Over the weekend, Matt sent me a link to a CNN story which I consider to be “old news,” but which I am nevertheless pleased to see in the mainstream media. It helps define the dimensions of a problem which has occupied more of my time over the last few years.
“Fifty years ago,” says the story, “nearly every single working-age American man had a job or was looking for one.” That’s not the case anymore. The labor force participation rate for men ages 25 to 54 stood at nearly 97% in 1965, but now hovers near a record low of 88%. That rate includes those who are working or have looked for a job in the past four weeks. If the participation rate had held steady, more than five million additional men would be in the workforce.
According to my son Henry, the private sector has created 8.3 million jobs since Barack Obama first took the oath of office—a number that almost exactly matches the number of illegal aliens (8 million in 2010, says Pew Research) in the US workforce.
(To put “job creation” in perspective, during George W. Bush’s two terms in office, the US economy created just 1.3 million new jobs; the private sector actually lost 463,000 jobs under Bush. Under the ‘small government’ Republican president, the public sector at all levels grew by 1.7 million workers. In contrast, federal, state and local governments have shed 638,000 jobs since Obama took office.)
The result is that wages have been driven down, even for workers who are still employed. At the same time, expenses for living—especially medical, food and rent—have continued to rise, making it more and more difficult even for employed workers to make ends meet.
But this is getting away from the story that Matt shared—that men are dropping out of the labor force, in large part because they can’t find positions that pay decently or they don’t have the education and skills to land employment
The CNN story shared a few representative stories. In one, a fifty-something former research analyst and database manager at financial information firms, hasn’t held a job since he was laid off during the recession of the early 1990s. Unable to find a job, he became a stay-at-home dad to his son while he looked for work and went through a retraining program, learning computer skills such as Word and Excel, in the mid-1990s. The positions he was offered, however, paid only $8 an hour. “It didn’t make sense to give that to a babysitter,” he said.
He decided to start looking again when his son hit his teen years, but that coincided with the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce again. He hasn’t sent out a resume in more than a year, saying he now lacks the technical skills and references needed to land employment. “I have a college degree. Now it’s totally worthless.”
Other men have different issues, most notably, criminal records. A growing number of men who should be working are in prison or have rap sheets that make it tough for them to get hired. In 2013 there were 5.6 million men in prison, on probation, or on parole, according to the latest federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 34% of men age 25 to 54 without jobs have criminal records, according to a poll from earlier this year.
Increasingly, men are opting to sign up for the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which exploded during the Great Recession. The number of disabled male workers doubled between 1993 and 2013 to 4.6 million. The story gave the example of one man who can’t find a job that pays enough for him to cover his medical bills. Last year, he looked into temp jobs in his field, but they only paid $15 to $18 an hour, less than half what he was making 15 years earlier. That won’t cover his medication, which costs close to $100,000 a year.
Younger male workers, particularly those without college degrees, are also falling out of the labor force, said David Autor, economics professor at MIT. With declines in the manufacturing and construction industries, there are fewer opportunities for these men to find gainful employment. So many work off-the-grid, sign up for government assistance, or turn to a life of crime.
College educated or not, those with gaps in their resumes can find it tougher to land an interview, much less a job. Even a six-month break can raise questions. “If you are not in the game for a certain amount of time, you become unemployable,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. “It’s a downward spiral.”
Men without good-paying jobs are proving less attractive to women. Solid employment is the #1 priority women want in mate, according to a Pew Research Center report last year. “Women are choosing not to marry men who won’t be economic partners,” Autor said.
I have long maintained that the concept of having a “job” is the root of the problem. The lay-offs of the 1980s taught me that having a job places one’s fate in the hands of others who don’t care at all about our welfare. The old “employment compact” that traded loyalty for security is dead for the most part. Benefits such as pension plans, 401(k) matches, and robust healthcare coverage (which once glued employers and their employees together in a long-term relationship) are disappearing.
Most people don’t like their jobs, anyway. According to a Conference Board survey, fewer than half of American workers were satisfied with their jobs in 2013. Just 24.4% with incomes under $15,000 said they were satisfied with their jobs. In the middle ranks—those earning between $35,000 and $75,000—the figure hovers around 45%. Only among those earning more than $125,000 a year were the number of satisfied workers a majority (about 64%).
In almost every individual measure—from wages and retirement plans to vacation policies and commutes—workers are less content with their jobs than they were in 1987, when the research group started tracking the topic. Back then, 61.1% of workers said they were satisfied with their work.
The best security and satisfaction are, I believe, in entrepreneurialism and self-employment. It is easier to find work than to find a job. But it’s a tough sell. I can’t even convince my own son that he would be happier if he were to place his future in his own hands.
We are conditioned from the time that we are schoolchildren to believe that the holy grail is having a “job.” We pick our politicians partially on the basis of their claims to be “job creators.” We canonize business owners and corporate leaders, and exempt them from responsibilities for paying taxes or paying for white-collar crimes, believing the “trickle down” hogwash about their claims to being “job creators.”
It’s a big con-job. A lack of imagination. Amnesia. A failure to remember what it is—or was—to be an American.
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