Men (No Longer) At Work

by Dish Staff

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Binyamin Appelbaum looks into the causes of the decline in America’s male work force:

Working, in America, is in decline. The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent. … Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits; the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children; and the rise of the Internet, which has reduced the isolation of unemployment. …

The resulting absence of millions of potential workers has serious consequences not just for the men and their families but for the nation as a whole. A smaller work force is likely to lead to a slower-growing economy, and will leave a smaller share of the population to cover the cost of government, even as a larger share seeks help. “They’re not working, because it’s not paying them enough to work,” said Alan B. Krueger, a leading labor economist and a professor at Princeton. “And that means the economy is going to be smaller than it otherwise would be.”

At the same time, Amanda Cox points out, many older men are postponing retirement:

The decline of traditional pension plans and rising education levels, which are associated with less physically demanding jobs, may both help explain why the elderly are working longer. The full retirement age for Social Security benefits also began gradually increasing in 2000.

Some countries have developed policies that encourage older people to leave the labor force, so they do not “crowd out” younger workers. But studies across countries and time suggest that crowding-out may not actually be a problem. Economies do not appear to have a fixed number of jobs. When more older people are working, they are earning money that they will then spend in ways that may create more jobs for young people, for example. Even if this is the case, though, the rise of elderly employment in recent years has not provided enough of a lift to put more young people back to work.

Derek Thompson suspects that more is at play here than employment, suggesting that the American male is having a full-on identity crisis:

Looking to the future, one aspect of the decline of work that might not receive enough attention is identity. If the future of work isn’t quite biased against men, it certainly seemed biased against the traditional idea of manliness. Construction and manufacturing, two male-dominated industries, are down 3 million jobs since 2008. Most of those jobs are dead, forever. Meanwhile, the only occupations expected to add more than 100,000 jobs in the next decade are personal care aides, home health aides, medical secretaries, and marketing specialists, all of which are currently majority female. …

The economy is not simply leaving men behind. It is leaving manliness behind. Machines are replacing the brawn that powered the 20th century economy, clearing way for work that requires a softer human touch.