While Obama has repeatedly touted the sub-5.0% unemployment rate (4.9% most recently) as confirmation his “economic recovery” has been successful, what has received far less media attention has been the unprecedented surge in Americans no longer in the labor force, which as of August stood at a near-record 94.4 million.
And while the traditional response by economic apolists and the media has been that this number is the result of a demographic change in US society, with mostly older workers no longer in the labor pool, we have over the years argued that that is misleading, and that millions of prime-aged workers have fallen out as a result of drastic changes to America’s job market, coupled with structural lack of demand for legacy jobs, which has – for example – sent the number of employed waiters and bartenders to all time highs even as the number of manufacturing workers is lower than it was in December 2014.
Overnight, NPR confirmed precisely what we have claimed for so long, when it said that while the nation’s unemployment rate is half of what it was at the height of the Great Recession: saying that the unempoyment number “hides a big problem: Millions of men in their prime working years have dropped out of the workforce — meaning they aren’t working or even looking for a job.”
Citing a recent report by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, NPR notes that 83% of men in the prime working ages of 25-54 who were not in the labor force had not worked in the previous year. So, essentially, 10 million men are missing from the workforce.
Putting that number in context, in the 1960s, nearly 100 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. That’s fallen over the decades.
The condemnation of Obama’s “recovery” is dire: “One in six prime-age guys has no job; it’s kind of worse than it was in the depression in 1940,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, an economic and demographic researcher at American Enterprise Institute who wrote the book Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis. He says these men aren’t even counted among the jobless, because they aren’t seeking work. According to Eberstadt little is known about the missing men, but there are numerous factors that make men less likely to be in the labor force — a lack of college degree, being single, or being black.
Why are men leaving? And what are they doing instead? An anecdote from NPR sheds some light:
They might be like Romeo Barnes. He lives in District Heights, Md., and his last job as a Wal-Mart greeter ended 11 years ago. He’s 30, black, single and has cerebral palsy.
“I have able-bodied friends who can’t find work, so it’s not just me,” Barnes says.
He says he has sought administrative jobs but that his disability and not having a college degree hold him back.
“Men are traditionally known for labor work. The lower-educated guys have to do stuff like that. And that’s being taken away because we have machines,” he says.
Indeed, economists say technology and overseas competition are displacing many jobs. The number of people collecting disability insurance, like Barnes, has also increased.
AEI’s Eberstadt says criminal records may also play a factor. Some 20 million Americans have felony convictions — the vast majority of whom are men. But, he says, it’s hard to know how big a factor that is, because the government doesn’t keep data on their employment status.
“Something on the order of one out of every eight adult men has got a felony conviction, and we don’t have the slightest clue as to their employment patterns,” Eberstadt says.
What the missing men aren’t doing in large numbers is staying home to take care of family. 40% of nonworking women are primary caregivers; that’s true of only 5 percent of men out of the workforce. But they do exist: take the example of Virginia Beach dad Jory Rekkedal quit his IT job a year ago to take care of his two girls — a gig he has loved.
“I wasn’t going to go back to work. It was almost going to just be a nice transition into retirement for me — a very early retirement. I mean, I’m only 36 years old,” he says.
And if he does go back to work, he worries about the prospects.
“Things move really, really, really quick [in IT], and I’m worried that if we can’t make it work, that I’m going to go looking for a job and they’re going to say two years out of it, ‘Sorry, brother, you don’t have what it takes to work here anymore,’ ” Rekkedal says.
Tara Sinclair, chief economist for job-search site Indeed.com, says brawny jobs are being replaced by brainy ones, and that trend doesn’t favor men. “The question is, is this the new normal? Or, with the right economic conditions, the right opportunities, will those people come back into the labor market?” she says.
It gets worse: Sinclair says if men keep exiting the workforce, that could strain the social safety net and hold back economic growth. Some, like Richard Hintzke, say they hope to go back to work. He shuttered his Detroit home-appraisal business after the housing market crashed in 2009 and considered his options.
“You know, it looked like the sky was falling, so it was like, if there was ever a good time to disengage, I said, this is a good time,” he says. Hintzke, who is 53 and doesn’t have children, relocated to Austin, Texas, and has lived off income from investment properties.
He says he misses the camaraderie he felt while working and the feeling of contributing something. These days, he’s mulling a new career in holistic healing. But once you’re out of work for a while, he admits, it’s easy to lose momentum.
For now, however, there is little hope to get those tens of millions of inert prime-aged workers back into the labor force, and absent a substantial overhaul, coupled with reschooling of those who have been out of the workforce, the chances this troubling trend will reverse are slim to none. Meanwhile, it means that as the class and wealth divide courtesy of the Fed accelerates, the numbers of increasingly angry people who feel justifiably left out, will continue to rise, until one day not even all the government’s social safety nets will be able to prevent what comes next.