Why 7 Million American Men Aren’t Working

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The number of prime-age men (ages 25 to 54) in the U.S. labor force has been declining for decades. Find out what's keeping these men out of the workforce.

The unemployment rate in the United States today is 4.9 percent — roughly half of what it was just after the end of the Great Recession, when it peaked at 10 percent in October 2009.

That is good news for the U.S. labor force, but there’s one segment of Americans who are increasingly absent from the working world: men, specifically prime-age men (ages 25 to 54) who are too old to be in school and too young for retirement.

A recent report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers reveals that this is hardly a new problem. Rather, the labor force participation rate for prime-age men has been tumbling for decades, though the drop-off accelerated during the Great Recession.

According to the Brookings Institution, 7 million — or 12 percent — of prime working-age men in the U.S. are neither working nor looking for a job.

This begs the question: Who are these men, and why are they not working?

Jason Furman, chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Brookings that these are typically low-income men who either dropped out of high school or didn’t go beyond a high school diploma.

Although a small share of the men (less than 25 percent) have a breadwinning spouse and some collect government benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance, Furman says the majority have given up on working after realizing that their limited skills and lack of education are hardly sought-after traits for employers. Says Furman:

“They’re not spending any more time on child care, not spending any more time on chores. They are spending a lot more time watching TV than men who are in the labor force.”

It’s a puzzling trend with potentially disastrous consequences, Furman says, as dropping out of the workforce is “associated with depression, with drug use, with suicide, with a range of bad outcomes.”

The report suggests steps the government can take to stem the tide. Furman says improving education and access to college, spending more on helping people find jobs, providing child care subsidies and paid leave, and expanding the tax subsidies offered to low-wage employees all would be good ways to lure prime-age men back to the workforce.

For more on this trend, check out “Number of Jobless Young Men Surges: You Won’t Believe What They’re Doing With Their Time.”

What do you think about the drop in prime-age men’s participation in the workforce? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

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