There's a long, unfolding story about work in America that often gets overlooked. It's the story of men opting out of work altogether. These are men who have vanished from the labor force — men who don't have a job and aren't looking for one.
To describe this historic development with the context it deserves, we start with the American economy after World War II. It was firing on all cylinders, dominant globally, confident and dynamic. It was a great time to be an American man in the workplace. Hiring was strong for white-collar jobs and factory work. Industries like autos, aviation and steel were booming.
If you were a man in the 1950s, you had a job, says Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. And if you lost it, you started looking for another one.
"If you weren't in the Army and you weren't in jail, you were very, very likely working, and there was probably a good reason for why you were not seeking work and not working if that was the case," Eberstadt says.
But by the 1960s, that started to change. Men, slowly but surely, began leaving the workforce. If they couldn't find jobs, some simply stopped looking. And ever since, more and more men have been opting out of work.
It's a fact that's not in dispute anywhere across the ideological spectrum.
"This has been going on now for just about half a century," Eberstadt says.
Heidi Shierholz, of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, agrees.
"We've been seeing this just long, decades-long decline in men's labor force participation," Shierholz says.
That decline has been relentless, persisting through recessions and even in periods of strong growth and job creation, like the 1990s.
"It's happened during good times, it's happened during bad times," Eberstadt says.
Throughout the 1950s, the proportion of males over 16 who were working or looking for work held steady at around 85 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then, in each successive decade, that number fell, tumbling all the way to 69 percent, where it is today. Some of that decline can be accounted for by benign factors such as men retiring earlier or young men staying in school longer.
But if you strip away the students and the early retiring men, the picture doesn't change much. Men are still opting out. Back in the 1950s, just 3 percent of men in their prime working years (considered to be ages 25 to 54) were out of work and not seeking employment. Last year, that number was 12 percent.
"There are twice as many guys between 25 and 54 who aren't even looking for a job as who are unemployed," Eberstadt says.
As more men have opted out of work, women have streamed into the labor force for several generations now. And at the same time, they have been obtaining more education. Women now receive 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the U.S.
David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says women have responded to an increasingly demanding job market by getting more education, but men haven't followed suit.
"You might say, 'Why haven't men responded more effectively, why haven't they educated better, more, why haven't they moved into higher-wage occupations?' " Autor says. "And that is less clear."
As might be expected, economists don't agree on why so many men have left the workforce. Some possible factors they cite: There's less of a stigma today if a man doesn't work. Union clout has declined. More men are in early retirement receiving disability benefits. New technology has eliminated manufacturing jobs. And competition from abroad moved others overseas.
Autor says many service-sector jobs that remain — in restaurants and retail, for example — don't pay as well as the factory jobs that disappeared.
And with so many men in the prime of life missing from the workforce, it can't help but take a toll on the economy, Eberstadt says.
"The country is going to be less rich. They're going to be less rich. Growth is going to be slower. It's going to have really bad effects on wealth differences in the United States," he says.
So what can be done? Certainly more education and better education would make a difference. But that's a profound, long-term challenge.
Autor says there's one smaller fix that would help — expand the earned income tax credit. It's a subsidy that supports low-income workers when they find jobs and keep them. Right now, it primarily benefits women and children rather than single men.