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young men. labor force participation. unemployment.What’s wrong with American men? It’s been a popular question since the Great Recession decimated the economy, delaying retirement, derailing careers, and destroying lives.

A decade into the recovery and labor participation rates—people who are employed or actively seeking work—still hasn’t recovered among men under 55.  A slew of media reports have attempted to explain the problem. These men are young. In their prime, we are told. And they’re getting left behind, while women and their older counterparts get ahead.

A Lost Generation?

The question vexes economists because we have no answers. Only speculation. But certainty creates clicks, so journalists wring their hands and fret over a “lost generation” of young, obviously white men. Men like Nathan Butcher, 25. Tired of working for minimum wage, he quit his job at a pizzeria last summer, according to Bloomberg.

“He wants new employment but won’t take a gig he’ll hate,” the publication glibly noted, as it mimicked millennial stereotypes.

For now, men like Butcher are distracted by video games. (Their theory, not mine) But America should be worried about its young white men, according to The Atlantic, which painted a bleak future of economic uncertainty and Trump-like xenophobia. An apocalyptic vision, sure. But is it likely?

As with most things, the answer depends on who’s doing the asking and how they frame the question. Bloomberg notes that 500,000 men ages 25-34 are missing from the labor force and it isn’t sure why. Although it mentions high rates of incarceration and opioid abuse among men, Bloomberg doesn’t really explains the implications of these problems and never once mentions race.

Bloomberg assures us that prime age women aren’t a problem. However, young women have also been dropping from the workforce for more than 20 years, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women also make up the majority of minimum wage workers in every state except Delaware. These women are often employed in positions traditionally considered to be “women’s work,” such as maids, housekeepers, and home care aids, according to a report by Oxfam America, in partnership with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Despite low wages, few benefits, and irregular hours, these jobs are expected to increase at 1.5 times the rate of other jobs through 2024, trapping women and children in a vicious cycle of poverty. The face of American poverty belongs to women and children, but how many news outlets predict the apocalypse after reading the reports?

By The Numbers

As usual, I’ll try to add a little reality to the lurid headlines. From 1996 to 2016, labor participation rose among Americans over the age of 55, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employment Participation, 1996-2016
All races and ethnicities, 55+

Men +8%
Women +11%

During the same period of time, labor participation rates fell for men and women under the age of 55.

After the Great Recession, as young women dropped out of the workforce, it was widely touted as evidence of a recovering economy because, of course, these women must be choosing the role of stay-at-home mother. However, from 1996-2006, more young men dropped out of the workforce than young women, except for ages 35-44.

Employment Participation, 1996-2016
All races and ethnicities, 55+

Age Women Men
25-54 -1.8% -3.3%
25-34 -0.7% -4.4%
35-44 -3.0% -1.8%
45-54 -1.5% -2.8%

When we look at labor participation by race, we see the same pattern among white and black men. During that 20 year period, white men dropped out of the labor force at more than twice the rate of white women.

  White      Men   White      Women
   -6%     -2.8%

This disparity is even more extreme in the black community, which has been subject to mass incarceration for decades. However, a higher percentage of white men dropped out of the labor force than black men.

  Black        Men  Black           Women
  -4.6%     -1%

Interestingly, labor participation fell 3.6% among Hispanic men and rose 2.4% among Hispanic women, while Asian women dropped out of the labor force at higher rates than Asian men.

Apocalypse Now?

There are a variety of explanations for the drop in labor force participation by prime age Americans, including college and vocational school attendance, work/life imbalance, and sky high childcare costs. U.S. drug policy may partly to blame, according to a report by Goldman Sachs.

The labor participation rate among prime age men in America is 3% lower than other developed countries, and 7% lower than Japan, according to the report, which said the gap can be partly explained by widespread opioid abuse, mass incarceration, and the difficulty finding a job with a felony conviction.

Since Pres. Ronald Reagan declared “War on Drugs” in 1982, the prison population has grown substantially. Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, according to statistics from the NAACP:

  • From 1980 to 2015, the number of Americans incarcerated increased from 500,000 to more than 2.2 million.
  • 2.7% of the adult population is in some phase of correctional supervision.
  • Black people are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.
  • Black women are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of white women.
  • The incarcerated population would drop by nearly 40% if the black and Hispanic people were incarcerated at the same rate as white Americans.

Unlike mass incarceration, prescription drug abuse disproportionately impacts white Americans. Prescription drug abuse has plagued white communities since the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved OxyContin as a minimally addictive pain killer. White patients were granted disproportionate access to prescription pain killers, which were marketed to white professionals and widely prescribed in white states. In 2016, 79% of people who died from opioid overdose were white, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Other analyses point to the skills gap, a gap between the skills people have and the ones they need. Didem Tüzemen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, studied two decades of statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. From 1996-2006, demand rose for high-skill and low-skill labor but shrunk for middle-skill occupations, Tüzemen told Ten Magazine, which is published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

In the face of rapid technological change, getting prime-age men back into the labor force may require equipping them with new skills, Tüzemen concluded.

I don’t know whether young men are distracted by video games, trapped by addiction, or simply in need of job training. No one does. But one thing is clear. Inflammatory, sexist narratives that erase people of color—when white men drop out of the labor force it’s the apocalypse, when white women drop out, it’s natural because childbearing—do little to solve the real problems: poverty, gender discrimination, and systemic racism.

In America, approximately 1 in 6 children don’t regularly have enough to eat. Women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups, and the black unemployment rate is nearly twice as high white unemployment. Our president is a white supremacist and his right-wing megaphone loves it. The problem with American men? White male employment is the only number that matters.

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About Penelope Strange