In February 2011, the Washington Post published a survey it conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University on the U.S. economy. Although black and Hispanic families were hurt by the Great Recession, it was the "non-college whites" who held the darkest view of the country. These men used to the the backbone of an economy built by brawn and rooted in manufacturing jobs. But now, nostalgic and despondent in equal measure, more than half said that America’s best days were past, and 43 percent said "hard work and determination are no guarantees of success.”
The survey feels portentous now that the category of “non-college whites” has become the core demographic of Donald Trump’s astonishingly strong coalition. Trump’s support is driven by racism, xenophobia, and other varieties of cultural unease, but it is also a reflection of a lost generation of men, enraged and adrift in an economy where a college degree is one of the few dependable life rafts.
Non-college men in their 40s and older are shocking the country with their turn toward nationalism. But what’s the situation among non-college men under 35?
If good, steady, well-paying work is the key to any person’s economic satisfaction, there are several reasons to be nervous about the upcoming generation. Since 2000, the labor-force participation rate of young men without a college degree has declined more than any other age-and-gender group. Since the turn of the century, the participation rate of 16-to-24-year olds with just a high-school degree has fallen 10 points to about 70 percent; for those without even a high-school degree, it's fallen 20 points, to 30 percent. Some of this drop is attributable to rising college attendance. But not all of it. Nine percent of Americans between 20 and 24 are neither in school, work, or training.