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Why are men dropping out of the workforce despite a strong economy?

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In this Nov. 20, 2018 file photo, a U.S. flag flies outside New York Stock Exchange. Stocks fell in early trading on Wall Street Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, as investors worry that the U.S. and China will fail to make a trade deal before the year is over.

Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a strong labor market, many American men are leaving the workforce altogether.

The current economic expansion is the longest in U.S. history, and unemployment has remained at or below 4% for nearly two years and continues to fall. Yet the employment-to-population ratio — that is, what share of adults has a job and what share does not — for men ages 25 to 54 is at its lowest in decades, Sen. Mike Lee said.

“I’m concerned that if more men can’t find stable, steady work, the result is likely to be fewer marriages, in the first instance, and more divorces, in the second instance,” the Utah Republican said during a Joint Economic Committee hearing this week titled, “Connecting More People to Work.”

It’s also likely, he said, that as marriage rates fall, men will feel less of a need to be breadwinners and involved with their children, which in turn would lead to more unemployment and less stable family lives.

Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, agreed with Lee’s assessment, calling it a vicious cycle where declining employment opportunities harm family formation and devaluing families harms economic engagement.

The current 18% rate of “prime-age” men lacking full-time work is larger than the share at any time during the recessions of 1990–91 and 2001, he said.

Despite the current low unemployment rate and an economy that is widely considered to be at full employment, a disproportionate number of working-age men have dropped out of the labor force entirely, said Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

The phenomenon, she said, has drawn serious attention from scholars and policymakers, including Lee, who heads the Joint Economic Committee.

“Once taut connections to the workplace have not only started to slacken, but they have started to fray,” he said.

Men disengaging from work, Lee said, has severe consequences for the health of families and communities. The committee’s Social Capital Project found that men who don’t work are more socially isolated and less happy than those who have jobs.

Work, especially for men, helps establish and preserve families, Cass told the committee. Where fewer men work, fewer marriages form. Unemployment doubles the risk of divorce, and male joblessness appears to be the primary culprit, he said.

“These outcomes likely result from the damage to both economic prospects and individual well-being associated with being out of work, which strain existing marriages and make men less attractive as marriage partners,” according to Cass. 

Scholars on the panel cited a variety of factors that influence men dropping out of the workforce.

Some of the most commonly cited reasons include technology favoring skilled over unskilled labor, an increase in incarceration rates, rising opioid addiction and trade competition, de Rugy said.

Cass said changes in cultural norms and home environments may both be discouraging men from working and reducing their capacity, he said. The labor market, meanwhile, has failed to generate attractive opportunities that prospective workers are capable of taking, he said. 

Jay Shambaugh, director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said men have seen a downward trend in working over the last half-century, largely due to falling rates among men with less education.

Research, he said, has shown a decline in demand for their labor, and men with less than a high school education actually make $3.40 less per hour than they did in 1980. 

Men with a bachelor’s degree or more work at a rate of 94%, while those with a high school diploma are at 86%. Those with less than a high school education participate at just 80%. For those with less education, taking steps to increase training and education along with other steps to lift wages could improve their work opportunities, Shambaugh said.

Cass said some jobs may appear to be a “dead end” on a company’s organizational chart, but that’s not how it looks to a family. It doesn’t describe its value to the community that benefits from the product or service, and it doesn’t begin to capture the role that the job plays in a person’s life, according to his written testimony.

Work, he said, brings structure to each and life in general. It offers the mundane but essential disciplines of timeliness and reliability and hygiene as well as the more complex socialization of collaboration and paying attention to others. It requires people to interact and forges shared experiences and bonds. It promotes goal setting and long-term planning, Cass said.

“True, other pursuits can provide these kinds of benefits — for example, raising children, keeping a home or volunteering in the community,” he said. “But sleeping, couch surfing or playing video games does not. And for out-of-work men in particular, such idle activities tend to fill up their time.”

Cass said long-term decline in men working appears unique to the American economy, rather than reflective of shifting demographics or a global megatrend.