The Mysterious Rise of the Non-Working Man

The economy is not leaving men behind. But it is perhaps leaving manliness behind.

Andrea Comas/Reuters

In 1974, the radio broadcaster Studs Terkel published a book of profiles to have "people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do." The title of the book was, simply, Working.

That was appropriate. Working was what people did all day, particularly if they were men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s. In the 1970s, as in previous decades, about 95 percent of men between the age of 25 and 54 were either working or actively looking for their next job. Only 5.5 percent of them were what economists consider "inactive"—out of the labor force.

But somebody revisiting Terkel's project in the next decade would be encouraged to find a more flexible title. In each decade since the 1970s, the inactivity rate for 25-54-year-old men—the share of guys neither working nor actively seeking a job—has gone up. Each decade, not working becomes more and more a part of what we're doing all day.

St Louis Fed

As you can see, this is a structural shift, rather than a short-term adjustment. The official unemployment rate rode a wild roller-coaster over the last four decades, but the rise in inactivity among middle-aged men has climbed a steadily sloping hill. It grew during the Reagan Recovery. It grew during the Clinton administration. It grew during the 1991 recession, and during the 2001 recession, and during Great Recession. In fact, the inactivity rate for 25-54-year old men has grown more since the end of the Great Recession (+1.7 percentage points) than it did during the Great Recession, itself (+1.3 percentage points).

St Louis Fed

Why is work for men disappearing? In a marvelous series of articles last week, the New York Times explored the geography, demographics, and stories of non-work among American men. As Binyamin Appelbaum wrote:

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.

Appelbaum acknowledges that the slow erosion of the working man isn't just about the obvious "push" factors. It's not just about the decline of manufacturing and the forces of globalization and technology, which have both destroyed and cheapened lots of middle-skill work and shoved guys out of the labor market. It's also about the structure of our social safety net (Social Security Disability Insurance requires that its recipients not be employed), the rise of single moms, the rise of working women, and the abundance of cheap entertainment on the Web, which makes diverting oneself cheaper than ever. It would be far too strong to say that it has become easier for men to not work. (The cost of essentials like health care are too high, and the shock to morale for many of these men is deep.) Rather, it has become more common for men to not work—particularly in parts of the country like eastern Kentucky where half of prime-age guys are out of a job.

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.

It might seem sentimental to talk about pride and identity in the face of vast, empirical trends, like falling wages for non-high-school-educated men and the slow creep of automation into low-income work. But some economists think identity plays a starring role in the economy. "Some of the decline in work among young men is a mismatch between aspirations and identity," said Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University. "Taking a job as a health technician has the connotation as a feminized job. The growth has been in jobs that have been considered women’s jobs—education, health, government."

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.