Commentary: Men Without Work (Dec, 2017)

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

A lot of serious long-term national issues simply weren’t addressed in the recent national election. That’s not surprising. Issues like the alarming growth of the national debt, the rising consequences of opiate addiction,  and unprecedented changes in demography don’t fit easkily into  political campaigns and their 30 second ads.

One such neglected issue is what the President’s Council on Economic Advisers , in a June report, calls “The Long Term Decline in Prime-Age [25-54] Male Labor Force Participation”. American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt offers a more concise title in his new book  “Men Without Work”.

The CEA report states that “Labor force participation among prime-age men peaked in 1954 and has fallen steadily since the mid-1960s, a trend that has been sharper in the United States than in other advanced economies… The fall in participation for prime-age men has largely been concentrated among those with a high school degree or less, and participation rates have declined more steeply for black men.”

This analysis leaves out men who are unemployed but looking for work, measured by the familiar unemployment rate of around five percent. It also doesn’t count men in prison, most college and graduate school students (under 25), and early retirees (over 54). Eberstadt, reviewing the same data, writes “Men [aged 25-54] not in the labor force – neither working nor looking for work – are by far the fastest growing component of our prime male civilian non-institutional population.” Only one in seven of these seven million men say they are out of the labor pool because of lack of jobs. Washington Post economic columnist Robert Samuelson adds that in 1965 only one in 29 men in this age group were labor force dropouts. Today it’s one in eight.

The collapse of work in America”, says Eberhardt, “means slower economic growth; growing economic inequality; greater government dependence, budget deficits and public debt; more fragile families; constrained social mobility; and a less robust civil society.”

Why have these men dropped out? Some have fled to the disability rolls, which often accept applicants claiming “back pain” and “anxiety”. Some are benefiting from welfare programs that they would lose with rising incomes. Some have given up looking for jobs because they are ex-convicts, and thus hard to hire. Some live in the shadow economy of odd jobs, petty crime, drugs and gambling. Some are just hanging out, sponging, and playing video games.

A large fraction – the numbers are debatable – have given up because their low skill jobs have been automated , or outsourced to Mexico and Asia, or filled by immigrants willing to work for less. They aren’t productive enough to earn even the ever-rising minimum wage, and they are often too rooted in their communities, and proud, to pick up and start over at lower wages in a more promising economic location.

Traditional government policies to address this problem typically involve education, retraining and job search programs, an effort sometimes successful, but all too often more beneficial to the instructors than the students. Another approach is to have taxpayers pay the unemployed with dependents to take jobs (Earned Income Tax Credit). Not surprisingly, the politically-motivated Obama CEA sees increasing the minimum wage and more unionization as solutions. Few economists would agree.

There is clearly no magic button that government can push to reverse this workforce dropout trend. But there are hopeful examples, built upon regenerating in these men a belief that their efforts to rise economically can succeed with discipline, work, and support. Quite a few non-governmental examples are described in Clearing Obstacles to Work, recently published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.

Other examples include America Works; Teen Challenge; the French ACCRE (Aide aux Chômeur Créateurs ou Repreneurs d’Entreprise –“assistance for putting the idle back to work in a business”); the private sector-led  JOBS Plus program in Oregon, and the Perpetual Education Fund, a self-reliance, education and support program operated by the Mormon Church worldwide.

This distressing trend is not likely to be reversed by conflicting government policies and bureaucratic programs. The key is strengthening a generous and caring civil society that provides character, skills, support, and hope for prime-aged men who have given up working.

Not all will respond. Those who won’t will remain an insoluble problem, and will likely come to an unhappy end.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (

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