Prime-Age Males Not In The Labor Force: Some Patterns

Being "in the labor force," in the economics jargon, refers either to having a job or being unemployed and looking for work. Conversely, being "out of the labor force" means both not having a job and not looking for work.

Sculpture, Art, Breadline, Bronze, Depression, 1930

Image Source: Pixabay

In the US economy, it used to be that almost all "prime-age" men in the 25-54 age group were in the labor force, but the share out of the labor force has been rising for decades. Here's the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Why are prime-age men more likely to be out of the labor force? Notice that the shift has been happening for more than a half-century, so one either needs a big-picture explanation that applies over this entire time period or a series of short-run explanations that all happen to be running in the same direction.  Donna S. Rothstein of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics provides an overview of the arguments along with some new evidence in "Male prime-age nonworkers: evidence from the NLSY97" (Monthly Labor Review, December 2020). Here is her rapid-fire overview of some of the recent research seeking explanations for the decline (footnotes with citations omitted here, but available at the link). 

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