The steady disappearance of prime-age males (age 25-54) from the labor force has been occurring for decades and has recently become popular in policy circles. The prime-age male labor force participation rate began falling in the 1950s, and since January 1980 the percent of prime-age males not in the labor force has increased from 5.5% to 12.3%. In fact, since the economy started recovering from our latest recession in June 2009 the rate has increased by 1.3 percentage points.
The 12.3% of prime-age males not in the labor force nationwide masks substantial variation at the state level. The figure below shows the percentage of prime-age males not in the labor force—neither working nor looking for a job—by state in 2016 according to data from the Current Population Survey.
The lowest percentage was in Wyoming, where only 6.3% of prime males were out of the labor force. On the other end of the spectrum, over 20% of prime males were out of the labor force in West Virginia and Mississippi, a shocking number. Remember, prime-age males are generally not of school age and too young to retire, so the fact that one out of every five is not working or even looking for a job in some states is hard to fathom.
Several researchers have investigated the absence of these men from the labor force and there is some agreement on the cause. First, demand side factors play a role. The decline of manufacturing, traditionally a male dominated industry, reduced the demand for their labor. In a state like West Virginia, the decline of coal mining—another male dominated industry—has contributed as well.
Some of the most recent decline is due to less educated men dropping out as the demand for their skills continues to fall. Geographic mobility has also declined, so even when an adjacent state has a stronger labor market according to the figure above—for example West Virginia and Maryland—people aren’t moving to take advantage of it.
Of course, people lose jobs all the time yet most find another one. Moreover, if someone isn’t working, how do they support themselves? The long-term increase in female labor force participation has allowed some men to rely on their spouse for income. Other family members and friends may also help. There is also evidence that men are increasingly relying on government aid, such as disability insurance, to support themselves.
These last two reasons, relying on a family member’s income or government aid, are supply-side reasons, since they affect a person’s willingness to accept a job rather than the demand for a person’s labor. A report by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors argued that supply-side reasons were only a small part of the decline in the prime-age male labor force participation rate and that the lack of demand was the real culprit:
“Reductions in labor supply—in other words, prime-age men choosing not to work for a given set of labor market conditions—explain relatively little of the long-run trend…In contrast, reductions in the demand for labor, especially for lower-skilled men, appear to be an important component of the decline in prime-age male labor force participation.”
Other researchers, however, are less convinced. For example, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt thinks that supply-side factors play a larger role than the CEA acknowledges and he discusses these in his book Men Without Work. One piece of evidence he notes is the different not-in-labor-force (NILF) rates of native born and foreign born prime-age males: Since one would think that structural demand shocks would affect both native and foreign-born alike, the difference indicates that some other factor may be at work.
In the figure below, I subtract the foreign born not-in-labor-force rate from the native born rate by state. A positive number means that native prime-age males are less likely to be in the labor force than foreign-born prime age males. (Note: Foreign born only means a person was born in a country other than the U.S.: It does not mean that the person is not a citizen at the time the data was collected.)
As shown in the figure, natives are less likely to be in the labor force (positive bar) in 34 of the 51 areas (DC included). For example, in Texas the percent of native prime-age men not in the labor force is 12.9% and the percentage of foreign-born not in the labor force is 5.9%, a 7 percentage point gap, which is what’s displayed in the figure above.
The difference in the NILF rate between the two groups is also striking when broken down by education, as shown in the next figure.
In 2016, natives with less than a high school degree were four times more likely to be out of the labor force than foreign born, while natives with a high school degree were twice as likely to be out of the labor force. The NILF rates for some college or a bachelor’s or more are similar.
Mr. Eberstadt attributes some of this difference to the increase in incarceration rates since the 1970s. The U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than almost any other country and it is very difficult to find a job with an arrest record or a conviction.
There aren’t much data combining employment and criminal history so it is hard to know exactly how much of a role crime plays in the difference between the NILF rates by education. Mr. Eberstadt provides some evidence in his book that shows that men with an arrest or conviction are much more likely to be out of the labor force than similar men without, but it is not perfectly comparable to the usual BLS data. That being said, it is reasonable to think that the mass incarceration of native prime-age males, primarily those with little formal education, has created a large group of unemployable, and thus unemployed, men.
Is incarceration a supply or demand side issue? On one hand, people with a criminal record are not really in demand, so in that sense it’s a demand issue. On the other hand, crime is a choice in many instances—people may choose a life of crime over other, non-criminal professions because it pays a higher wage than other available options or it somehow provides them with a more fulfilling life (e.g. Tony Soprano). In this sense crime and any subsequent incarceration is the result of a supply-side choice. Drug use that results in incarceration could also be thought of this way. I will let the reader decide which is more relevant to the NILF rates of prime-age males.
Criminal justice reform in the sense of fewer arrests and incarcerations would likely improve the prime-age male LFP rate, but the results would take years to show up in the data since such reforms don’t help the many men who have already served their time and want to work but are unable to find a job. Reforms that make it easier for convicted felons to find work would offer more immediate help, and there has been some efforts in this area. How successful they will be remains to be seen.
Other state reforms such as less occupational licensing would make it easier for people— including those with criminal convictions—to enter certain professions. There are also several ideas floating around that would make it easier for people to move to areas with better labor markets, such as making it easier to transfer unemployment benefits across state lines.
But has something fundamentally changed the way some men view work? Would some, especially the younger ones, rather just live with their parents and play video games, as economist Erik Hurst argues? For those wanting to learn more about this issue, Mr. Eberstadt’s book is a good place to start.