What are they doing? The Census Bureau asks about that in the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey. In 2018, 10.4% of men aged 25 through 54 (about 6.5 million men) were not in the labor force — that is, not working for pay and not looking for a job. Here are the reasons they gave, and the reasons they’ve given every year since 1991. (These numbers aren't published on a regular basis, but Steven F. Hipple of the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on them occasionally, and provided me with the chart data.) It may help in reading the chart to be aware that the different causes are listed along the top in the order that they appear on the bars from top to bottom.

Being ill or disabled is the main reason prime-age men give for not being in the labor force, and by far the biggest driver of the group’s decline in labor force participation since 1991. Some of this has to do with the outdated design of the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which effectively forces disabled people to choose between leaving the labor force entirely or getting no aid at all. Eligibility changes enacted by Congress in 1984, which made it easier qualify due to hard-to-verify conditions such as chronic pain and mental illness, also enabled its increasing use as a fallback economic safety net, economist David Autor argued in a 2011 paper:

The secular decline in earnings and employment opportunities for U.S. workers with high school or lower education over the last three decades has also made SSDI an increasingly attractive option for job losers and long-term unemployed.

Over the course of the current business cycle, though, this hasn’t really been that big an issue. The number of new Social Security disability awards peaked in 2010, has fallen 35% since and is now lower than at any time since 2001. The ill/disabled share of prime-age men is up only 0.1 percentage points since 2006.

There is the macabre possibility that the sharp rise in opioid deaths, with 317,000 American men dying of drug overdoses from 2007 through 2017, reduced the ill/disabled numbers. But on the whole the message from these data seems to be that the great exodus of prime-age men from work to inactivity, the subject a couple of years back of numerous reports, research papers, opinion columns (including a few by me) and at least one book, has paused or maybe even ended.

That research generally painted a picture of men with few educational credentials, and often with a criminal history, seeing so little promise in the job market that they didn’t even contemplate looking for work. A 2014 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, CBS News and the New York Times found that 85% of jobless prime-age men did not have bachelor’s degrees, and 34% had criminal records. The great crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s is long over, and the great incarceration wave that followed it is receding, so criminal records should be less prevalent going forward. Also, for the past couple of years at least, the low-credential end of the job market has been doing quite well, and even a criminal background has ceased to be the barrier it once was.

It’s true that the prime-age male Epop and labor-force participation rate are still more than a percentage point lower than they were just before the last recession. But by far the biggest driver of the decline since 2006 has been men attending school. Other major contributors, especially over the longer haul, include home responsibilities and very early retirement. I’m guessing the latter is more about men who can’t find good work but have spouses who can than evidence of the spectacular success of the “Fire” (financial independence, retire early) movement, but who knows. Overall, these choices don’t seem to reflect economic desperation in quite the way that rising disability numbers did. They may well be signs, though, of continuing shifts in men’s and women’s labor market roles.

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.

1 Why not "EPOP," which is the more commonly used shorthand? Mainly because it's pronounced "Epop," not "E-P-O-P," and Bloomberg's stylebook calls for capitalizing all the letters in an acronym only when each letter is separately pronounced. Same goes for "Fire" later in the column. (I hope these will get me as many angry emails as writing "Nascar.")

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