Ending high male unemployment means thinking in new ways about education, global trade and the meaning of success.
In an economy booming by the traditional measures of surging stock values and rock-bottom unemployment, a key indicator continues to flash red: 18% of men aged 25 to 54 don’t have full-time work. That’s a vast improvement over the 25% who were idle or working only part-time in 2010. But by pre-Great Recession standards, the present resembles the bottom of a downturn, underperforming the worst points in either the 1990-91 or 2001 recessions.
Men without work harm themselves, their families and society broadly. The unemployed experience substantially worse health and lower life satisfaction, and they face diminished future economic prospects. They are more likely to use drugs and commit crime. For men especially, unemployment raises dramatically the likelihood of divorce and reduces the likelihood of family formation in the first place.
A recent paper in the American Economic Review found that, from 1990 to 2014, regions facing greater competition from imports not only lost more jobs than other regions but also saw serious effects in the “marriage market.” As the authors summarized, such economic shocks “heighten male idleness and premature mortality, and raise the share of mothers who are unwed and the share of children living in below-poverty, single-headed households.”
What explains the failure of prime-age men to work? On the one hand, as liberals tend to emphasize, the problem seems plainly economic: A dysfunctional labor market is failing to employ them. If better opportunities were available, men would presumably take them. On the other hand, as conservatives usually stress, a cultural shift seems to have occurred. With the official unemployment rate at a 50-year low and anyone who wants a job generally able to get one, voluntary idleness might say more about the men than the market. Some combination of changed attitudes toward work, lowered societal expectations and more appealing alternatives are leading men to make different choices than they once would have.
But the economic and cultural narratives aren’t mutually exclusive. There is no inconsistency in arguing that men would be more likely to work and lead responsible lives if they felt greater cultural pressure to do so and if their available opportunities were more rewarding.
These complex intersecting forces defy easy analysis, which has led some to conclude that meaningful intervention is impossible. But the task of policy is not to bring all societal forces into harmonious alignment. It is to identify factors susceptible to change and capable of altering the balance.
Consider education. The American obsession with higher education helped to transform our high schools into college-prep academies and steers more than $150 billion in annual subsidies toward campuses. Yet fewer than one in five young Americans move smoothly from high school to college to career. Most never earn even a two-year degree. In terms of educational achievement, men are falling behind further and faster.
An education system ill-suited to the needs and abilities of most men is not the cause of all their problems. Opportunities still remain, and people beginning from difficult circumstances still achieve all manner of success. But just as certainly, better outcomes would be possible if the system gave as much emphasis to equipping someone with marketable skills and helping him find the foothold of a first job as it does to enrolling him in a college that he will never complete. What if, instead of spending $10,000 a year on supporting the economic “winners” who can run the higher-ed gauntlet, taxpayers focused that largess on less-educated workers and the employers who might hire and train them?
In addition to improving economic opportunities directly, prioritizing noncollege pathways would act on the culture. It would shift society’s definition of “success” away from the odds-defying accomplishment of landing a six-figure job and toward contributing productively to a community and supporting a family. And its effects would ripple. A larger pool of skilled, if less formally educated, workers would make businesses that employ such workers relatively more attractive to build.
The same logic applies to organized labor. Our sclerotic labor system, built in the 1930s, has long outlived its usefulness—most workers, including those in unions, say they’d prefer an alternative. Workers could still benefit from some system that allows them a collective voice in determining the terms and conditions of their employment. Organized labor, functioning well, would also provide a social institution able to help prospective workers join the labor force and lend them support once there. European-style works councils, for instance, allow workers and management to collaborate without the hyper-adversarialism of big labor’s organizing campaigns and strikes.
Globalization cannot escape scrutiny either. America’s enormous trade deficit reflects domestic demand met by foreign workers, with no commensurate increase in opportunities for domestic workers to produce for export. Policy makers have the power to dampen unbalanced trading relationships and deter policies in other countries that make offshoring artificially cheap, just as they can reduce the flow of less-skilled foreign workers into the labor market. Some goods and services would become more expensive, at least in the short run, but that tradeoff is one a nation might thoughtfully make.
U.S. business leaders enthuse about the power of private-sector competition and innovation to overcome any challenge—except when that challenge is meeting their labor needs with American workers. But if some of the energy dedicated so successfully to generating enormous profit by avoiding American workers found an outlet in using productively the workers already here, available opportunities would improve for men on the sidelines. Nor would it hurt to have a public philosophy that treated less-educated men and their jobs as indispensable to the nation’s prosperity, rather than as a social and economic burden.
An economy that underemploys nearly one in five prime-age men is failing in one of its primary roles. That the culture might make its task harder is no excuse.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal (paywall)