WASHINGTON—The U.S. unemployment rate has sunk to a generally healthy level since the Great Recession ended in 2009. Yet the other side of the coin—the proportion of adults who have jobs, what some economists call the work rate—remains three percentage points below what it was before the recession began.
That translates into millions of Americans who are neither working nor looking for work, a trend that has slowed the economy. The problem is particularly acute for men, for whom the drop has been nearly four points.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute, assesses the problem in a new book, “Men Without Work.”
Tell us about what you call a “quiet calamity” regarding men in the workforce.
Eberstadt: If we take a look at the work rate, there’s been a collapse for men over a two-generation period. The rate is several percentage points lower than the corresponding work rates for men in 1940, at the tail end of the Depression.
It’s not unrealistic to describe the collapse of work for men in the post-war era as approaching depression-scale levels. And I also show that if we were able to re-attain 1965 level work rates for men, correcting for population aging, we’d have almost 10 million more men with paid jobs in our society today. Just think of what an absolutely extraordinary difference that would mean.
What does this mean for our economy?
Eberstadt: The consequences: Slower economic growth, wider economic and wealth divides, greater dependence on government, larger government deficits, more public debt, more fragile families, less social mobility, weaker civil societies and arguably more political extremism in the United States. There’s absolutely nothing good that comes out of it.
Our unemployment rate is becoming a less and less meaningful measure of labour force health, especially for men, because of the rise of those out of the labour force altogether, neither working nor looking for work.
There are over three guys ages 25 through 54 who are neither working nor looking for work for every one guy who is unemployed and looking for a job.
What has caused this?
Eberstadt: I put less weight on the economic structural transformation aspect than others do. You can take a look at the decline in manufacturing jobs, which has been very dramatic in America in the last two generations. But we’re not the only country that has had a decline in manufacturing. Every rich country has had that. Yet we have had by far the worst drop in male workforce participation.
I see this huge blind spot in looking at the problem, which has to do with the rise in crime and the rise in sentencing. We have over one in eight adult guys with a felony in his past. And we don’t have any government data on the income or employment profiles on men who have had trouble with the law.
Answers edited for content and clarity.