When I think of the working-age men I know who choose not to work, they all have something in common: a woman who earns enough to support them both.  One of the big economic mysteries of our time has become why men in the prime age group of 25 to 54 are leaving the labor force. What are they doing instead? Why don’t they want to work? How do they support themselves? Those are still largely unanswered questions, but I wondered if some of my personal acquaintances offered a clue.

One of these men grew up in an upper middle class home and had access to a great education. But he was always a bit of a free spirit, a Gen X hippie who followed bands in his youth and traveled the world. He eventually married a hard-working doctor and now she supports him. 

Another man I know grew up in a lower middle class family and struggled with ADHD and other learning disabilities within a school that lacked the resources to help him. While in high school he got hooked on heroin. He eventually overcame his addiction and now lives with his mother, who supports him. His stepfather wants her to try some tough love, kick him out and force him to get a job. But she is terrified that would push him back to drugs. Anyway, by now his employment prospects aren’t great since he’s well into his 20s with little education and barely any work history.

These men are fortunate to have women in a position to support them. And it seems notable that the fall in male labor force participation has coincided with the rise of female employment. Women’s improved prospects raised household income and gave them more economic power. That progress has also made it financially viable for some men to drop out of the labor force, regardless of any other reasons that might drive the decision.

A Long-Running Trend
This is the best labor market in more than 50 years, and yet it’s still getting worse for American men. While women’s labor force participation has recovered, male prime-age labor force participation is still 0.7 percentage points below where it was before the pandemic. Economists are studying these chaotic Covid-19 years to understand why, but it’s actually a much longer-running trend. In every economic downturn we see a lot of men leave the labor force. Many don’t come back. Or, in some cases, boys grow up during the slow times and never join in.

The question remains, why? Because the trend is so pronounced during each recession, research often focuses on causes related to the downturn. But cyclical and longer-term structural forces can interact. Imagine someone who is loosely attached to their job and is laid off or quits in the midst of a challenging labor market. Their marginal attachment to work could be because of serious problems, a simple preference not to work or family responsibilities such as child care.

But the fact that this has been happening in every recession over the last 50 years suggests there is something structural going on. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey asked non-working men last year why they were not looking for work, and more than a third claimed the mysterious “other” reason.  For women, “family responsibilities” or “can’t arrange child care” was selected by 42%.

Clearly that’s not good for the economy. Fewer people working means less growth. It’s also bad for society, since most people need to have a purpose and to feel productive, and a paying job is the most common way of accomplishing that.

There’s no shortage of theories why men aren’t working and all have some truth as well as limitations. For instance, there has been a shift away from manufacturing jobs (an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry) to more skill-service jobs like nursing. But that can’t explain a labor shortage that exists in many traditional male jobs like construction.

Modern education seems generally better fitted to girls than boys, and more women are pursuing higher education with fewer dropping out and more graduating than men. There also is the opioid epidemic, with a historically higher prevalence among men. And we have better leisure options—before video games came along, staying home all day with nothing to do was boring.

There are also economic explanations. Some people work because they want to while others only work because they need money to survive. If the government paid everyone enough to get by without working, some people would just not bother to get a job. So maybe disability compensation is too generous and that’s enabling more men to forgo work, except that the increase in disability rolls doesn’t account for all the men who aren’t working.

Family Support
There is another source of funds for men who drop out of the workforce, and it comes from their own families. Perhaps we have more couples choosing to have the male spouse be the stay-at-home caregiver for children.  Though that’s still somewhat unusual. Non-working men have lower rates of marriage, according to the most recent census survey that found 58% of prime-age working men have a spouse compared with 35% of men who aren’t in the labor force.

But even single, non-working men have girlfriends, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. About 25% of prime-age, non-working men live with their mother, compared with about 10% of men who have jobs. It’s hard to tease out the causality: Do these men not work because they live with their mother who supports them? Or does not working mean they have to live with their mother?

The fact that greater education and employment opportunities—and earning power—have provided more women with the means to support their households gives men less incentive to be in the labor force.

But is that as much of a problem as we think it is? Even after bouncing back from the pandemic, and with men’s decline, there are fewer women of prime age (76.9%) participating in the workforce than men (88.5%). And many of the women outside the workforce are supported by males in the household.

Women thriving in the labor market has been one of the great economic success stories of the last 50 years. And we should build on those gains; there is still further to go in terms of economic equality.

But it’s possible that a byproduct of this success is more men staying out of the workforce. That’s certainly not because women are taking their jobs. The labor market isn’t zero-sum. It may be simply because they’ve increased household income and made work less necessary for other household members.

For example, when I think about the recovering drug addict I know, if this were the 1960s the odds are his mother wouldn’t have had a job and the stepfather would have had the final word about pushing him out of the nest.

There will always be people marginally attached to the labor force, or people who face bigger problems that make their attachment more fragile. There may be more of those people now because of structural changes to the economy, the drug epidemic or technology. But in the past, many of the men with a loose workforce attachment had no choice but to work. Now there’s a better chance that they do have a choice.

Some of the issues underlying the problem of men dropping out of the workforce could be addressed with policy changes, such as reducing opioid addiction and reforming education to increase male engagement. Those improvements would help many men become more involved and improve the labor market. A strong labor market will induce some men to work, but not all. An economy that offers more opportunities to everyone may just mean fewer men working than we’ve seen in the past. 

This article was provided by Bloomberg News