Many experts have blamed a poor job market, but new research indicates that an overlooked cause may be poor health.
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—John LaRue is having a tough time of it these days. He used to move things for people, advertising his services on Craigslist. But work slowed up, and he became homeless and started sleeping in his truck, until, that is, someone stole it.Now, he told me, he’s fighting alcoholism and his health is deteriorating from living on the streets. I met LaRue at a Social Security office outside of Charlotte, where he was hiding his belongings in the bushes because he didn’t have anywhere to keep them and wasn’t allowed to bring them inside. “I feel like there’s a cloud over my head,” he told me. “It’s just been one thing after another.”LaRue is one among many. In 1957, 97 percent of men in America ages 25 to 54 were either working or looking for work. Today, only 89 percent are. Italy is the only OECD country with a lower labor-force participation rate for men in their prime years. Just why there are so many men who aren’t working is a matter of debate. In a 2016 report, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers examined the declining labor-force participation rate and suggested that a drop-off in good jobs for low-skilled men was part of the explanation. Wages, the report theorized, are so low for many jobs that don’t require a college education that men don’t find it worth it to seek out bad jobs. A lack of job training and job-search assistance—when compared to other OECD countries—makes it more difficult for men to move into more lucrative fields. And a surge in incarceration has made it more difficult for men to find work when they leave prison, according to the report.
Conservative scholars have a different view. In his 2016 book, Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute put forward two arguments: First, that as social welfare programs have gotten more generous, they’ve lured men away from trying to find a job, and, second, that a large share of the men who are not working are ones with criminal records who have not been able to find a job, and have thus given up. To some degree, Eberstadt puts the blame on American men themselves. “It is impossible to imagine any earlier generation in which such a huge swath of prime-age men would voluntarily absent themselves from the workforce, living instead on the largesse of women they knew and taxpayers they did not,” he writes.
In all likelihood, men’s labor-force participation is declining because of a combination of the reasons mentioned above. But there’s another theory that deserves mentioning, especially because it fits with recent research about the declining health outcomes among American men. That theory suggests that American men are dropping out of the workforce because they are suffering from serious health conditions that make it difficult for them to work. As their health deteriorates, they’re getting on pain medications, which then make it even more difficult to re-enter the workforce.