Why are more men not at work?

Read this and let it sink in for a minute:

A man with only a high school diploma is twice as likely to be out of work as a man who has a four-year college degree. And, of the 9.3 million men between the ages of 25 and 50 who weren’t working last year, 1.7 million had a bachelor’s degree or higher, 2.3 million had some college or an associate’s degree, and 5.3 million had nothing beyond a high school degree.

A post from Brookings entitled “Why are so many American men not working?” highlights the work of David Wessel, who found last year (“Men Not at Work“) that one in seven men in prime working age aren’t working––they are unemployed right now or have stopped looking for work altogether. Wessel suggests these are the primary causes:

  • educational attainment, whose effects are described above;
  • increasing incarceration rates, which lead to lower employability;
  • the use of pain medication (40 percent of non-working men are taking pain medication every day!);
  • more men are on disability, and once men go on disability they rarely come off; and
  • low wages, which aren’t an enticement to work.

While Wessel offers some policy prescriptions, to me there are two primary upshots. First, we need to prepare future men (i.e., current students in our schools) to face a dynamic economy with skills that will allow them to succeed. They need to be ready for college, if they choose to attend, and “career readiness” should mean that students are creative, can think critically, and have other skills that allow them to be adaptable in this ever-changing economy.

Second, the causes of declining employment for men are really, really complicated, but are certainly education- and skill-related. The job market is changing so that new and higher skill levels are needed. Our workforce development programs don’t have a great track record. We over-incarcerate, especially African-American men. And as unemployment stretches into long-term unemployment, it’s increasingly difficult to land a job.

No one policy solution is likely to remedy all of these factors, but our support systems for the unemployed need to have the flexibility to address multiple barriers at once. On top of that, a focus on equipping people with higher skills must be at the center.

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good.

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that I’m connecting to the right link that you intended, but I did just browse through a couple of posts by John Mauldin on men without work and angst in America. I absolutely agree that this is connected to over-incarceration of men for drug offenses, which has real lifelong impacts. Some of the ways that social connections are changing, which may be contributing to opioid use and suicide rates, also seem at play. This is all very complex stuff and gets into philosophy pretty quickly (which is not our business here). But I would wager that for many men, work is a critical part of identity and as work changes, the insecurity that especially low-skilled men are feeling, coupled by changing social dynamics, is confusing and isolating.

      I would also note that many other countries do a better job in providing retraining opportunities for people who have been displaced by the changing economy, have more accessible health care, and provide better support services for people who are out of work or working low-wage jobs. This might be helping to better mitigate the negative impacts of job loss and declining wages.

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