force.
As the Trump administration continues to figure out ways to put people back to work, they have to deal with a simple demographic fact: there are tens of millions of American men, in the prime years of their working lives, who have dropped out of the labor force. It’s not that these men are trying, and failing, to get jobs. They’ve simply given up.
What is causing this problem and what can be done about it? Nicholas Eberstadt explores this issue in Men Without Work: The Invisible Crisis.
Eberstadt is a long-time fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the leading experts in global population trends. He is also, for reasons I have never fully understood, one of the world’s keenest observers of North Korea. He doesn’t usually cover American domestic issues, but anyone interested in social trends has to take him very seriously.
The crucial statistic comes from a time series kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Current Population Survey called “Age-Structure Employment-to-Population Ratio. U.S. Males, 20-64.” This chart shows that in 1967 over 90 percent of American males age 20-64 were working. The percentage fell by 10 percent so that by 1983 it was down to around 80 percent. Between 80-84 percent of American men were in the labor force between 1980 and 2007.
Then the Great Recession hit, and the percentage of men working fell from 82 percent to 76 percent by 2011. Although there’s been some recovery, the percentage of men in the labor force in 2015 had only risen to 78 percent.
What this means, says Eberstadt, is that 10.5 million men who would have been working in 1967 are not working in 2015—including six million men between ages 25-54.
“Romans used the word ‘decimation’ to describe the loss of a tenth of a given unit of men,” Eberstadt writes. “The United States has suffered something akin to the decimation of the labor force over the past 50 years.”
As I understand the rules, these men aren’t counted in employment statistics; when we say the unemployment rate is under six percent, it doesn’t include these men who are choosing not to work. If they were included the unemployment numbers would be far higher.
What are these men doing? Some of them are taking classes to improve their skills. Eberstadt thinks that perhaps a million men in this age bracket are undergoing education or other training. That still leaves ten million men unaccounted for.
Accounting for the activity of these men leads Eberstadt to uncover the largest and most interesting piece of news in his book. We know that from the 1970s onward the U.S. sent more people to prison than comparable Western nations. The effort to reduce this prison population, and to put convicted felons back to work, has been one of the rare cases of cooperation between the left and right. As I noted in 2015, the issue of prison reform is one where the Koch brothers and liberal activist Van Jones are on the same side.
Being a felon is a formidable barrier to re-entering the labor force. Eberstadt does the best he can with the sketchy statistics available, but he suggests that it’s about three times as likely for felons to be out of work than non-felons, with rates higher for Latino and African-American men.
Obviously if we’re going to get felons off the streets and into jobs, we need to know how much of an employment barrier felonies actually are. This would be a good project for a liberal foundation—say Ford or MacArthur—with a deep interest in criminal justice reform.
Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center notes in a comment for this book an additional reason for the rise in male non-employment: the shrinking military. “The military used to take a very large share of low-skilled men out of the labor force,” Olsen writes, particularly before the end of the draft in 1972. A shrinking military not only means fewer jobs for these low-skilled workers, but also fewer opportunities for these workers to learn responsibility and good work habits from their time under arms.
What are these non-working men doing? The best evidence comes from the American Time Use Survey, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2014, according to this survey, men who said they were “not employed nor in education or training” (or NEETs) said they spent seven minutes a day working and five minutes a day on education. However, they said they spent 489 minutes a day—or over eight hours—on “socializing, relaxing, and leisure,” with about six of those hours spent watching “television and movies (not religious).”
The National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey adds to our knowledge of what non-working men aren’t doing. According to this survey, they are less likely to go to church, read a daily newspaper, volunteer, or vote than were comparable men who worked.
Finally, we should note that the problem Eberstadt is describing is limited to men. Women drop out of the labor force regularly to raise children, but their parenting ensures they have valuable skills (beginning with a keen sense of time management) that ensure that when they want to get jobs they are more readily hired by employers than are men who drop out of work and spend their days watching everything on Netflix or getting to the highest levels of video games.
Eberstadt shows the depth of this non-employment problem and leaves it to others to come up with sensible solutions. But he warns that having millions of non-employed American men is a problem that threatens civil society.
“To a distressing degree,” he writes, “these men appear to have relinquished what we think of ordinarily as adult responsibilities not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens. Having largely freed themselves of such obligations, they fill their days in the pursuit of more immediate sources of gratification.”
 AEI has been a client since 1990. Most recently I spent six months in 2016 providing research to AEI. I do not currently have any contracts with AEI.