The American Working Man Still Isn’t Working

Our Economic Recovery Has Left Many Behind

General Motors assembly workers picket during the United Auto Workers (UAW) national strike in Bowling Green, Kentucky, September 2019. REUTERS / Bryan Woolston

The United States is in the midst of its longest-ever economic recovery. It has been a slow climb out of the depths of the 2008–9 financial crisis, but the upward trend is now in its 11th year. American workers have seen 107 consecutive months of job growth, more than double the previous record, and the unemployment rate will soon reach its lowest level in over 50 years. However, there is one important economic indicator that still hasn’t rebounded to pre-crisis levels: the employment rate among prime-age men—that is, men between the ages of 25 and 54.

On the eve of the recession at the end of 2007, 12.8 percent of prime-age men didn’t have jobs. Now that figure stands at 13.7 percent. The headline unemployment rate for this group has fallen—from four percent to 3.1 percent—but only because many of these men have simply given up looking for work. When they stopped actively searching for jobs, they no longer qualified as “unemployed.” Instead, the government labeled them as “out of the labor force,” a designation that lowers the unemployment rate but is no less harmful to the economy.

The exodus of prime-age men from the workforce depresses overall workforce participation and swells the (already teeming) ranks of the non-employed. In total, 8.5 million men aged 25 to 54 are either unable to find a job or no longer looking for one. The costs of their non-participation go beyond lost wages and lower GDP, to a lack of dignity and life satisfaction—both of which, in turn, hurt the communities these non-employed men belong to.


Each time the market ebbs and flows, the labor force’s composition changes: new kinds of workers come in as others drop out. In times of plenty, certain people retire early or become stay-at-home parents. Others are drawn into the labor market, attracted by the larger supply of jobs and the prospects for higher pay. The same occurs during recessions, when some of the non-employed move into the market to make ends meet, even

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