The March jobs report released on Apr. 1 seemed like the best in years. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis released a statement noting that the four-month drop in the jobless rate, to 8.8 percent from 9.8 percent, was "its largest decline since 1984."
Behind the headlines, though, statistics on jobs are far less encouraging. Yes, job growth has picked up somewhat. Yet an equally important reason for the lower jobless rate is that many people, men in particular, have simply given up looking for work and are no longer counted among the unemployed. Some sit at home. Some have become homeless. Rather than paying taxes on labor income, they are drawing government benefits, or relying on family and friends for support.
Economists are concerned that the recovery will extend an ominous trend of disengagement for male workers that stretches back six decades. The share of American men aged 16 to 64 who are employed has fallen in a sawtooth pattern, from nearly 85 percent in the early 1950s to less than 65 percent now. As the chart above shows, the rate falls steeply in recessions and does not get back to its previous high in recoveries. (Women's employment-to-population ratio has trended higher over the years.)
The downward ratchet for men could be more severe this time because the slump has been worse. "I'm quite worried," says David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Absence from the labor market is bad for men, their families, the economy, and government finances, says Autor. "It's really a significant concern for a whole host of reasons," he says.
Some workers who might have done fine in a normal job market suffer a blow from a long-lasting recession from which they can't recover. They may lose skills and confidence. They may fall out of touch with friends and colleagues who could help them find jobs. The unluckiest may become homeless or addicted to drugs or alcohol, making it hard to reenter the labor force even when recovery comes.
Kimani Porter, 19, who lives with his mother and three younger brothers in Englewood, N.J., retains the hopefulness of youth. He wants a job and thinks he could do well: "I'm real talented," he says. But he was expelled from high school for fighting and then fired from a construction job with a relative because "I was being too lazy," he says. In the late 1990s, employers might have given him another chance. The jobless rate for black male teens was under 30 percent then, vs. over 40 percent in March. Now Porter applies for jobs and hears nothing.
It's not just the young who suffer. Christopher J. Lee, 55, of New Rochelle, N.Y., lost a $52,000-a-year job in corporate travel in July 2009 and hasn't found work since. His extended unemployment benefits run out this summer. "I've been sitting around and it's debilitating," he says. "It's not healthy for me. People were designed to work." A Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that many older workers who lose jobs never go back to work again. Of those aged 55-64 who were displaced from 2007 through 2009, 21 percent were out of the labor force as of January 2010. "I have heard some people say, 'It's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe people are just making voluntary decisions about work-life balance,'" says Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist for J.P. Morgan Securities. "In principle that's possible, but all of a sudden people wanted more work-life balance? I don't think so."
Typically the unemployment rate stays flat or even rises when the economy begins to recover. People reenter the labor force. If they don't find a job right away, they are counted among the unemployed. There is no flood of reentrants this time, at least not yet. The male labor force—those employed or seeking work—has actually shrunk 0.7 percent since the male unemployment rate peaked at 11.4 percent in October 2009. That's one reason the jobless rate for males was down to 9.3 percent in March.
One glimmer of good news for men: The number of males who are employed has rebounded more than the number of women employed since the trough of employment—up 2.1 percent, vs. 0.6 percent for women. Yet because men's employment fell so much further to start with, it is still off 5.6 percent from its late 2007 peak, vs. a 3.5 percent decline for women.
A tighter labor market would force employers to consider a wider range of candidates. Vibrant growth is hard to achieve, though. Autor favors more vocationally oriented "career academies" to serve students unlikely to go to college. For would-be employees such as Kimani Porter, that can't come too soon.
The bottom line: The effects of the "mancession" on the male American workforce will be felt well into the recovery as some men stay stuck in unemployment.