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The U.S. economy's hidden problem: Men without jobs

White working class has been shrinking
The white working class is now at its lowest-ever share of the population 01:28
  • Roughly 1 in 7 working-age men in the U.S. aren't employed, higher than before the 2008 housing crash. 
  • The problem particularly affects working-class men, who have been hurt by economic changes and lower wages. 
  • The stigma of joblessness is linked to an increase in what economists call "deaths of despair."

America's job market may be the strongest it's been in at least half a century, but not all workers are getting a lift. The proportion of men in their prime working years without a job is higher today than it was before the Great Recession, according to a new study

Roughly 1 in 7 U.S. men between the ages of 25 and 54 aren't employed, federal labor data show. That's a higher rate of unemployment for the group than in 2007, the year before the housing crash slammed the economy.

Many of these men don't show up in the U.S. Labor Department's monthly unemployment statistics because they've given up looking for work. Some are on disability, but researchers at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics say that doesn't fully account for the problem. They note that the disability rolls have declined by 7% since the late 1960s, when only about 6% of prime-age men were out of the workforce.

Instead, the surge in unemployed males has come at a time when working-class men have less bargaining power and the work available to them increasingly consists of "low-quality unstable jobs with few if any benefits," the researchers state. 

"Despite its reputation for having flexible labor markets, the U.S. has one of the lowest prime-age male labor participation rates in the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], and one that has been on a downward trend since 1999," the researchers noted. 

The OECD represents 36 countries with more developed economies, ranging from European nations such as the U.K. and Germany to Australia and New Zealand.

"A worrisome group"

These men are suffering from higher rates of stigma than other groups, the researchers said, noting the focus in American culture on self-sufficiency and hard work. Men outside the labor force are "a worrisome group," they wrote, citing lower rates of satisfaction with their lives and overall markers of well-being. 

"Less-than-college-educated white males, a group for whom the increases in labor force dropout have been stark, are also particularly vulnerable to premature mortality due to suicide, and opioid and other drug overdoses," the authors wrote. 

The risk of premature death may be one cause for the shrinking white working class, which now stands at its smallest-ever share of the U.S. population. White working-class Americans, which accounted for 70% of the adult population in 1975, now represent just 40% of adults — an all-time low, according to recent research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The white working class is getting hit on a number of fronts, including more whites attending college, which pushes them into the professional class, as well as "deaths of despair," or the sharp rise in fatalities due to drug overdoses and suicides among the group. 

Trouble in Trump country

Men who are outside the workforce are more likely to live in counties around the U.S. that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, found IZA, a nonprofit economic research firm focused on labor issues.

While the research didn't draw a link between the demographics of Trump voters and men outside the labor force, the past decade has witnessed a growing economic divide between high-growth coastal cities and slower-growing rural areas. Such areas are "diverging fast" in key metrics such as family income and economic growth, analysts at the Brookings Institution wrote earlier this month. 

Only a decade ago, voters in Republican and Democratic districts earned almost identical incomes. But today, a gulf has emerged: Median household income in Democratic districts now stands at $61,000, compared with $53,000 for Republicans, Brookings noted.  

Automation may add to the problems facing some working-class men. The solution, according to IZA, could lie in vocational training for younger working-class men, and programs for older men that could help them improve their well-being and reduce their isolation, such as volunteering. 

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