The rise of the dependent working-age American man

Working-age men who are out of the labor force spend more time watching TV than doing chores.
Working-age men who are out of the labor force spend more time watching TV than doing chores.
Image: Reuters
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Men in the US don’t work as much as they used to. In the late 1950s and 60s, around 97% of men aged 25-54 worked or were looking for work. Today, less than 89% of them do.

People suggest all sorts of reasons for the decline, which has been greatest among men without high school degrees. Globalization and the automation of low-skilled jobs are most frequently cited as culprits. More recently, some researchers argue that the use of opioids and the availability of video games are contributors. An increasingly generous welfare state is also a likely factor. The slight growth in the number of stay-at-home dads accounts for very little of the change.

If they are not working, how do these men get by? Mostly, by relying on the kindness of family.

A recently released report by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group, found that of the nearly 12% of working-age men out of the labor market, the majority live with another adult. Many of these men aren’t doing so badly. The average family income of households with out-of-work men living with another adult is about $42,000 (in 2016 dollars)—below the national average, but significantly above the poverty threshold. With an average income of $12,500, long-term unemployed men who live alone fare much worse.

According to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, one of the authors of the study, the vast majority of these men live with their parents, while a smaller share live with spouses. Also, unlike the typical working-age woman without a job, these men don’t do a lot around the house. The vast majority of their time not spent working it taken up by watching TV, explained Glaeser on the economics podcast EconTalk.

Glaeser and his coauthors point out that the decline in employment among working-age men has been particularly stark in what they call the “eastern heartland”—the inland area that stretches from Mississippi to Michigan. They believe policies that target these areas with programs to encourage work may reverse the downward trend. Specifically, they suggest a large increase in the tax credit for people who have jobs could incentivize more people to look for work.