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Men (Not) at Work

Research Suggests Rising Despair, Job Market Changes, Drugs Drive Labor Dropouts

By Chris Carroll

Illustration of jobless man looking through door

Illustration by iStock

Men ages 25 to 54 are increasingly dropping out of the labor force and report high levels of desperation, stress and anger, according to a new study from School of Public Policy researchers.

More and more men in the prime of their working lives are dropping out of the labor force around the world, a worrying trend that’s particularly strong in the United States, UMD School of Public Policy researchers have found.

Abandonment of the labor force coincides with an increase in “ill-being” among men ages 25 to 54, who report high levels of desperation, stress and anger, and have elevated rates of opioid abuse and suicide, according to the research published yesterday in IZA World of Labor.

“A key driver … is the decline in the status and wages of low-skilled labor,” wrote authors Carol Graham, Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland, and Sergio Pinto, a UMD doctoral student in public policy.

The trend has economic, social and political costs—especially in rich countries, where it’s most pronounced—and is likely to worsen, burdening social insurance systems like Social Security and Medicaid, the researchers said.

In the United States, mortality rates are rising primarily among non-college-educated white people as a result of suicide and substance abuse—so-called “deaths of despair” that were a focus of recent research by Graham, and highlighted in her 2017 book “Happiness for All? Unequal Lives and Hopes in Pursuit of the American Dream.”

Although white people on the lower end of the economic ladder face fewer objective barriers to economic success than their black or Hispanic peers, her research has shown they have far less hope for the future.

“I think this may have to do with African Americans and Hispanics having to deal with these issues over a longer period of time and building resilience as a result, whether it’s through strong extended families or church ties,” Graham said in an interview. “For blue-collar whites, there was a very strong belief about the individual work ethic—you don’t need government, anyone on welfare is lazy—and when their jobs went away, they didn’t have another narrative to fall back on.”

Although the trend extends around the globe, there are surprising differences in how it manifests from region to region. In Middle East countries, for instance, men who’ve dropped out of the labor force “are not particularly unhappy compared to the full-time employed, and have significantly higher levels of well-being than the unemployed” still looking for work, according to the report.

Institutional structures in the U.S. likely contribute to its high dropout rate, with low-skill laborers lacking collective bargaining power or employment with benefits compared to other developed economies, along with growing reliance on automation and skill-based technological change, they said.

Part of what led to the current crisis, Graham said, was failure to pay attention to how major population groups were faring, socially and psychologically, and respond—whether with job training or programs to help reduce drug abuse. That doesn’t mean guarding the position of working-class white people should be the overriding social priority, but the nation ignores such a sudden decline at its peril, she said.

“We’re in a space in this crisis that really hard to get out of,” she said. “If we’d been monitoring our nation’s psychological well-being as well as we monitor the GNP… we’d have had a warning indicator of people in distress.”






Schools & Departments:

School of Public Policy

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