September 3, 2013

The disappearing male worker


Are men losing interest in work?

Male labor force participation rates in the United States have been in steady decline since at least 1950 while women’s labor market participation steadily rose before leveling off about a decade ago. Two recent analyses of U.S. Census data document this trend and offer some unexpected reasons why this shift is occurring.

Economists Stefania Albanesi and Ayşegül Şahin of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York analyzed U.S. Census data extending back four decades.  They found the labor force participation gap between men and women has closed dramatically since 1970 when only 43% of women but 80% of men 16 years and older were employed or looking for work.

The gap stood at about 12 percentage points (57.7% vs. 70.2%) in 2012 and is projected to narrow slightly over the next few decades as participation rates for both sexes slowly decline.

“Women have become less likely to leave employment for nonparticipation—a sign of increased labor force attachment—while men have become more likely to leave the labor force from unemployment and less likely to re-enter the labor force once they leave it—a sign of decreased labor force attachment,” Albanesi and  Şahin wrote in a recently released working paper.

Translation:  Women are less likely than they were in the past to leave a job and drop out of the labor force to raise a family, take care of aging parents or family members, or for other reasons.  Men, on the other hand, are increasingly more likely to quit, be laid off or fired, or otherwise leave a job and opt not to look for another.

But why are men having an increasingly hard time entering or staying in the labor market–and why are some dropping out entirely?

MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman think they know one of the reasons why. In a recent  study for the Third Way think tank they found that men are falling behind women in acquiring necessary job skills—primarily high school and college degrees—and it’s showing in the inferior kinds of work they get, the lower wages they are paid and in their diminished chances of finding and keeping a job.  Little wonder guys are discouraged.

“Over the last three decades the labor market trajectory of males in the U.S. has turned downward along four dimensions: skills acquisition; employment rates; occupational stature; and real wage levels,” Autor and Wasserman write.

These researchers acknowledge that scholars don’t yet know all of the causes of these changes. They suggest globalization, the diminishing power of labor unions and the dizzying pace of technological change all may pose barriers to stable employment and raise frustration levels, particularly among men.  Other scholars have cited institutional changes that have made it easier for mothers to work.  Changes in family structure, immigration and the aging of the Baby Boom generation also may contribute to these trends.  Add to that the simple fact that men—particularly those with a working wife—don’t need to work as long or as hard these days to support a family, or to even work at all.

To this long and growing list Autor and Wasserman add another intriguing possibility: Absentee dads.

Sifting through Census data, they find a significant share of this shift in employment outcomes is largely occurring in one group: men born into single-parent households, most of which are headed by women. As a group, these boys are significantly less likely to graduate from high school or go to college than other children, they found.

Even girls raised by a single parent fare better in later life than a boy who grew up in similar circumstances, even though both suffered from lower incomes, less advantageous school and neighborhood environments and higher stress levels than other children.

But they add that “boys in single female-headed families are particularly at risk for adverse outcomes across many domains, including high school dropout, criminality and violence,” also noting that “male parental absence may appear to differentially disadvantage boys because boys are more sensitive than girls to either male role models or these other forces.”

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Gender, Work and Employment, Business and Labor

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mech Shop1 year ago

    Government sanction and enforced sexism against men is widespread. Women have always been the privileged sex. Google The Privileged Sex by Martin Creveld. Women are the majority in college now so we are seeing new student loan debt forgiveness programs. And primary education is more skewed than ever to favor women often at the expense of boys. This is self evident by the fact when boys leave primary education they have little useful job skills. The numbers are worse than presented, down 25% form 1950. In the last decade this trend has accelerated and its predicted to continue for a least the next 10 to 15 years. A third of jobs will be displaced by automation. New jobs will be created but how this will balance out is unknown.

    Boys are adversely affected by not having there real dad present. State policy has accelerated the destruction of the nuclear family. Marriage (a three party contract – a man a women and the state) is a tool to transfer wealth from men to women. This is actively avoided by men. Marriage is a destabilizing to family in its current form as it has intentional incentives to discourage this.

  2. Kurosh Ruch-Kamgar2 years ago

    How about infrastructure spending?

    Speaking generally – it seems like men are very mission-critical (tunnel vision) while women are rather steward-like, and observant of broad orientations.

    With rather stagnant infrastructure, the focus of economic development moves to comprehensive details and particulars (and away from paradigm shifts & planning)

  3. Matt3 years ago

    Indeed, a lot of companies are biased against hiring men. And I think a huge factor to this is man-hating feminism. These days, women have it much easier getting hired while many men are simply shut out of the hiring process; and I think it’s millennial men (generation Y) who have it worst, not men age 50+

  4. JT4 years ago

    Why is it always men versus women. However, I do believe there is quite a bit of sexism in the workplace against men. It is always about hiring more women. It is always about pay inequality between women and men. There is so much going against men, especially those in the majority. Lately, I have found there is more discrimination among men. It is okay for a woman to leave the workforce to care for children. A woman without an outside job is a homemaker. A man without an outside job is a ‘bum’.

    I hope we can all get together someday. However, as long as there are people and resources are scarce, it is not going to happen.

  5. M. Deane4 years ago

    Yes, ageism is a significant factor for most men who exit the job market for one reason or another. But there also appears to be a problem with women and their approach to dealing with men seeking employment. Too frequently, women are the initial contact in the hiring process. And when men are referred to a manager for subsequent interviews, that person is also a woman who is younger than the man seeking a job. Women it would seem have a prejudice against hiring men, especially older males with outstanding qualifications and experience; men of this caliber are, it appears, considered a threat. For example, a man 50-plus of my acquaintance lost his job with an international company [the unit he worked in was disbanded and moved abroad] in the spring of 2012. He has been unable to find a job as of September 2013. He is fluent in four languages plus English and used these skills with his extensive experience in litigation support. Invariably, when he received responses to come for interviews, the women adapted aloof attitudes during the process. In one case, interviews were conducted up the chain of command to a female attorney manager who proceeded, after only a few questions about his background, to bemoan how she was overworked and had a stressful family life. In the few situations where men conducted the interviews, those doing the hiring were several decades younger, and obviously less confident. Again, qualified older men become a threat to younger employers. Another factor working against older men is the lack of authencity, i.e., honesty in the hiring process. Potential job seekers are entered into the interview process when the job is most often predestined by insiders hiring a friend or a referral by an existing employee. Outsiders, too often older men, seeking employment are merely used to validate the hiring process.

  6. Least4 years ago

    Black unemployment is likely reflected by this study as about three of four births are to unwed mothers. Could this be the result of government support programs having unintended result?

    1. KTW4 years ago

      This is about gender, not race.

      1. KC4 years ago

        No, it’s about men and women of ALL races. Yes, it plays a factor.

  7. TJ Gray4 years ago

    Interesting article, I wonder if another piece of the puzzle can be added. Many of my middle aged male peers have been ushered out of the marketplace, never to heard from again. Here in Silicon Valley, Tech companies are notoriously ageist. Many of my peers in their 40’s and 50’s have been laid off by one company or another and cannot even get interviewed by any other. I have even heard of middle aged men getting cosmetic surgery and fudging their resumes as to appear younger than they are. So, in many cases, the egress is not by choice.