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Out of Work, Out of the Loop

Although many male workers, particularly those who are less skilled, took a beating in the 1970s and '80s, conventional wisdom is that things turned around in the '90s. Indeed, by the end of the decade, male unemployment had fallen to a near-record low.

The problem, report Chinhui Juhn of the University of Houston and Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel of the University of Chicago, is that unemployment rates alone don't reflect how prime-aged males are doing in the labor market. They find that jobless rates fell sharply in the 1990s mainly because more men stopped looking for work and thus weren't counted as unemployed.

EASIER ELIGIBILITY. While men lost jobs less frequently in the '90s, those who did tended to remain out of a job longer. The economists estimate that some 40% of the growth in men no longer in the labor force reflected a rising number claiming to be ill or disabled -- a change that may reflect an easing of eligibility standards for disability benefits in the mid-1980s.

And though the real wages of low-skilled men finally rose in the last half of the '90s for the first time since the early 1970s, those increases apparently were too small to stem the rise in such men leaving the labor force. By Gene Koretz in New York

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