Where so many working men are: In pain or video-gaming

One of the puzzles of the current U.S. labor market involves the disappearance of so many once-ubiquitous male workers.

Back in the post-World War II years, male workforce participation hit a peak at 98 percent of men between 25 to 54 holding a job. Since then, men have been dropping out of the workforce in dribs and drabs. Today, only 88 percent of men in their prime working years are employed, according to a recent White House study on the group’s decline.

While the trend has been noted, the reasons are hardly agreed on. Economists point to everything from a decline in America’s manufacturing sector to weak job opportunities to the retirement of millions of baby boomers. But it turns out that other issues may be at play: disability and diversion.

Men who are not looking for work are more likely to be taking pain medication than their working counterparts, according to a new study from Princeton University economist Alan Krueger, who served as Assistant Treasury Secretary for economic policy under President Obama.

“Nearly half of prime age NLF [not looking for work] men take pain medication on a daily basis, and in nearly two-thirds of cases they take prescription pain medication,” Krueger noted in the paper.

Men who aren’t looking for a job and report a disability suffer from an average pain rating that stands 88 percent higher than those who are only out of the work force. Krueger followed up by surveying 571 nonworking men in late September and early October. About four out of 10 of them said their pain prevented them from working in a full-time job for which they would otherwise be qualified.

As for diversion, look no further than video games. Young men without college degrees -- a group that has been largely left out of the economic recovery -- aren’t going back to school or trying to switch occupations, according to University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst. Instead, they appear to be spending their time playing video games.

“The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12 and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week,” Hurst said in an interview with the university. “This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.”

Video gaming is clearly grabbing the attention of young men who aren’t looking for work, Krueger noted. Men between 21 and 30 years old who aren’t on the hunt for a job almost doubled their weekly video game hours since 2004, while their TV viewing declined.

In the short run, these unemployed male gamers may be happier because video games are a social activity. So even though they might be out of work, unlike men of previous generations, they aren’t lacking for friends or social networks while they’re sitting at home.

Disabled men may represent a different type of existence, however.

Over the past 15 years, the number of Americans seeking to qualify for disability payments has risen sharply, jumping from 1.5 million applications in 2001 to 2.4 million last year.

It might be notable that the peak of disability applications was reached in 2010, when the agency received 2.9 million requests. Since then, the Social Security Administration has reported an annual decline in applications, although it remains far above its 2001 level. 

It’s important to note that an application doesn’t mean that a person would qualify as disabled (and the Social Security Administration doesn’t approve every application). In a weak economy, some workers might “downgrade” their view of their own health, the Economic Policy Institute noted last year. But it could be that a weak economy provides little flexibility for some adults to find work, especially if they’re dealing with health issues.

As Planet Money reported in its “Unfit for Work” investigation, adults in an Alabama county with a high disability rate also didn’t have many job opportunities, especially for people struggling with pain and unable to stand for long hours or lift heavy objects.

Whatever the reason, the problem of the decline in male workforce participation isn’t going away. What can fix it? 

Older workers can delay retirement, and workers could be given more generous leave time and flexibility, while major immigration reforms could help, Krueger noted. As for disabled men, expanding the Affordable Care Act might prove useful, he added.

Krueger wrote: “The finding that nearly half of NLF prime age men take pain medication on a daily basis and that 40 percent report that pain prevents them from accepting a job suggests that pain management interventions could potentially be helpful.”