Manufacturing employment and the prime-age male LFP rate: What’s the relationship?

by Adam Millsap on May 2, 2017

in Economic Policy, Education, Safety Nets, Unemployment

Recently I wrote about the decline in the U.S. prime-age male labor force participation (LFP) rate and discussed some of the factors that may have caused it. One of the demand-side factors that many people think played a role is the decline in manufacturing employment in the United States.

Manufacturing has typically been a male-dominated industry, especially for males with less formal education, but increases in automation and productivity have resulted in fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States over time. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, the story goes, so did a lot of economic opportunities for working-age men. The result has been men leaving the labor force.

However, the same decline in manufacturing employment occurred in other countries as well, yet many of them experienced much smaller declines in their prime-age male LFP rates. The table below shows the percent of employment in manufacturing in 1990 and 2012 for 10 OECD countries, as well as their 25 to 54 male LFP rates in 1990 and 2012. The manufacturing data come from the FRED website and the LFP data are from the OECD data site. The ten countries included here were chosen based on data availability and I think they provide a sample that can be reasonably compared to the United States.

country 25-54 LFP rate, manuf table

As shown in the table, all of the countries experienced a decline in manufacturing employment and labor force participation over this time period. Thus America was not unique in this regard.

But when changes in both variables are plotted on the same graph, the story that the decline in manufacturing employment caused the drop in male LFP rate doesn’t really hold up.

country 25-54 LFP rate, manuf scatter plot

The percentage point change in manufacturing employment is across the top on the x-axis and the percentage point change in the prime-age male LFP rate is on the y-axis. As shown in the graph the relationship between the two is negative in this sample, and the change in manufacturing employment explains almost 36% of the variation in LFP rate declines (the coefficient on the decline in manufacturing employment is -0.322 and the p-value is 0.08).

In other words, the countries that experienced the biggest drops in manufacturing employment experienced the smallest drops in their LFP rate, which is the opposite of what we would expect if the decline in manufacturing employment played a big role in the decline of the LFP rate across countries.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation and I find it hard to believe that declines in manufacturing employment actually improved LFP rates, all else equal. But I also think the less manufacturing, less labor force participation story is too simple, and this data supports that view.

America and Italy experienced similar declines in their male LFP rates but neither experienced the largest declines in manufacturing employment over this time period. What else is going on in America that caused its LFP decline to more closely resemble Italy’s than that of Canada, Australia and the UK, which are more similar to America along many dimensions?

Whatever the exact reasons are, it appears that American working-age males responded differently to the decline in manufacturing employment over the last 20 + years than similar males in similar countries. This could be due to our higher incarceration rate, the way our social safety net is constructed, differences between education systems, the strength of the economy overall or a number of other factors. But attributing the bulk of the blame to the decline of manufacturing employment doesn’t seem appropriate.

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