- - Thursday, February 19, 2015

Given the media buzz about declining men’s labor force participation, it is common knowledge that the employment situation for men today is less than ideal. Conventional wisdom places the blame on the weak economy and the political spin is positive when unemployment figures seem to edge downward and the numbers appear to be slightly better, but men not working continues to be a real problem. Most people understand that unemployment statistics only measure those men who are not working but are looking for a job; the numbers don’t include the discouraged workers who have given up hope, dropped out, and become all but invisible.

National Public Radio (NPR) identified five economic problems that extend beyond the unemployment statistics. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explained another contributing factor, “The weak economy is idling too many young graduates.” While the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), showed women not faring well, they noted that women are doing a bit better than men on the job front.

Others, too, are looking in-depth at the problem of men not working, but politicians and the media seem focused on excusing, shifting blame and obfuscating the problem.

Blame-shifting is nothing new. From the beginning, the creation account tells of how Adam and Eve ruined their perfect life in the Garden of Eden by disobeying the parameters God had established for living in their paradise. When God confronted Adam about his devastating choice, he refused to accept responsibility for his own actions and shifted the blame to Eve.

The brief narrative tells us some of Cain’s evasions when he was called to account for killing his brother, Abel. Given the example of his parents, Adam and Eve, he probably shifted blame to his parents for his poverty, for ruining his chances in life by getting kicked out of their life of ease in the Garden of Eden. Plus, he likely had plenty of additional excuses for his anger: Abel’s sheep were constantly bleating, making unbearable noise. The sheep got into the meager crops that he had painstakingly planted in spite of all the thorns and thistles.

Today’s young men have their own set of excuses for their idleness and their own blame shifting tactics for their failures to get an education and inability to hold down a job. These are young men who, through media, have seen the lifestyles of the rich and famous. They’ve seen privileged kids enter the Ivy League world, seen neighborhood athletes move up from high school sports to the college or professional level. They’ve seen the “get rich quick” path via music or rap, drug dealing or pimping. They don’t want to become minimum-wage working stiffs starting out at McDonald’s or Jiffy Lube. To get the jobs they think they deserve, they need a college education, a master’s degree, even a doctoral degree, something totally out of their reach.

Public discussions about the decline in men’s labor force participation typically don’t include the twin facts that (a) unmarried men’s participation is considerably lower than that of married men, and (b) the number and percentage of men who are unmarried has steadily increased. Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill were among the first report that the keys to economic success are three simple steps for young people: (1) Graduate from high school, (2) work hard, and (3) get married before you have children. It is not complicated; it really is that simple.

The labor force participation rate for married men has been nearly flat (increasing 2 percent points from 1990 to 2004-07 and then during the Great Recession beginning in 2008 shrinking slightly back to the same level as the early 1990s); during the same period, however, the unmarried rate has trended downward. This has produced a widening gap between the married and unmarried rates since 1990, when the two rates were essentially equal, opening up a spread of more than 11 percentage points between the two rates by 2013.

Behind the fact of the six percentage point decline in the labor force participation of all men 20-54 years of age since the early 1990s is a 57 percent increase in the number of unmarried men (from 23 million to 36 million) and a decline in their labor force participation rate of a little more than 11 percentage points. By comparison, there has been a decline of 2.3 million in the number of married men (from 38 million to less than 36 million) with very little change in their labor force participation.

Herbert Stein’s Law says “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The famous blogger Instapundit has shortened, and relentlessly repeated, this law as: “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.”

Can the decline in unmarried men’s labor force participation continue indefinitely? I don’t think so. From the physical universe we know that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And much the same applies in societal arrangements. Clearly the changes in attitudes, values and public policies (e.g., changes in conditions for eligibility for income assistance and no-fault divorce) in the ‘60s and ‘70 are still producing changes in men’s and women’s behavior 50 years later. And today’s behaviors and their costs, social as well as economic, will doubtless produce changes that are equally as dramatic as the declines in marriage and the increases in the number of fatherless children we’ve witnessed in the last 60 years.

Exactly what the “equal and opposite” changes will be is hard even to guess. What is clear is that if we continue as we are, we will eventually destroy the average man’s place in society.

Certainly just putting more and more people on food stamps is not a solution. Even as a palliative, this has its limits. Twenty years ago, we saw pressure for a change in welfare policy in the 1990s build up as child poverty grew from spiraling unwed teen birthrates. Despite furious opposition from the welfare advocacy community, including dire predictions of massive increases in child poverty, conditions for receiving income assistance were changed, time limits were imposed and the welfare rolls in five years declined by more than 60 percent. Child poverty did not increase but declined.

It is only a matter of time before policy makers – contending with lagging economic growth that both puts a crimp on the growth of tax revenue while driving up social welfare expenditures – will have to face up to the drag on the economy created by having more than 10 million unmarried men of prime working age not working, the vast of majority (nearly 70 percent) of whom are not looking for a job and hence not counted as unemployed. To put this in historical perspective, the percentage of unmarried men ages 20 to 54 who are either unemployed or not in the labor force has gone up from a little less than 16 percent in 1990 to over 28 percent in 2013.

Getting out of this monumental mess (assuming that is even possible) will doubtless be extremely painful for all Americans. It is instructive to look back at the Great Depression. At its worst, unemployment back then reached 25 percent. Ask any historian what President Roosevelt faced trying to pull the economy out of the mire; better yet, sit down and talk with an old-timer who lived through those days and, if not that, read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

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