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.
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).