The reality and myth of the decline in men’s employment

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the employment rate for prime-age men fell, while for women it rose dramatically. Since 2000, however, both have declined (and partially recovered) about equally. The recent pattern doesn’t point to a particular problem with men.

Men, apparently, are in trouble. In the 1950s and 1960s, typically around 94% of men ages 25 to 54 were working. But in the past 10 years, they averaged only around 84%. And the alarm bells are ringing: The Decline of Men. The Missing Men. Men at Work … or Not. The Nonworking Prime-Age Men. America’s Men Aren’t Working.

In a prior post, I looked at young men’s work and school patterns. There’s been all this talk of how they’re playing video games and living in their parents’ basements, and I wanted to get a better sense of the scope of the problem. I was genuinely surprised by what I saw, or, more to the point, didn’t see. When you look at men in their teens and early 20s, it just isn’t the case that they display a major new trend of idleness. Mostly, it’s just that the Great Recession really was a great recession.

However, heading into prime-age territory, I did see that there were worrying trends for men in their late 20s and early 30s. Their recent rise in idleness went beyond what we’ve seen before.

So for today’s post I wanted to take a closer look at prime-age men, defined as ages 25 to 54. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has employment-population ratios for this group going back to 1948. And as I was looking at that, I started focusing in on the similarities between men’s and women’s employment trends over the past 20 years. And I was again surprised.

There are three charts in the graphic below. The first shows the yearly employment-population ratios for both men and women ages 25 to 54 from 1948 to 2016. The main historical trends are immediately apparent. From the late-1940s through the late-1980s, women’s work rates rose spectacularly, particularly starting in the mid-1970s. They stalled in the early-1990s, but then crept up further, reaching their as-yet all-time high in 1999/2000.

Prime-age men, on the other hand, with various ups and downs, have been on a slow overall decline since the 1970s. They averaged around 94% working in the 1950s and 1960s, 91% in the 1970s, 88% in the 1980s and 1990s, 86% in the 2000s, and 83% in the 2010s.

But here’s the thing. Women’s employment has been declining since 2000 as well. You can see it more clearly in the middle chart, which zooms in on 2000 to 2016. Both men and women failed to reach their 2000 employment level in the period between recessions in the mid-2000s; both were hit hard by the Great Recession; and both have since made partial but not full recoveries, currently landing pretty close to their 2008 employment levels.

It’s the last chart that really shows it. I put men and women on the same scale, looking at both as a percentage of their 2000 employment levels. And there’s the story. Men and women were about equally affected by the early-2000s slowdown; men pulled ahead a bit in the subsequent housing-bubble recovery; then men were hit especially hard in the housing bust and financial collapse; men started recovering first; and now—and this is really the surprising point—for the past few years men and women have been making about equal progress along practically the same slope relative to their 2000 employment levels.

In short, that whole thing about how men have been experiencing a 21st century employment decline relative to women doesn’t seem to be actually, you know, true. Prime-age men are down from 2000, to be sure. But so are women, to basically the same degree.

(Note: The BLS has data through February of 2017, and I wanted to use the most recent data, so each year here goes from March of that year to February of the following year. So, for example, the 2016 numbers combine March 2016 to February 2017.)

I could see—maybe—telling a “recent decline of men” story around 2010 or 2011. Men were getting hit particularly hard then. But I really don’t understand how the employment numbers from 2012 to the present support that narrative. Yes, men are down. But so are women. We can tell all the stories we want about porn and drugs and marriage declines and video games, and how those things are sapping prime-age men’s will to work. But then we need to explain why women have been experiencing very similar declines since 2000. It seems likely that one should be looking for explanations that apply roughly equally to men and women.

Why the spotlight on men?

So, yes, I’m surprised. Given all the hype about declining men, this is not what I was expecting to see. While there is an essential reality to the hype—the percentage of prime-age men working has basically been declining since the 1970s—there’s also a big myth, in that the past 20 years have not seen an overall decline in men’s employment relative to women’s employment. Both have declined (and partially rebounded) to similar degrees, though the timing and scope of their hits from the Great Recession differed somewhat.

Which begs the question: What is it that makes so many people so eager to tell a men-only story about recent employment trends? I get why we tell separate stories about the second half of the 20th century—women’s employment was shooting up while men’s was creeping down. But what’s driving the 21st century narrative, when men and women are showing very similar trends?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, when we really don’t want to do anything to help struggling people, we often focus on some blame-worthy caricature. Perhaps uneducated, responsibility-avoiding men are the high-education liberal/libertarian analog to the right’s welfare queens—the narrative figures that suggest that the only urgent response warranted is vigorous finger-wagging. Or maybe that’s not it. I really don’t know.