Almost all of the collapse of work in adult male America over the past half-century is due to the rising numbers of men no longer seeking jobs. Between 1965 and 2015, the employment-to-population ratio for U.S. men aged 20 and older fell by a bit over 13 percentage points (81.3 percent to 68.1 percent). Over this same period, LFPRs for U.S. men aged 20 and over fell by more than 12 percentage points (83.9 percent to 71.5 percent). In effect, exit from the workforce—including retirement—accounted for almost all of the drop in employment levels for all adult men.
The drop in workforce participation rates also accounts for the overwhelming majority of the work rate decline for prime-age men. For men aged 25 to 54, work rates dropped by 9.7 percentage points between 1965 and 2015 (94.1 percent to 84.4 percent). Prime-age male LFPRs fell by 8.4 points (96.7 percent to 88.3 percent) over the same time. Consequently, the prime-age male exodus from the labor market accounted for seven-eighths of the total work rate decline. And, unlike withdrawal from the labor force at older ages, a mass workforce exit for prime-of-lifers cannot plausibly be attributed to retirement.
Who are these U.S. men who have left the workforce in their prime working years?
These long-term un-working, or “not in the labor force” (NILF), men are the hard core of modern America’s “men without work” problem. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 2015, an average of 7.2 million prime-age men were NILFs, and the likelihood of being a prime-age American man who neither works nor seeks work was three-and-a-half times greater in 2015 than 50 years earlier (11.7 percent vs. 3.3 percent). But broad trends in the odds of being an un-worker are also apparent for the year 2015 in accordance with a prime-age man’s race or ethnicity, educational attainment, marital status and family structure, and nativity (i.e., whether native-born or foreign-born).
With respect to race and ethnicity, the greatest cleavage is between black men and all others, though differences among the huge and diverse nonblack population are also evident. (Hispanic men, for example, were more likely than the aver- age to be in a job and out of the NILF pool; the reverse is true for self-identified Native Americans.) According to U.S. race and ethnicity data, however, black males made up nearly twice as much of the prime-age NILF population as prime-age job holders (20.4 percent vs. 10.6 percent). In addition, when Hispanic heritage is thrown into the mix, non-Latino blacks accounted for exactly twice as large a share of prime-age male NILFs as employees (19.8 percent vs. 9.9 percent).
Educational attainment, in turn, dramatically affected the odds that a prime-age male in 2015 would be holding down a job or living as an un-worker. A prime-age man with at least some graduate education was three times more likely to be in the former rather than the latter category. Conversely, men without a high school diploma were more than twice as likely to be among the un-working. With every improvement in educational attainment, the odds of being in the work-force rise. By the same token, the chances of landing in the NILF pool increase the lower the educational attainment. Nevertheless, relatively educated men still accounted for a surprising share of the long-term jobless prime-age men not seeking work. In 2015, over two-fifths of prime-age male un-workers had some college education, and one-sixth had at least a bachelor’s degree.
In 2015, married men accounted for three-fifths of prime-age job holders, but only about one-third of [not in the labor force] men.
Marital status and family structure/living arrangements likewise prove powerful predictors. Married men accounted for three-fifths of prime-age job holders, but only about one-third of NILFs in 2015. On the other hand, men who have never married were underrepresented among the employed and overrepresented among NILFs. (A similar pattern holds for prime-age men who were divorced, separated, or widowed.) Living under the same roof with one or more children also increases the odds of being a worker, regardless of marital status, and married prime-age men with children accounted for over twice as much of the paid workforce as the NILF-force.
Finally, foreign-born men in 2015 were more likely to be job holders and decidedly less likely to be NILFs than the prime-age male population as a whole. Foreign-born males made up more than one-fifth of prime-age job holders in 2015, but less than one-sixth of the un-workers.
In sum, an American man, aged 25 to 54 was more likely to be an un-worker in 2015 if he (1) had no more than a high school diploma; (2) was not married and had no children or children who lived elsewhere; (3) was not an immigrant; or (4) was African American.
Marital status was already a powerful predictor of American employment behavior in 1965 for prime-age men. A gap of nearly 13 percentage points separated work rates for the married and the never married; NILF rates were eight points higher for the never married. Even so, LFPRs for these never married in 1965 were somewhat higher than the national average for prime-age men today. Between 1965 and 2015, work rates fell and NILF rates rose for men of every marital status—married, separated, divorced, widowed, and never married—but they worsened far more for the never married.1
The proportion of never-married men was over three times higher in 2015 than 1965.
In 1968, the CPS began asking more detailed questions about family structure. The results track with overall trends for marital status but provide more definition. Work rates in 1968 were nearly 12 points higher for a married man with children than a never-married man without them; LFPRs were a full nine points higher. Over the following decades, labor market performance deteriorated less for married men with children than any other family type.
On the other hand, changes in prime-age males’ educational makeup have had a big effect on work rates and inactivity rates—a strongly positive effect. If 1965 distribution of educational attainments for prime-age men still applied, the work rate would be nearly six additional percentage points lower and the NILF rate four percentage points higher than they actually were in 2015. In brief, the collapse of work for modern America’s men happened despite considerable upgrades in educational attainment in recent decades.
If educational attainment has buoyed work rates and work-force participation for prime-age American men, changes in marriage patterns and family structure had at least as strong an influence in pulling those rates down. In 1965, 85 percent of prime-age men were married, nearly 30 percentage points higher than 2015. On the other hand, the proportion of never-married men was over three times higher in 2015 than 1965. With 1965 proportions of married/separated or divorced/widowed/never-married men, our prime-age male 2015 work rate would have been over six percentage points higher. The NILF rate would have been at least six points lower—less than one-half of its actual 2015 level. Adjustments for family structure and at-home children point in the same direction, although neither is as strong.
No matter their race or educational status, married men raising a family work more, and never-married men without children, or children in their home, work less.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). This essay is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 5 of his new book from Templeton Press, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis.
1. Trends were even worse for the widowed prime-age men—but this was and still is a tiny group, comprising less than 1 percent of the total civilian non-institutional population.