In 1939, with the U.S. still struggling through a terrible recession after the Great Depression, just 81.3% of men age 20 to 64 were working, not including those in the military, prison, school, or hospitals. Today, slightly fewer men, or 81.0%, in that age range are working, and it’s not because so many are retiring early.
If we narrow the scope to the prime working years of 25 to 54-years-old, the numbers still match up with 86.4% of men working 1939, and 86.8% working today. From 1965 to 2015, the percentage of prime-age men not in the labor force shot up from 3.3% to 11.7%. In 2015, 18% of young men with just a high school diploma were neither working nor looking for work. For those without a high school diploma, the numbers are worse, 20%.
The standard reason given for the fall is that Americans need more training and education to be part of the labor force, but that might not be the right answer.
With labor force participation dropping consistently for decades without regard for the economic climate, other things might be driving the change. Nicolas Eberstat of the American Enterprise Institute thinks social change has more to do with it. In his research, the culprits are family structure, government-benefit dependence, and mass incarceration and felonization. If a young man has no family ties, then he’s less motivated to create a stable life, including income. If he’s been in and out of jail or prison, then it’s harder to find work. And if he can get at least minimal government benefits, then there’s less pressure to work.
According to Eberstat:
“More schooling will not repair the family or the other institutions that formed the foundation for male work in America until very recently. For that we may need to await the next Great American Awakening.”