10 Reasons Why More Men Don’t Have Jobs in America Anymore

Jack Black in "Orange County," portraying a working-age man who desperately needs a career

Jack Black in Orange County portrays a working-age man who desperately needs a career. | Paramount Pictures

Don’t want to work? Just want to bang on the drum all day? Even if you only have a Rockband drum handy, it might be more appealing than getting up early, putting on a uniform, and punching a clock. Some people choose to do just that — instead of going to school or working, they stay at home. This is perplexing to many, who need to work to put food on the table and pay rent. But millions of Americans have removed themselves from the labor force.

And increasingly, these people are coming from a single demographic: working-age men. Specifically, they’re men between the ages of 25 and 54, which we tend to think of as “prime” working years.

While the unemployment rate is in more or less solid shape, that rate is a measure of a subsection of the overall labor force. It’s the percentage of people who are out of work among the American population (over the age of 16) who are actively looking for work. If you aren’t looking for work or interested in having a job, you’re not technically counted as “unemployed.” With many men sitting out of the labor force, this can lead to confusion as to what the actual unemployment rate is.

President Donald Trump has sort of touched on this issue. And it’s a fairly serious one. Men aren’t working like they used to, and the reasons why are numerous and complicated. Let’s examine 10 of the primary factors that have led to millions of working-age men to forgo a career and stay home instead.

1. Wages are too low

Pamphlets sit on a table during a California job fair

Pamphlets sit on a table during a California job fair. | David McNew/Getty Images

Many men aren’t going to work because they don’t see how it’s worth it. Many jobs they might be able to get simply don’t pay enough. Employers are complaining they can’t find people to work — but the incentives are off. This is true in the construction industry and many others. If employers were paying more, it would probably attract more people back to the labor force.

You need skills …

2. Skills gap

An employer interviews a candidate

An employer interviews a candidate. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Many workers lack the skills to compete in the modern economy. Yes, there are jobs that require little training and skill, but those jobs are becoming increasingly automated. And that’s set to continue. Recent surveys say as many as 33% of 848 small-business owners have open positions they can’t fill because applicants lack the necessary skill sets. For many out-of-work men, additional training might be a necessary step.

How important is education? A man with only a high school diploma is twice as likely to be out of work as a man who has …

3. Education gap

job seekers at a job fair

Job seekers look over job opening fliers. | David McNew/Getty Images

Education goes hand in hand with an expanded skill set. There is probably some overlap, in fact. But this is one of the more obvious hangups in the economy right now. Millions of men aren’t working because there’s an education barrier to well-paying, secure jobs. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, the less education you have, the slimmer your chances of climbing back into the labor force.

“A man with only a high school diploma is twice as likely to be out of work as a man who has a four-year college degree,” the brief said. “And, of the 9.3 million men between the ages of 25 and 50 who weren’t working last year, 1.7 million had a bachelor’s degree or higher, 2.3 million had some college or an associate’s degree, and 5.3 million had nothing beyond a high school degree.”

4. Unwilling to work in in-demand industries

nurse testing patient

A nurse takes a pulse. | iStock.com

Millions of men have been put out of work as the manufacturing sector has decayed over the years. In its place, other industries are growing. But evidently, working-age men aren’t interested in working them. Two examples would be the tech and health care industries, both of which are expanding and hiring workers left right. But these jobs require training and education. They also pay a lot more. So, what’s the problem?

One in 10 new nurses is male, according to industry figures. And it appears many men are unwilling to go into industries, such as nursing, (despite numerous opportunities and high pay) perhaps because they’re perceived as typically female roles.

Is Xbox to blame? …

5. Video games

A close-up of a young man's new tool, the Xbox controller

A young man’s new tool: the Xbox controller | Microsoft

It might seem silly, but there’s a correlation between non-working men and the popularity of video games. Basically, many men are staying at home and playing Xbox rather than getting a job. Now, it’s hard to criticize somebody for wanting to play Battlefield rather than sitting in a cubicle (or doing anything else) all day, but it’s an issue. A full 22% of men between 21 and 30 didn’t work in the previous year, according to a recent study. And many say it’s because they’re playing video games instead.

6. Disability insurance

doctor talking to a male patient in an exam room

Doctor talks to a patient. | iStock.com

The expansion of social safety nets, including disability insurance, is another thing blamed for keeping men away from the workforce. The numbers make it pretty clear, too. Over the past couple of decades, reliance on disability insurance has risen drastically.

A recent story from the Washington Post reports that “between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.”

This phenomenon is taking place in mostly — though not exclusively — rural, white communities.

7. Stay-at-home dads

father walking little daughter with backpack

A father walks his daughter to school. | iStock.com/Nadezhda1906

In a role-reversal from generations past, many men are now staying at home with kids while their wives become the breadwinner. This isn’t a bad thing. But there is a defining feature among the 2 million or so fathers who are staying at home: More than half of them are under the poverty line. According to a report from Pew Research Center, 23% of stay-at-home dads say they’re not working because they’re unable to find work, and 35% say it’s due to illness or disability.

8. Incarceration

A prison guard inside of a jail

A prison guard works inside of a jail. | Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The prison population and police state have expanded wildly over the years. And for those who have been caught up in the system, it’s keeping them out of the workforce. Millions of people have trouble getting jobs due to a criminal record, and many are missing out on jobs due to erroneous background checks. Ironically, this seems to be creating more crime than its preventing, as people who can’t find steady work turn to crime to put food on the table.

9. Poor health

A man fills a huge cup with soda

A man fills a huge cup with soda. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s been hinted at, but let’s call a spade a spade. Many men can’t work because they’re in such poor health. This isn’t exclusive to men, but it’s having a profound effect on the labor force participation rates among working-age men. According to Princeton economist Alan Krueger, health issues “are a substantial barrier to work that would have to be addressed to significantly reverse their downward trend in participation.”

10. Opioids

Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain

Oxycodone pain pills are prescribed for a patient with chronic pain. | John Moore/Getty Images

Drug use is another part of the puzzle. According to the Brookings Institution, “The use of pain medications, including opioids, among unemployed men is significantly higher than those who are employed. Forty percent of the men who aren’t working and aren’t actively looking for work report taking pain medication every day, compared to 20 percent of those in the workforce.”

Again, this isn’t something unique to men. But the opioid epidemic is hitting lower and middle-class whites (in economically devastated areas) harder than most.

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