Growing Economy Stalled by Men Who Won’t Look for Work

Thursday, December 01, 2016 Written by 
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Eight years ago, as America was teetering on the edge of financial collapse, then President-Elect Barack Obama predicted that as the economy recovered, some jobs—even entire industries—would disappear.  Fast forward to 2016, and we find job growth steady and the labor force growing at close to its fastest pace since 2000.


Despite changes in the job market, more people are going back to work.  That’s why economists are finding it disheartening that an important part of the working demographic—lower-skilled working men—are shrinking.  


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 7 million men ages 25 to 54 are neither employed nor “available for work,” putting them outside the labor force.  The loss of manufacturing jobs has forced prime-age non-college educated men to find new ways to survive, such as unemployment or disability benefits, educational grants and loans, reliance on friends and family or side hustles that are not reported.  


A little more than half of the men reported they were ill or disabled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 14% are going to school. And about 20% said they were either retired or handling home responsibilities.


While retiring Baby Boomers certainly contribute to the labor shortage, this does not fully explain the decline.  Researchers point to a few issues believed to be draining the U.S. of much needed talent:  massive incarceration, video games, and injuries that require medication.


As many as 20 million Americans, most of them men, have a felony record.   The U.S. has the world’s second-highest prison population rate — 698 prisoners for every 100,000 people, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. 


In September, a Los Angeles City Council committee approved an ordinance that would prevent most employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until after a conditional offer has been made.


A White House report is calling for reforming the criminal justice system, to include improving reentry into the workforce for ex-offenders.    


Video games is a bigger problem than some might think.  Men ages 21-30 who were not in the workforce reported spending an average of 6.7 hours a week playing video games from 2012 to 2015, compared with just 3.6 hours from 2000 to 2007.


Video games have become more elaborate and sophisticated, while online gaming has expanded the universe of people to play against. 


When asked if pain prevented them from working at a full-time job, 40% of prime-aged men out of the workforce who were interviewed said yes.


Researchers suspect disabilities can be both a cause and effect for unemployment among men.  Those who hold manual labor jobs are more susceptible to getting hurt.  And pain medication prevents them from holding down a job.  Others who have to be out of work for a while may become obese due to lack of activity, which causes more disability.  It’s a vicious cycle.


Until men become more motivated or able to work, nothing—not a new president or solid job growth—will make a difference.  What is needed are reforms to make more livable wage jobs available for those who want to work, and tightening access to government programs for those who could work, but won’t.  


Overhauling disability programs could help push more prime-aged men back into the workforce by removing a key source of income. Expanding health insurance coverage also could address the problem of out- of-work men taking painkillers.


Preventative care and physical therapy, for instance, could prevent the kinds of chronic pain that create a barrier to work.


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