Over the past two generations, America has suffered a quiet catastrophe: the collapse of work–for men. In the half-century between 1965 and 2015, work rates for the American male spiraled relentlessly downward, and an ominous “flight from work” commenced, with ever greater numbers of working-age men exiting the labor force. America is now home to a vast army of jobless men no longer even looking for work—more than 7 million between the ages of 25 and 54, the traditional prime of working life. (Work rates have fallen in recent years for women too, but the male work crisis has been under way much longer and is of greater magnitude.)
In 2015, the work rate (or employment-to-population ratio) for American males ages 25 to 54 was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, at the tail end of the Great Depression. If we were back at 1965 levels today, nearly 10 million additional men would have paying jobs.
The collapse of male work is due almost entirely to a flight out of the labor force—and that flight has on the whole been voluntary. The fact that only 1 in 7 prime-age men are not in the labor force points to a lack of jobs as the reason they are not working.
And just who are these “missing men” whose departure from the workforce has gone all but unnoticed by the rest of us? As one might imagine, a contingent of 7 million contains some of everybody, but certain groups are represented in bigger numbers: less educated men; never-married men and men without children at home; and African Americans. Yet there are also striking exceptions to these general trends: for example, foreign-born blacks are more likely to be in the workforce than native-born whites.
How to explain our nation’s “men without work” problem? Received wisdom holds this to be a consequence of structural changes in our economy: the decline of manufacturing; the rise of outsourcing and automation; slow growth; and all the rest. It is incontestable that such factors have played a prominent role. But there is clearly more at play in this saga than economic forces alone. Consider: America’s prime-male workforce participation has been declining at a virtually linear rate for half a century–a trajectory unaffected by good times or recessions.
In addition to the economic drivers of the “Men Without Work” problem, there is also what we might call the sociological dynamic: a no-work lifestyle for men is no longer an unthinkable option. Quite the contrary: for every prime-age man who is unemployed today, another three are neither working nor looking for work.
By and large, these unworking men are floated by other household members (wives, girlfriends, relatives) and by Uncle Sam. Government disability programs figure prominently in the calculus of support for unworking men—ever more prominently over time. According to Census Bureau data, nearly three-fifths (57%) of prime-male unworkers in 2013 were obtaining benefits from at least one disability program. No one can prove that disability programs have caused the male flight from work–but there is no doubt they are helping to finance it.
There is one other important piece to this puzzle, and it has to do with crime and punishment. Everyone knows that millions of criminal offenders today are behind bars–but few consider that many millions more are in the general population: ex-prisoners, probation cases and convicted felons who never served time. In all, America may now be home to over 20 million persons with a felony conviction in their past, and over 1 in 8 adult men. Men with a criminal history have much worse odds of being or staying in the labor force, regardless of their ethnicity or educational level. The explosive growth of our felon population, unfortunately, helps to explain some of the otherwise puzzling peculiarities of America’s male work crisis.
It is past time for America to recognize the collapse of work for men as the grave ill it truly is. The progressive detachment of so many adult American men from regular paid labor can only result in lower living standards, greater economic disparities and slower economic growth than we might otherwise expect. And the consequences are not just economic. The male exodus from work also undermines the traditional family dynamic, casting men into the role of dependents and encouraging sloth, idleness and vices perhaps more insidious.
Whether we choose to recognize it or not, the new “men without work” normal is inimical to the American tradition and the nation’s very ethos. We need to bring this crisis out of the shadows. As long as we allow it to remain invisible, we can expect it to continue, and even to worsen.
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.