what’s the story behind declining male employment?

in which I test whether anyone is still getting notified when I update this blog….

Matt Yglesias has a graph up showing the trends in the employment-population ratio for men and women over the past 50 years.   He observes “One striking thing that pops out is that the labor market for men never recovers from recessions. Each trough is followed by a new peak, but the new peak is lower than the previous peak.”  (By contrast, there’s an overall trend up for women.)

There’s at least two ways of thinking about this phenomenon.  One is that this graph shows the intersection of a two unrelated factors — cyclical variation in employment driven by the economy, and a secular decline in employment driven by something else (some combination of increases in education, lower retirement ages, the growth of incarceration, and other factors).  But what Yglesias seems to be implying is that the recessions are in fact part of the cause of the decline in labor force participation.  This is a possibility — we know that the longer that people are out of work, the lower the likelihood that they’ll ever get back to work — but then you’d have to make a case for why it would affect men differently than women.  (Or you could argue that recessions have depressed women’s labor force participation — but that the other factors promoting it have had even more of an impact that it would appear on face value.)

I just finished Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (I didn’t want to give him my money, so I had to wait to get the top of the list at the library).  This decline in male employment is one of his main indicators for the decline of American civilization.  He notes that it’s true even if you just look at white prime-age men, for whom incarceration, retirement and education are not a significant part of the story.  He attributes the decrease primarily to moral factors — the decline in “industriousness”  and the decline in marriage — rather than primarily economics, although at times he suggests that the government safety net, particularly disability benefits, is part of the story.

I do think there’s a real phenomenon going on in this prolonged recession, where older less-educated workers with health limitations, who could have kept their old jobs in a normal economy, but were laid off for economic reasons, are then finding it particularly hard to find new jobs.  And a lot of them are either taking early social security (if they’re old enough to qualify) or applying for disability benefits (which they may or may not get).  And that probably does reduce their likelihood of working in the future, even if the economy picks up.  But I think this is peculiar to this particular moment, and not enough to explain a 50 year trend.

What’s your explanation?



4 Responses to “what’s the story behind declining male employment?”

  1. dave.s. Says:

    I think normal is over. Useta be if you wanted to make tires you did it in Akron and you needed burly people to grab hot stinky tires out of molds and throw them on the cart. Always, those burly people were men. You had to pay them pretty well, because the work was nasty. And, people were policing disability payments/welfare etc., so if you didn’t do SOMETHING (or marry somebody with a job, and keep his house) y0ur life was going to be unpleasant. Now, the tires are made in Ulsan and robots grab them out of the molds. So a whole lot of the semi- and un-skilled work men did is gone, it’s not coming back. Much of the work that’s out there – stocking shelves at Target, delivering auto parts to garages – is done at least as well by women as by men.

  2. robin Says:

    I’m here, and I’m glad you’re back, and I’m wondering if it has to do at least a bit with declining rates of men graduating from college, too.

  3. liz Says:

    Glad you’re back! I think Dave S. has it right, that it’s the decline of manufacturing jobs here, and the increase of mechanisation of jobs that were formerly done by people, including farming – in which the labor that still needs to be done by hand doesn’t pay enough to support a family.

  4. Allison Says:

    I’m still reading, and I’m glad you’re back. Having grown up in the Midwest, I see a lot of truth in what Dave S is saying… the guys who didn’t finish high school thought they could always get work at the steel mill or the paper plant, and when those closed down they really didn’t have anything to fall back upon. My town had more girls than guys finishing high school, which makes me think that the women now have higher job qualifications and more experience in a white-collar economy.

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