America’s working man has taken a pounding over the course of the past half-century. According to the most recent data available, 15 percent of men in their prime working years (between 25 and 54) had no job—5 percent were unemployed and 10 percent were neither working nor looking for work. Fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1966, only 5 percent of men in that age range had no job. Most of the decline in male employment took place relatively recently, during the Great Recession, when men’s prime-age employment fell 8 percentage points, from 88 percent in the spring of 2007 to 80 percent in December 2009. Since the bottom of the recession, prime-age men have regained 5 percentage points, reaching 85 percent employed in the most recent data.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, sees this as an “invisible crisis” that urgently needs the nation’s attention. Eberstadt’s rhetoric runs high, but he is right to bring attention to employment trends. American culture measures men’s contributions to society in proportion to how hard they work, and most Americans embrace the idea that men’s worth is tied up in what they do for a living. Meanwhile, public policy insists on work. Laid-off workers in most states have to produce evidence of job applications in order to collect their unemployment insurance; mothers have to agree to look for employment when they apply for welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). With this kind of cultural and policy pressure, it is shocking to learn that 10 percent of prime-age men were neither at work nor looking for work in the fall of 2016. Whether they are idle, injured, criminal, or merely working under the table, they are more numerous than just a decade ago and deserving of public attention for what it tells us about our economy and society.