In the United States, the employment rate among prime working-age men (those between the ages of 25 and 54) has been falling for nearly half a century. The political economist Nicholas Eberstadt highlights this trend in a book published last year, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, and it is the focus of a recent Foreign Affairs article, “The Dignity Deficit,” by Arthur Brooks. Both Eberstadt and Brooks regard the decline in male employment as a national crisis. Brooks sees it as a “catastrophic failure.” And according to Eberstadt, it is “a problem so urgent, so immense that it should demand immediate attention and action.”
This article is the first of a two-part series. Part Two examines the United States' disappointing employment performance since 2000.
Although Brooks and Eberstadt are right to emphasize the value of paid work, they misdiagnose the nature and severity of the problem.
As Figure 1 shows, the employment rate among prime-age men was about 94 percent in the 1950s and 1960s. Since 1970 it has declined steadily, dropping to 85 percent as of 2016.
WHAT CAUSED THE CRISIS?
A key contributor to the decline in male employment, according to Eberstadt and Brooks, is the creation of new government benefits and expansion of some existing ones—disability benefits, unemployment insurance, food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, veterans benefits, and others. Working-age men who receive such benefits, or who live with someone who does, can make do without employment in a way their counterparts in the 1950s and the early 1960s couldn’t.
There are a number of other causes of shrinking male employment. From 1970 to the present, for instance, the employment rate of prime-age women jumped from 48 to 71 percent. Job competition from women has thus played a role in the decline. So has complementarity: today, more men can forgo employment because they have a wife, partner, or ex-partner with a paycheck. Automation, trade, the decline