Last month the unemployment rate sank to an amazing 3.6 percent, the lowest rate since 1969. Unfortunately, the labor market is in worse shape today than it was 50 years ago. An important difference is that more of the people we usually expect to work — namely, men ages 25 to 54 — are not even looking for jobs.
As most readers know, the official unemployment rate covers only those who are working or looking for work. When people drop out of the labor force entirely, they no longer count as unemployed. That’s why a lower unemployment rate is sometimes aided by a shrinking of the overall labor force, as it was in April.
In 1969, 94.5 percent of all prime-age men had a job, and just 4 percent were out of the labor force entirely. In 2019, however, the comparable employment rate is 86.5 percent, with about 11 percent out of the labor force. Although nearly all prime-age men who wanted a job could find one in both years — hence the low unemployment rates — the decades-long trend of labor force dropout has taken its toll on overall employment. Non-working prime-age men were simply much rarer in 1969 than they are today.
Contrary to popular belief, the difference is not due to more men going to prison, as the underlying data exclude people in institutions. (Including them would make the trend look even worse.) Furthermore, although one would hope that men who leave the paid workforce make up for it with domestic chores, they do not. From an essay I wrote with Amy Wax:
In Men without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis…Nicholas Eberstadt notes that not having a job frees up about 2,000 hours per year. “What is striking, however, is how little of this enormous free-time dividend was devoted to helping others in their family or community,” Eberstadt writes. To illustrate, men not in the labor force spend no more time on child care or housework than employed women. They spend forty-four minutes more per day than employed women on “personal care” (which includes sleep), and they spend four and a half hours more on “socializing, relaxing, and leisure.” Much of the leisure is watching television and movies, which accounts for five and a half hours of their average day. [bold added]
Although the tight labor market has helped in recent years, progress in reversing the dropout trend has been frustratingly slow. Since its high in 2014, the percentage of prime-age men neither working nor looking for work has fallen by only about one percentage point, from 12 percent to 11 percent. With one in nine prime-age males still sitting idle, terms such as “full employment” and “labor shortage” ring hollow. There is much room for improvement.