Men Without Work

I have been promising a review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s very important book, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis. The book is relatively short at 216 pages, but it is packed with meaty facts and insights. One of the reasons I seldom read an actual physical book anymore is because I can highlight text and make notes in my Kindle app on my iPad and then find those notes and highlighted sections on my Amazon page for later review. I actually highlighted 36 pages with 22,000 words from this book to go back and review. And while I will be using a lot of quotes in this letter, I hope this simply spurs you to order the book and read it for yourself. The “invisible crisis” that the author is writing about is at the very center of our economic and political turmoil.

At its heart, the book is about the fact that there are some 10 million American men of prime working age (25 to 54) who have simply dropped out of the workforce, and the great majority of them have not only dropped out of the workforce, they have also dropped out from any commitments or responsibilities to society. It is not just the labor force they are not participating in; they are not participating in the normal ebb and flow of community life.

This is not a recent phenomenon. I used the following graph last week, but it is important to illustrate the point. Male participation in the civilian labor force has been steadily dropping for 60 years, through boom and bust years, periods of inflation and deflation, Republican and Democratic administrations and congressional control; the trend seems to be relentless – except that it has been accelerating since 2009.

The trend was in place long before automation began to really impact the manufacturing workforce or jobs began to shift to China and other countries with lower labor costs.

Further, this is not just about men not participating in the labor force. “Deaths of despair” among middle-aged white men are increasing at an alarming rate. What I find odd and even more disturbing is that this seems to be a uniquely American trend. This week’s issue of The Economist highlighted this problem with a great chart that compares the US and other developed countries. Quoting:

AMERICAN workers without college degrees have suffered financially for decades – as has been known for decades. More recent is the discovery that their woes might be deadly. In 2015 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two (married) scholars, reported that in the 20 years to 1998, the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans fell by about 2% a year. But between 1999 and 2013, deaths rose. The reversal was all the more striking because, in Europe, overall middle-age mortality continued to fall at the same 2% pace. By 2013 middle-aged white Americans were dying at twice the rate of similarly aged Swedes of all races (see chart). Suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse were to blame.

You might think that rising mortality is the flipside of falling incomes. Recent trends in median per-person income for households headed by white 50- to 54-year-olds mirror their mortality rate. Income rises in the 1990s and then falls in the 2000s, ending up roughly where it started. But split people out by education, and the reflection fades. The income of college graduates has followed a similar pattern (most of the surge in the value of a college education happened before 1990). But their mortality has steadily fallen. And deaths of despair are much rarer among blacks and Hispanics, whose incomes have been on similar paths.

Ms Case and Mr Deaton have now updated their work on these so-called “deaths of despair”. The results, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, are no happier. White middle-age mortality continued to rise in 2014 and 2015, contributing to a fall in life expectancy among the population as a whole. The trend transcends geography. It is found in almost every state, and in both cities and rural areas. The problem seems to be getting worse over time. Deaths from drugs, suicide and alcohol have risen in every five-year cohort of whites born since the 1940s. And in each group, ageing seems to have worse effects.

The authors suspect more amorphous, long-term forces are at work. The fundamental cause is still a familiar tale of economic malaise: trade and technological progress have snuffed out opportunities for the low-skilled, especially in manufacturing. But social changes are also in play. As economic life has become less secure, low-skilled white men have tended towards unstable cohabiting relationships rather than marriages. They have abandoned traditional communal religion in favour of churches that emphasise personal identity. And they have become more likely to stop working, or looking for work, entirely. The breakdown of family, community and clear structures of life, in favour of individual choice, has liberated many but left others who fail blaming themselves and feeling helpless and desperate. (Emphasis mine.)