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When it comes to quiet quitters, highly paid men lead the exodus

Unemployed men create economy ripple effects
Millions of men in their prime working age are leaving the labor force, creating a hole in the market 07:58

Among the many ways the pandemic has affected the American workplace is the trend in "quiet quitting," in which employees set more boundaries at work and generally dial back their efforts on the job. And one group in particular is leading the charge in pulling back: College-educated, highly paid men. 

In 2022, the top-earning 10% of men worked an average of 77 fewer hours per year compared with the same set of workers in 2019 — a bigger decline than for other groups, according to a recent analysis by economists at Washington University in St. Louis. On a weekly basis, these men worked 1.5 hours less than they did prior to the pandemic.

It's likely that college-educated men in highly paid roles are partly responding to labor market trends: With a tight job market and skilled workers much in demand, they may feel secure enough to scale back their hours, said Washington University professor Yongseok Shin, a co-author of the study. 

Quiet quitting adds another layer of complexity to the economy's recovery given that employers are already coping with a smaller workforce than prior to the pandemic. With existing workers putting in fewer hours, some companies may actually need to hire more workers to compensate, Shin noted.

"The unemployment rate is fairly low, and people are saying, 'Well, even taking that into account, the labor market feels a lot tighter than what the unemployment rate shows you,'" Shin told CBS MoneyWatch. 

This could be explained by something that, according to Shin, economists and policymakers haven't examined as much as reduced workforce participation during the pandemic: Employed Americans are putting fewer hours into their jobs. From 2019 to 2022, the typical worker spent about six fewer hours at their jobs annually than in earlier periods, the study found.

"Who is really benefitting? It's prime-age men with a college education, people who are working long hours and paid pretty well," Shin added. "It's probably a real improvement for their work-life balance, but that benefit isn't enjoyed by everybody in the economy."

Quiet hiring: the latest workforce trend 06:56

Missing men

Another economic puzzle is why the nation's labor force remains smaller than before the pandemic. About 62.3% of working-age Americans are currently employed, down by 1 percentage point from 63.3% in February 2020, right before COVID-19 shut down the economy. 

Even as wages are rising and employers are eager to hire, millions of Americans are still sitting out from work due to illness and other challenges. In early January, about 1.7 million people said they were not working due to their having COVID-19 or caring for someone with the illness, according to Census data.

Demographic pressures are also squeezing the labor market, with baby boomers retiring in force each year.

Yet there's another group of people who are simply sitting on the sidelines: Men without college degrees who are in their prime working years. About one in nine men (25- to 54-years old) are out of the labor market today, compared with one in 50 in the mid-1950s. 

That trend is largely driven by men who lack a college diploma and whose earnings have eroded over the last several decades. One economist recently suggested that these men are leaving the workforce because their social status and earnings power have eroded over time, weakening their incentive to work.

These men are the flip side of the highly paid, college-educated male employees who are still putting in long hours (even if they are cutting back), and are "concerning" on a broader economic level as on an individual level, Shin said. More of these men who may have moved in with family members or partners, and who provide housing support while earning some money in the gig economy, may miss out on job milestones.

"If you aren't working in your 20s, then it'll be difficult to find a job in your 30s, so employers may not be willing to give you a good job offer," Shin said. 

Even as layoffs occur across tech companies and other big employers in response to a softening economy, Shin believes quiet quitting will nevertheless remain a force in the workplace.

"This will persist because this is what people are voluntarily choosing after a once-in-a-lifetime shock from the pandemic," he noted. "And the fact that other people are making similar choices as the labor supply is going down, with demographics [like retiring baby boomers] and young men without college degrees not working as much."

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