BOHANON & CUROTT: 5 million men are missing from America’s labor force

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Economic Analysis by Cecil Bohanon & Nick CurottBy the time you read this, the election results will be in. No matter the outcome, at least those pesky ads are no longer on the air. Perhaps now we can turn our attention to real problems and look for solutions. But first: Do no harm. Especially when it comes to the 5 million missing men.

What’s that, you say? Last month, scholars from the Manhattan Institute presented some disturbing data. From the 1950s to the 1970s, 96 percent of all prime-age men, defined as men ages 25 to 54, were in the labor force. They either had jobs or were actively seeking employment. Starting in 1970, the percentage began a steady decline. It now stands at about 88 percent. If labor-force participation among prime-age men were at 1950-1970 levels, the economy would have 5 million more workers.

The decline is a problem for lots of reasons: It crimps economic growth; it pressures family stability. Moreover, these non-working, prime-age men aren’t happy. While 4 percent of working men living in households with modest household earnings of $35,000 to $50,000 report they are dissatisfied with life, the proportion rises to 18 percent for non-working men. What’s more, the data indicate that 80 percent of these non-working men live in multi-person households that have average incomes of more than $42,000.

Are these missing men engaged in useful activities? Not so much. Detailed survey data show the average unemployed prime-age male spends a whopping 481 minutes a day, or just over eight hours, in leisure activities—which includes watching television for five hours.

What explains this new reality? Changed social expectations about work? Rampant drug abuse? An overly generous welfare system? Parents, spouses and significant others more tolerant of prime-age male indolence than in previous generations? An epidemic of depression? All of these likely contribute to the phenomenon.

What can be done? We wish we had a silver bullet, but we don’t. Our conservative and libertarian instincts say, throw these guys off the public dole. The problem is, most live with other folks: They are generally on a private dole. Our progressive and liberal instincts say more job training and psychologists are the answer. But will this really get these guys off the couch? Maybe our mores about work have changed. We are skeptical of government efforts to change social attitudes. Economists aren’t preachers, so exhortations aren’t part of our analysis. But maybe some exhortations from someone else are in order.•

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Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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