By David Michael Newstead.
Nicholas Eberstadt’s recent book, Men Without Work, is a wealth of information that highlights how the percentage of working age men participating in the U.S. workforce has been steadily decreasing for decades. Eberstadt explores the scope of this phenomenon by the numbers and includes a range of charts and graphs without being hyperbolic or overtly political. Even so, his findings if accurate have widespread political, social, and economic implications that are already being felt.
How significant is this? On page 4, Eberstadt writes:
How big is the “men without work” problem today? Consider a single fact: in 2015, the work rate (or employment-to-population ratio) for American males ages twenty-five-to-fifty-four was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, which was at the tail end of the Great Depression.
He goes on to say:
Here, then, is the underlying contraction of economic life in America’s second Gilded Age: A period of what might at best be described as indifferent economic growth has somehow produced markedly more wealth for its wealth-holders and markedly less work for its workers.
More than anything, the book is a detailed examination about what factors are contributing to this decrease and, in a very limited sense, what could be done to address it. But there is no one single answer offered up nor can this decrease (according to the data) be attributed to increased immigration, women’s entry into the workforce, men going to school full-time, men retiring, or comparisons across industrialized countries. Instead, it seems to be a convergence of social and economic factors that may be impacting male-dominated industries first, but not exclusively. So, increased automation is one issue. Levels of educational attainment are another. But it gets more complicated when the role of race and felony convictions are added to the discussion. And Eberstadt spends considerable time on this subject.
If America’s felon population continued to grow at the same pace as the 2004-10 period, we would expect that total to surpass 23 million persons by the end of 2016 at the latest. America’s population of noninstitutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past will almost certainly exceed 20 million by the end of 2016 – and the current total for men within this group could now exceed 17 million, or 13 percent of all male adults in America.
At the end of the day, I believe that appreciating that our growing new class of men without work looks to be disproportionately composed of people with a tangled history of criminal justice system encounters will put us on a better path to dealing with their work problems, which also happens to be ours.