Five Million Men Are Still Missing From the U.S. Workforce

Prime-age employment has climbed back close to pre-pandemic levels, but is still far below that of past decades.

Illustration: George Wylesol for Bloomberg Businessweek
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After the wild ride of the past two years, employment among Americans in their prime working years, usually defined as age 25 through 54, is edging close to where it was before the pandemic. But for prime-age men—an estimated 86.1% of whom had jobs in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, vs. 86.5% in February 2020—that’s still quite low by historical standards. In the 1950s and ’60s, the prime-age male employment rate averaged 93.8%. If it were that high today, 4.9 million more men would have jobs.

About three-quarters of today’s nonemployed prime-age men are not in the labor force—that is, they’re not actively looking for work. Some are in school and others taking care of kids, but most appear to be missing from the labor force for less benign reasons that researchers put a lot of effort into understanding in the 2010s. Explanations fell into three main baskets: First, there are fewer job opportunities for the less educated, and for the growing numbers of formerly incarcerated men (those still behind bars aren’t counted in labor statistics). Second, health problems, including the opioid epidemic, have taken a toll. Finally, men may have less interest in work, for proposed reasons ranging from changing marriage prospects to increased reliance on disability insurance and other government programs to the improved quality of video games.

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Five Million Men Are Still Missing From the U.S. Workforce