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The Male Non-Working Class

A Disquieting Survey


andrew l. yarrow,a former reporter for The New York Times, is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. This essay is adapted from his book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.

editor’s note: This article was written before the labor market disruptions caused by the pandemic. But there is every reason to believe that the problem of male non-employment will endure long after Covid-19 is a memory.

Published July 30, 2020


WORK. It was once what American men did (and, to be fair, most still do). They needed to work to survive, but also to give meaning and structure to their lives along with connection to others. If they didn’t work, they were “bums.” Flash back to the “greatest generation,” the GIs who defeated fascism and came home to build the most prosperous country in history. In 1960, 97 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54, and 86 percent of men 20 and older, had jobs. They worked in factories and offices, often supported by unions (at the time, 35-40 percent of male workers were union members), and enjoyed an unprecedented high standard of living. Men could support their families – even the large ones of the baby boom era – with what came to be known as the “family wage.”

To be sure, paradise this was not: women were still subordinate, and African-American men still lived with the legacy of Jim Crow. Yet, as John Kennedy said, a “rising tide [was lifting] all boats.” And, for better or worse, men were at the helm.

Flash forward. While most men today work, the proportion of adult males who do not is higher than at almost any time since statistics started to be collected 70 years ago. There are many caveats to these numbers, but there’s no getting around the reality that at least one in nine men between 25 and 54 years old, and one in five between their early 20s and mid- to late 60s, isn’t working – conservatively, three times the comparable figure in 1960.

The non-working do not represent one category of man, although those without college degrees are disproportionately represented. Not working is but one of many characteristics of what I call being a “man out” in America. Here, I survey the landscape of male non-employment – how non-working men live, how a changing economy and public policies have contributed to the rise of a male non-working class, how cultural factors have also contributed, and what the economic costs are.

Counting Men Not Working

There are many ways to count who’s not working, resulting in much misunderstanding about the scope of the problem. At the lowest end is the widely cited unemployment rate, hovering near historic lows of about 3.5 percent. But this rate includes only men who are out of work and have actively looked for a job in the prior month. “Marginally attached” workers – those who say they want a job but haven’t looked for employment during the past month, along with those who work part time involuntarily – add a few percentage points to the total. These two metrics are called U-3 and U-6, respectively, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Another, arguably more revealing, way to look at employment is through the “labor force participation rate.” Roughly 28 percent of men 20 and older were not working in December 2019, virtually the same percentage as the month Donald Trump took office. On its face, this is a rather unhelpful statistic, since millions of 20-somethings are in school and millions of older men are retired. So the BLS zeroes in on “prime working age” men, those between 25 and 54. And here, the figure is 11 percent.

But even a casual look suggests that this number is misleading (in the other direction) as a measure of underutilized labor. Today, Americans can expect to live more than a decade longer than when the BLS defined “prime working age.” So let’s add a decade to the range. And here the number is surprising: about 16 percent of 25- to-64-year-old men aren’t in the labor force, a rate even higher than during the depths of the Great Recession in 2010. It seems that the United States’ supposedly dynamic economy, which has long been compared (favorably) to the sclerotic European and Japanese economies, had one of the lowest proportions of its 25- to 64-yearold men working or seeking work among all OECD countries in 2018.

Actually, we have not yet exhausted our ways of slicing and dicing the stats on nonworking men. About 1.5 million men between 20 and 24 are not in school, in jobs or in formal training programs. With 5.9 million men 65 and older currently working, it’s likely more older men want (or need) to work, but aren’t. All told, let’s conservatively add another million (about a percentage point) to the non-working category. And don’t forget that the stats simply ignore the two million men behind bars, five times the number (yes, five times) back in the 1970s.

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Counting those who are unemployed, marginally attached to the labor force, not in the labor force or incarcerated brings the total number of non-working men between their early 20s and mid- to-late 60s to roughly 20 million, or about 20 percent of the men in this broad age group. (This percentage drops slightly if one includes men in the armed services.) Hence, any reasonable accounting puts the percentage of men not working at almost four times what it was in the early 1950s.

Finally, how does part-time work and contract work (i.e., gig work) fit in? Some commentators have put a brave face on the rise of a bold new “freelance nation,” but most of these freelancers are really victims of what Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief economist, has called the YOYO (you’re on your own) economy. If we add in the workers who are probably involuntarily employed part time, the numbers of men not in full-time work go still higher.

So, What Happened?

Explanations of the decline in male workers tend to focus on structural factors such as technology and globalization of the economy, which have both reduced the demand for workers with low to moderate skill levels in the United States.

This suggests there is a mismatch between labor supply and demand, and that, if the nation only educated and trained men better, the problem would be at least partially solved. The catch is that the demand for low-skill service workers is growing, not shrinking, even as well-paid industrial jobs that don’t require higher education have practically vanished. And while the demand for specialized, highskilled workers in science and technology with degrees from elite institutions has indeed soared, way too many college grads end up behind a cash register at Costco or applying their expertise to the preparation of pumpkin macchiatos.

Another explanation with some traction turns on the graying of the population, as the big baby boom generation moves into age brackets in which labor force participation can always be expected to decline. Yet another is the widening gap in college attendance between young men and young women, which puts the men at a relative disadvantage in the labor market.

Many of these men consider unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Social Security disability insurance, and even food stamps as “welfare.” That’s for people “below them,” often seen as the undeserving poor.

Unmarried men and men in poor health are less likely to work than those who are married and healthy. The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and BLS, has found that about one-fifth of 25- to 54-yearold men say they are disabled – a far higher figure than as recently as the 1990s. And about two-thirds of the nearly 4 million disabled men in this age bracket are not working.

In one more tale frequently heard, men are suffering from the difficult-to-erase stigma of long bouts of unemployment. During the Great Recession, millions of men were laid off, weren’t able to find jobs within a year or two and slipped into early retirement or “consulting.” For some, the search was perfunctory, for reasons hard to pin down. A 2014 poll found that 44 percent of non-employed men would not take available jobs they believed were fit for only immigrants or women.

In any event, the loss of work is geographically diverse. In some parts of Appalachia, northern Michigan, the Deep South, and the Southwest, more than 40 percent of men aren’t working. In a few rural counties in northeastern Kentucky and on some Indian reservations, a majority of men don’t work.

On the other hand, in census tracts on the well-heeled Upper East Side of Manhattan and Silicon Valley, just 3 percent of men are not working.

If full-time work is a daily 8- to 10-hour commitment (including commuting), what do jobless men do with all that extra time? According to the time-use survey mentioned above, non-employed men spent 9 ½ hours sleeping and 6 ½ hours in “leisure” activities (about 3 ½ hours watching TV) in 2017. This in large part explains why men without high school diplomas have seen their leisure hours increase since the 1960s, while college-educated men saw a decline. Arguably the most dispiriting result of the surveys is that non-working men spend only minutes more per day caring for children, cooking and cleaning up than men with full-time jobs.

If Work Equals Income, What Does Non-Work Equal?

While work does yield ancillary benefits, for most people it is primarily about earning a living. So how do nonworking men survive?

Like the “what do they do” question, the “how do they make do” question is laden with sketchy statistics and highly politicized hypothesizing. One survey found that just under 25 percent of non-working men are supported by their spouses. A small fraction get by on money and property inherited from their parents, while a larger (but nonetheless small) fraction have a solid nest egg from a more successful phase of their lives.

Beyond this, we’re left with the kindness of strangers – private charity, but mostly government. Jobless workers can claim unemployment insurance for a matter of months. Up to half of non-working 25- to 54-year-old male heads of household are on Medicaid, collect Social Security disability insurance, or both; about two-fifths are on food stamps.

For most of these men, this is not about being parasites; it is a fall from grace. However, many of them consider unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Social Security disability insurance, and even food stamps as “welfare.” That’s for people “below them,” often seen as the undeserving poor.

Lack of income and the dependence it creates is only one of several related economic strikes against non-working men. With a decent paycheck, people are able to save. But no income means no savings; no savings means nothing for a rainy day – and no retirement security.

More than half of men employed full-time get some health insurance (however skimpy) as part of the package. For those who don’t work, the options are receiving coverage from a spouse’s employer, and for veterans, the Veteran’s Administration. There’s also Obamacare purchased through the exchanges if one can afford the premium or Medicaid if one is poor enough.

Although white men generally have more savings than women or men of color, the overall savings picture in America is bleak. Forty percent of all households are “liquid asset poor,” meaning that they have less than three months of savings to cover expenses if they lose a job or face an emergency. Nonworking men – especially single and lesseducated men of all races – are especially likely to be asset-poor.

Similarly, it’s virtually impossible to have an employer-sponsored pension or to amass much in Social Security earnings or in a personal IRA if one isn’t working. Only half of those working have any retirement-savings plan. And most of them are in defined contribution 401(k)s, with little money accumulated and the burden of investment risk on the worker rather than on the employer.

It’s no secret, then, that non-working men represent an economic time bomb. Their lack of savings and pensions poses huge problems when they reach their late 60s and move into old age.

Something is Happening, but We Don’t Know What it is

Most men – 78 million men age 20 and older – were employed in 2019. On average, men still make more than women. About 18 percent earn more than $100,000 per year, twice the percentage among women.

“It is widely assumed that the traditional male domination of post-secondary education, highly paid occupations, and elite professions is a virtually immutable fact of the U.S. economic landscape,” note economists David Autor (MIT) and Melanie Wasserman (UCLA). “But in reality, this landscape is undergoing a tectonic shift. … Over the last three decades, the labor market trajectory of males in the U.S. has turned downward along four dimensions: skills acquisition, employment rates, occupational stature and real wage levels.”

That is consistent with the fact that the drop in manufacturing and other industrial jobs such as mining accounts for only a small proportion of the non-working class. But explanations for the non-working numbers abound. The proportion of over-25 men in school increased (by seven-tenths of a percentage point) and the share citing “home responsibilities” as a reason for not working inched up by three-tenths of a percentage point between 2004 and 2014. Then there’s the puzzling survey data suggesting that growing numbers of young men simply don’t want to work. More concrete explanations: more men fail drug tests, and more lack skills like simple math and the ability to write a coherent sentence.

Age discrimination may also help explain why some men aren’t working. Employers want younger workers who will accept less pay and who have fresher skills, more fire in their bellies, and present a more attractive public face for their firms. Two-thirds of men and women between the ages of 45 and 74 believe that people of their age face such bias at work. Yet while age discrimination is a real part of the story of non-working men, the fact remains that employment rates have fallen the most among men 35 and under.

As noted, the decline in male work has paralleled the decline in marriage and rising mortality rates, with greater declines among less-educated men. Again, we face the enigma of the direction of causality. Did these factors lead to declining numbers of men working, or vice-versa, or a bit of each?

It’s hard to blame most men for their multiple woes in the labor market. Lifetime jobs with paternalistic employers who offer regular raises, good benefits and steady hours have become an endangered species. Yet while this economy is broken in many ways, there’s still the question of why so many men are not looking for work or taking the jobs that do exist or acquiring skills that would help them find a job.

Has the male work ethic gone the way of the cassette player and the stick-shift transmission? In earlier hard times, such as the Great Depression, men tramped the streets looking for work and even rode the rails in search of jobs far from home. These men, steeped in the long-standing American ethos of self-sufficiency, were loath to be on the dole. But as discussed earlier, time-use data show that the typical day of a male nonworker looks very much like that of a worker on his day off.

Back to the Future

The Eisenhower years came in the midst of the 30-year post-war economic boom. Growth averaged 5 percent annually in the early 1960s. Labor unions were at their zenith, negotiating contracts that ensured rising wages, paid vacations, health insurance and retirement plans in which the employer bore the risk. Hourly compensation (adjusted for inflation) of the typical worker nearly doubled in the quarter-century beginning in 1948, almost exactly tracking productivity growth.

Fed by rapidly rising disposable income and aggressive marketing, a voracious consumer society developed. And by no coincidence, home ownership rose from 44 to 62 percent of households between 1940 and 1960. Government also played an enormous role in stoking growth. Money poured into the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, airports, schools and universities. The Defense Department – including its famed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the new National Institutes of Health – invented products and processes that drove rising living standards.

Equally remarkable was the fact that income distribution was becoming more egalitarian – creating a period dubbed “the great compression” by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin – as unskilled wages rose faster than skilled. On television, it was taken for granted that fictional besuited characters like Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie and Harriet and Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best could support their wives and children on one paycheck. And, at least for men with factory jobs in highly concentrated industries like autos, machinery, metals and mining, it was true.

The Post-1973 Transformation

Those good times ended abruptly in the early 1970s. The wages of the typical male worker have stagnated, employerassured pensions have been eliminated and health insurance is no longer a given of employment. Median male income in inflationadjusted dollars in 2018 was just 2 percent higher than in 1973. Less-educated men have experienced real declines in wages, while only men with graduate degrees have seen their pay rise.

The mid-century male-breadwinner model – never entirely accurate, as one-third of women were in the workforce in the 1950s – has become untenable for most families. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers famously revived a term from the 1930s coined by Alvin Hansen (another Harvard economist), to describe the state of the 21st-century U.S. economy: “secular stagnation.”

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Between 1965 and 2000, women went to work in droves; the percentage of females in the labor force increased from 37 percent to 60 percent, pulled by cultural acceptance and pushed by household need. Yet fully half the growth in the workforce in the last third of the 20th century has been reversed by the free fall in the ranks of working men.

The usual suspects discussed earlier – growth in the female workforce, the rise of global trade, increased automation, the decline of unions and immigration – explain slippage in wages, benefits and job security, but do not fully account for what has happened to men. Another part of the story is distributional. This is where the corporate and financial industry’s focus on profit and shareholder returns, tax and regulatory policies favoring the wealthy and, in some cases, less generous government safety net policies come into play.

Factoring in tax-law changes, which have disproportionately benefited the wealthy, real after-tax and transfer income grew by 226 percent between 1979 and 2016 for the top 1 percent, compared to only 47 percent for the middle 60 percent. Note, too, that a good chunk of the growth in the middle went to cover ballooning health insurance costs.

If they’re not working now, they could well find themselves working part time or even more than full time at age 70 – and in low-wage jobs they never imagined they would settle for.

Social mobility could offset a multitude of sins, but has proved no help for American men. Mobility in the United States – never as high as the high school textbooks suggested – has fallen behind that of most of Western Europe. Those on the bottom rungs of the ladder have less chance to move up than they did in the past, inevitably dampening motivation for some to work harder. As job security dwindled, today’s employment relationship has become “like a lifetime of divorces and remarriages,” quips Peter Capelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton, almost inevitably reducing the productivity (and employability) of the divorcées.

But one of the reasons the sources of male joblessness are hard to pin down is that they are cultural as well as economic. In today’s “winner-take-all” markets, where tennis star Roger Federer made $94 million and actor Dwayne The Rock Johnson earned $89 million in 2019, the super-rich have became objects of adulation. Popular culture celebrates wealth at the expense of accomplishment or humanity – among other things, electing a president who claimed to be a self-made billionaire and fired an apprentice at the end of each episode of his reality TV show. The American credo, which had morphed from “the pursuit of happiness” to a still-reasonable “abundance for all” in the mid-20th century, has moved on to the worship of those who fly private. And for men who can only hope for a job that keeps the repo man from the door, true success is a demoralizing fantasy from cable TV shows.

What portion of non-working men have dropped out of the labor force for a mix of economic and cultural reasons? Conservative political scientist Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute is convinced that “a substantial number of prime-age [30-49] white working-age men dropped out of the labor force for no obvious reason.” Such men, particularly unmarried ones, are “less industrious” than a generation or two ago, he concludes. And there has been a striking “increase in the number of people seeking to get [disability] benefits who aren’t really unable to work.”

Economist/demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, author of A Nation of Takers, has described nonworking men as “dropouts” who are “doing little to improve themselves.” Since men are failing to be breadwinners, the American family has been undermined, resulting in “a moral crisis.” People do make decisions about whether to work by comparing the benefits of work with the costs of not working, he argues. So low wages and lousy jobs with little chance of advancement may compare unfavorably to leisure subsidized by wives, parents or government.

While there are glimmers of truth here, it fails to explain why American men are different – why a greater proportion of men between 25 and 54 are employed virtually everywhere else in the developed world. The much more extensive social welfare systems of a Germany or Sweden don’t seem to deter men from taking on less-than-fulfilling work.

Eberstadt, as well as Murray, ultimately lean on cultural explanations, since the “benefit” of not working in terms of leisure is hardly high in a setting in which non-workers are widely dismissed as lazy and morally deficient. Interestingly, though, analysts who are more sympathetic to the plight of men are also tempted by cultural explanations. More men than ever are divorced or have never married, but the same is true for women.

In the end, we can be pretty sure that cultural factors are in the mix of causes of nonwork. But it is difficult to say how important they are or whether they are likely to change.

Clearly, the socioeconomic costs of 20 million men not working are manifold and formidable. The personal costs ramify across their lifetimes in terms of lost savings, foreclosed mortgages, poor prospects for additional education that might improve their lot and little economic security in retirement. Indeed, the very concept of retirement is evolving into a cruel joke for many of these middle-aged men. If they’re not working now, they could well find themselves working part time or even more than full time at age 70 – and in low-wage jobs they never imagined they would settle for.

The broader costs to the economy are huge, if difficult to pin down. Although the average GDP per worker was about $117,000 in 2019, it is not easy to extrapolate the potential loss from millions of men out of work without knowing their skill levels or the way that the aggregate “production function,” in economic jargon, would integrate extra workers into the economy.

A reasonable guesstimate is that all 20 million non-working males would add about $1 trillion to GDP – based on the fact that labor’s share of output is around 60 percent

and the hypothesis that these male non-workers’ average potential income is at the upper bound of the bottom income quartile. If we could just get back to mid-20th century levels of non-working, the bonus to the GDP figure would be in the ballpark of three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

Two other points are worth making here. First, labor force participation is widely expected to continue to fall, if only because the potential workforce is getting older. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco projects a decline of about 2.5 percentage points between 2018 and 2028, which will put further drag on America’s already tepid pace of growth.

It will also increase the demand for federal assistance – think Medicaid and SSDI in particular – while the tax revenues available to fund it will be smaller. All this on top of a projected $1 trillion annual federal budget deficits over the next decade. And that trilliondollar- figure doesn’t account for the huge losses in revenue and rise in government safety-net spending caused by the pandemic.

• • •

Fatalism in the face of this slow-moving demographic train wreck is tempting. While signs of socioeconomic instability abound in the American heartland, male non-work is rarely highlighted as a primary cause. And even if it were, there is no reason to believe the problem could be solved quickly, even if funds were available to try.

But as Eleanor Roosevelt (and apparently others before her) put it, it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness. It is going to take a lot of candles, but we have to start somewhere.

main topic: Labor
related topics: Demographics