American Consequences - January 2018

America suffered seven recessions between 1965 and 2015 – but knowing when these recessions occurred gives us no additional information on the trajectory of the prime- male labor-force participation rate. We are just as well off drawing a straight line heading downward. Recessions have had almost no impact on the pace of this decline – ironically, statistical analysis actually suggests recessions very slightly slow the prime-age male flight from work. By the same token, knowing whether the U.S. economy was growing rapidly or slowly (or for that matter, contracting) provides almost no help in anticipating the pace at which prime-age men were leaving the labor force. As Alan Kruger, Princeton economist and onetime chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama, remarked in a speech in 2015, “According to CPS data, the monthly rate for transitioning from out of the labor force to back in the labor force is unrelated to the business cycle.”

A prime-age man with at least some college education is three times more likely to be in the former rather than the latter, by comparison with the “average” American prime-age male. Conversely, men without high school diplomas are over twice as likely as the national average to be “NILF” (“not in the labor force”). High school dropouts make up 20.5% of the NILFs but only 9.9% of paid workers. That said: relatively educated men still account for a perhaps surprising share of the NILFs. In 2015 over two fifths (41.8%) of prime-age male un-workers had at least some college education – and a sixth (16.8%) had at least a bachelor’s degree. In recent decades, America has made great strides toward becoming a better-educated nation. The collapse of work for modern America’s men has happened despite our considerable upgrades in educational attainment. Marital status and family structure/living arrangements likewise turn out to be powerful predictors of whether a prime-age man will be at work, or, alternatively, an un-worker. Currently married men account for three- fifths of prime-age jobholders but only about a third of all NILFs (60.5% versus 35.7%). On the other hand, men who never got married are under-represented among the employed (they make up 28.0% of that total) and over-represented among NILFs (44.6%). A similar pattern is evident for prime men who are divorced, separated, or widowed.


Broad distinctions in the odds of being an un-worker are apparent in accordance with a prime-age man’s educational attainment, marital status and family structure, race or ethnicity, and nativity (i.e., whether native- born or foreign-born). Educational attainment dramatically affects the odds that a prime male will be holding down a job or living as an un-worker.

78 January 2018

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