More and more American men not working

Important column from former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers in the Washington Post entitled A disaster is looming for American men. Worth reading! Summers writes:

Job destruction caused by technology is not a futuristic concern. It is something we have been living with for two generations. A simple linear trend suggests that by mid-century about a quarter of men between 25 and 54 will not be working at any moment.

I think this likely a substantial underestimate unless something is done for a number of reasons. First everything we hear and see regarding technology suggests the rate of job destruction will pick up. Think of the elimination of drivers, and of those who work behind cash registers. Second, the gains in average education and health of the workforce over the last 50 years are unlikely to be repeated. Third, to the extent that non-work is contagious, it is likely to grow exponentially rather than at a linear rate. Fourth, declining marriage rates are likely to raise rates of labor force withdrawal given that non-work is much more common for unmarried than married men.

On the basis of these factors, I expect that more than one-third of all men between 25 and 54 will be out work at mid-century. Very likely more than half of men will experience a year of non-work at least one year out of every five. This would be in the range of the rate of non-work for high school drop-outs and exceeds the rate of non-work for African Americans today.

I wrote about this topic six year ago in a post entitled Men Declining? What is deeply troubling is that fundamentally nothing has changed in those six years. This challenge––providing meaningful work for non college educated men––in an economy where smarter and smarter machines are going to continue to destroy blue collar jobs and occupations is probably the most important economic issue of our generation. We need to make this a priority.

Here in full is what I wrote six years ago:

Provocative and important cover story in the current issue of the the Atlantic. It’s entitled The End of Men? Clearly exaggerated, but the main point of the article that men are having a harder time than women making the transition to a far more knowledge-based economy is probably true. The article claims the trend is global, not just here in the US.

The basic story is well know. An economy driven by technology and globalization no longer needs much muscle from humans, but now more highly values brains. Both left and right brain skills. So men who have relied on their muscle to earn a good living are having a hard time. The result: more woman working today in the US than men for the first time ever, 3/4 of the laid off workers in the Great Recession have been men and the jobs that are least likely to come back in the next recovery – production and construction – are male dominated occupations.

What is deeply troubling in the article is the evidence that men are more resistant to gaining the skills needed to succeed in the economy of the future. For whatever reason women are disproportionately higher ed students at all levels. From community colleges through advanced degree programs. And they are finishing degrees at a higher rate than men as well. This is not good news. Societies where men don’t work or don’t earn enough to support a family are societies with all sorts of social problems far beyond economic.

Our view of the economy is that career success in the future will look a lot more like rock climbing that ladder climbing. Career ladders that use to be the path to the middle class are increasingly gone. Technology and globalization mean that predictable and linear career progress for most of us is toast. What will take its place is the need to continuously adjust (rock climbing). All of us are going to have to be willing and able to learn new skills and new occupations over a lifetime. The article claims that men – except those from upper middle class households – are having great difficulty making these transitions. If true, this is a challenge that we need to make a priority.

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