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Perspective: America needs prime-age men to be working

Too many young men have stopped looking for work and instead rely on family and government benefits. This trend is troubling for the nation’s economy and birthrates, as well as the men themselves

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Amid widespread worker shortages and historic wage growth, why are so many prime-age men remaining on the employment sidelines? One reason is the declining value our government places on work.

Even before the pandemic hit, growing public aid programs undermined employment by offering open-ended assistance to men capable of working. It is no wonder that many prime-age men took to heart the message that work was expendable.

We need government to send a new message — that prime-age men and their employment is essential.

Labor force participation among prime-age men in the U.S. has steadily declined for decades. Nicholas Eberstadt, a top demographer and political economist at the American Enterprise Institute, highlighted the problem in his 2016 book “Men Without Work.” He recently published an updated version documenting the persistence of the problem and diagnosing the 2022 condition as bleak as any time in history.

According to Eberstadt, the unemployment rate — down to 3.5% from its near-15% peak during the pandemic — grossly underreports the problem of unemployment among prime-age men. If all of those who have dropped out of the labor force entirely are included in this calculus, rates of non-working men swell to Depression-era levels. Fourteen percent of prime-age men did not work in 2019.

While some of these men have health issues that preclude them from working, most of them — with ages in the 20s, 30s and 40s — are simply not looking for work, instead spending their time in front of screens and relying on a mix of family and government benefits to get by.

Economists debate the reasons why a declining share of prime-age men work. One explanation has to do with the labor market itself — technological change and globalization have reduced the demand for traditional “male” labor. Another explanation is the increasing share of men with criminal backgrounds and employers’ unwillingness to hire them.

But government programs also clearly play a role. The availability of aid to work-capable men undermines the importance of employment. Under our current system, food and housing aid from the federal government largely comes with no expectation for work, and disability assistance ignores the possibility that treatment and rehabilitation can eventually lead to meaningful employment.   

Without work, many of these men turn to unproductive activities. Eberstadt reported that prime-age men not in the labor force spent almost eight hours per day on average in 2014 socializing, relaxing and otherwise at leisure, including five hours per day watching television and movies. Even when compared to employed womenthese men spend less time caring for family members and spend about as much time doing household chores.

Without earnings to support themselves, government benefit usage among these men is common. According to a 2018 analysis by the Joint Economic Committee, 64% of nonworking prime-age men received some form of government assistance, while 4 in 10 received disability assistance and 38% received food stamps. Without question, government benefits are helping to finance nonworking lifestyles, sending a message that idleness is acceptable.

But prime-age men are among our society’s most important contributors, and their idleness is harmful, both to themselves and society at large. For starters, businesses need workers, and prime-age men on the sidelines means fewer workers and less economic growth. As economists at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve explained in 2017, “The effects of (labor force) nonparticipation on society are potentially severe: slower economic growth and a rising dependency ratio.”

Perhaps more importantly, work offers men purpose and meaning, fostering dignity in ways other activities do not. This is why employment correlates with a host of positive life outcomes such as better health, marriage and greater life satisfaction. When government aid undermines the importance of employment, it downplays both the financial and nonfinancial benefits of work for prime-age men.  

We need productive and fulfilled prime-age men for other reasons too. Birthrates and marriage rates are approaching historic lows in the U.S., undoubtedly fueled by prime-age male idleness. Declining marriage rates and birthrates will contribute to demographic and economic challenges that threaten prosperity for future generations. 

The newly elected Congress has an opportunity to move away from policy proposals designed to expand government, such as universal basic income, expanded food stamps and more Medicaid coverage, which will only make the problem of prime-age male idleness worse.

Instead, policymakers should recognize the value that working brings to prime-age men, their families and their communities. This involves reforming existing government programs with an eye toward employment, while reinforcing values and norms around work and government assistance for prime-age men.    

 Angela Rachidi is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the co-editor with former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of the forthcoming book “American Renewal: A Conservative Plan to Strengthen the Social Contract and Save the Country’s Finances.”