The monthly unemployment rate in April fell to 3.6%, the lowest monthly rate since December 1969. It\’s now been a 4.0% or less for more than a year. But in this generally quite positive employment environment, low-skill male workers have been an ongoing sore spot. The issues are discussed in a three-paper symposium in the Spring 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives:
- \”The Declining Labor Market Prospects of Less-Educated Men,\” by Ariel J. Binder and John Bound
- \”When Labor\’s Lost: Health, Family Life, Incarceration, and Education in a Time of Declining Economic Opportunity for Low-Skilled Men,\” by Courtney C. Coile and Mark G. Duggan
- \”The Tenuous Attachments of Working-Class Men,\” by Kathryn Edin, Timothy Nelson, Andrew Cherlin and Robert Francis
During the last 50 years, labor market outcomes for men without a college education in the United States worsened considerably. Between 1973 and 2015, real hourly earnings for the typical 25–54 year-old man with only a high school degree declined by 18.2 percent,1 while real hourly earnings for college-educated men increased substantially. Over the same period, labor-force participation by men without a college education plummeted. In the late 1960s, nearly all 25–54 year-old men with only a high school degree participated in the labor force; by 2015, such men participated at a rate of 85.3 percent.
\”There is a steep health gradient with respect to education—within each age group, the share in fair or poor health is roughly 2.5 times as large for men with a high school education or less than for men with some college or more. Men with less education are similarly more likely to report having a work-limiting disability, limitations in physical activity or ADLs/IADLs [Activities of Daily Living or Instrumental Activities of Daily Living], and obesity … Men’s health … is getting worse over time. … [T]he fraction of men reporting a health problem is higher in 2015 than in 2000 in nearly every case.\”
Coile and Duggan look at a variety of other patterns for prime-age men, focusing on lower skill levels where the data makes it possible. For example, they note the sharp rise in incarceration rates for men from 1980 to 2000. The pattern that emerges is that the incarceration rate for men in the 45-54 age group is higher in 2016 than in 2000, reflecting large numbers of younger men sentenced to prison in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the incarceration rate for men in the 25-34 and 35-44 age group is generally down in 2016 compared to 2000. As one example, the incarceration rate of black men ages 25-34 was 5.5% in 1980, 12.8% in 2000, and 7.4% in 2016.
On its own, falling labor demand does not sufficiently explain the secular decline in less-educated male labor-force participation—at least, not without allowing for substantial adjustment frictions in the long run as well as the short run. Rising access to Disability Insurance is at most a partial explanation for the 45–54 year-old group and matters quite little for younger men and for high school dropouts. Rising exposure to prison may be a significant factor for dropouts and for blacks without college education, but labor-force participation for these groups began declining decades before prison populations skyrocketed. Certainly no single explanation can sufficiently explain the decline, and even in combination, the explanations appear insufficient.
We suspect that there is another factor at play. We will argue that the prospect of forming and providing for a new family constitutes an important male labor supply incentive; and thus, that developments within the marriage market can influence male labor-force participation. A decline in the formation of stable families produces a situation in which fewer men are actively involved in family provision or can expect to be involved in the future. This removes a labor supply incentive; and the possibility of drawing support from one’s existing family … creates a feasible labor-force exit.
[W]e show that working-class men are not simply reacting to changes in the economy, family norms, or religious organizations. Rather, they are attempting to renegotiate their relationships to these institutions by attempting to construct autonomous, generative selves. For example, these men’s desire for autonomy in jobs seems rooted in their rejection of the monotony and limited autonomy that their fathers and grandfathers experienced in the workplace, along with a new ethos of self-expression. Similarly, these working-class men focus on their ties to their children even when they have little relationship with the children’s mothers, and they seek spiritual fulfillment even though they disdain organized religion. … In sum, these working-class men show both a detachment from institutions and an engagement with more autonomous forms of work, childrearing, and spirituality … . Autonomy refers to independent action in pursuit of personal growth and development. Personal growth has come to be highly valued among middle class Americans but until recently has not been associated with the working class. … [P]ast scholarship typically assumed that such forms of action would usually only be found among those so materially comfortable that they needn’t spend time worrying about their economic circumstances …
Our interviews strongly suggest that the autonomous, generative self that many men described is also a haphazard self. For example, vocational aspirations usually remain nebulous and tentative, rarely taking the form of an explicit strategy. In the meantime, career trajectories are often replaced by a string of random jobs. These men typically transitioned to parenthood more by accident than design, and in the context of tenuous romantic relationships. … Religious community and a systemic belief system have been replaced by a patched-together religious identity that holds little sway over behavior, especially as it is divorced from the communal aspects of faith that have adhered working-class men to a set of behavioral norms. …
The optimistic reading of the developments we have described is that workingclass men are now sharing in the autonomy and generativity that was largely the province of middle- and upper-class men in previous generations. Moreover, the interest they show in being involved as fathers and in helping others could represent a widening of the boundaries of masculinity in ways that are more consistent with contemporary family and work life. The pessimistic reading is that these men are pursuing goals that they are unlikely to achieve due to their lack of social integration. They must find their way without ties to steady work, stable families, and organized religion. Without social support, their chances of success diminish. Those who fail to achieve the autonomous, generative selves they crave will have little to fall back on and few people to prevent them from sinking into despair.