Why Are There Fewer Men in the Workforce Than Ever?

Americans are angry and unhappy with the current state of work – but the reason there are fewer men in the workforce than ever before might be different than many experts are saying, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Eberstadt explains that per capita growth has been falling over the past twenty years and is now less than half of what it was from 1950-2000. The main reason for this is because of the drop-off in work – while many attribute this to the Baby Boomers aging into retirement, there is a steep decline in labor force participation for men aged 25 to 54. In fact, men outside the labor force outnumber formally unemployed men four to one, which is the main reason the country’s prime male work rate has been driven below its 1940 level – when national unemployment rates were nearly 15%.

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Traditionally, this reduction in workforce participants is due to automation, outsourcing, globalization, and further structural societal change. But these conventional explanations don't seem to suffice in the modern work world. The male "flight from work," Eberstadt explains, is partially due to reduced migrant flow in 2020 and 2021 (both legal and illegal). Health issues are also considerable factors in the flight from work, as the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey shows that seven million individuals of working age are not in the workforce because of self-reported long COVID. Other disabilities also prevent men from joining the workforce, namely mobility issues such as problems walking or cognition issues with concentration, memory, and decision-making. Lastly, many of those leaving the workforce are Baby Boomers who are either taking a break from work or retiring after a lifetime of work.

Additional explanations include a mismatch between labor and demand, as there are applicants who believe they are overqualified or underqualified for specific roles. A 2014 poll found that 44% of unemployed men would not take a job if they thought it was customarily either for immigrants or women. Unmarried men are less likely to hold down jobs than married men, and the highest rates of men out of work are in Michigan, the Southeast, rural areas of Kentucky and the Appalachian Mountains, and the Southwest.