1948: The last time this many men weren’t working

by Ryan Streeter on May 31, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

I’m a little late on this one, but if you missed it, be sure to read Peter Whoriskey’s article in the Post from yesterday.

It’s about the employment-to-population ratio, which I’ve written about before and have suggested is a more important gauge for how our economy is doing than the unemployment numbers. Whoriskey writes about how the ratio – the percentage of prime age adults who are engaged in work – is disturbingly low.

He cites an important reason why:

During their prime years, Americans are supposed to be building careers and wealth to prepare for their retirement. Instead, as the indicator reveals, huge numbers are on the sidelines.

The “supposed to be” is the important line here. The longer young people go without advancing along a career path, the harder it is to make up those lost earnings and experience later. This is bad for them and for the future children then hope to have. In fact, they’ll likely not have as many children as a result.

He goes on:

The falloff has been sharpest for men, for whom the proportion had been on a slow decline before the recession. The percentage of prime-age men who are working is smaller now than it has been in any time before the recession, going all the way back to 1948, according to federal statistics. The proportion of prime-age women is at a low not seen since 1988. (emphasis added)

Things were already getting worse for men before the economic downturn, and the recession simply made every bad thing worse. Now, I know there’s an argument out there that fewer men working because their female wives or partners are doing more of the work, freeing them up to do more around the house, with the kids, etc. There’s surely some truth to this, but I think the problem on the other side of the ledger is far worse than whatever lifestyle gains some share is enjoying. These are years when earned success, in Arthur Brooks’ terms, matters a whole heck of a lot, and too many men are in a long trend where they’re not enjoying that kind of success, which simply makes it harder later.

Also, one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers and bloggers who comment on these trends seem only to consult statistics and each others’ arguments. Not too many write about interviews they have done with employers, presumably because they don’t talk to many employers. If they did, as I do fairly regularly, they’d find out that a common, recurring theme among business owners is that they find plenty of under-qualified young men and not enough qualified ones. It’s amazing how in a stinky economy, you’ve got employers all over the place looking for workers and not hiring because of worker quality.

This disjunction between supply and demand strongly suggests that our employment-to-population ratios are driven to some degree by poor habits, under-performing educational institutions, and dysfunctional families. Blame banks and “the economy” all you want. Something else is going on.

  • Craig Applegate

    Hi Ryan, I think you are very right in your assessment of that article from the Post. Its really is very scary for me to see so many of my friends and other young people blame and complain. They see their problems and lack of solutions to those problems as being someone elses responsibility.

    What happened to rugged individualism in America?