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Monday, July 31, 2006

Out of the Labor Force

More and more men are dropping out:

Men Not Working, and Not Wanting Just Any Job, by Louis Uchitelle And David Leonhardt, NY Times: Alan Beggerow has stopped looking for work. Laid off as a steelworker at 48, he taught math for a while at a community college. But when that ended, he could not find a job that, in his view, was neither demeaning nor underpaid.

So instead of heading to work, Mr. Beggerow, now 53, fills his days with diversions... He often stays up late and sleeps until 11 a.m. “I have come to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me,” he said. To make ends meet, he has tapped the equity in his home..., and he is drawing down the family’s savings, at the rate of $7,500 a year. ... His wife’s income helps them scrape by. “If things really get tight,” Mr. Beggerow said, “I might have to take a low-wage job, but I don’t want to do that.”

Millions of men like Mr. Beggerow — men in the prime of their lives, between 30 and 55 — have dropped out of regular work. They are turning down jobs they think beneath them or are unable to find work for which they are qualified, even as an expanding economy offers opportunities to work.

About 13 percent of American men in this age group are not working, up from 5 percent in the late 1960’s. The difference represents 4 million men who would be working today if the employment rate had remained where it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. Most of these missing men are, like Mr. Beggerow, former blue-collar workers with no more than a high school education. But their ranks are growing at all education and income levels. ...

Many of these men could find work if they had to, but with lower pay and fewer benefits than they once earned, and they have decided they prefer the alternative. It is a significant cultural shift from three decades ago, when men almost invariably went back into the work force after losing a job and were more often able to find a new one that met their needs.

“To be honest, I’m kind of looking for the home run,” said Christopher Priga, who is 54 and has not had steady work since he lost a job with a six-figure income as an electrical engineer at Xerox in 2002. “There’s no point in hitting for base hits,” he explained. “I’ve been down the road where I did all the things I was supposed to do, and the end result of that is nil.”

Instead, Mr. Priga supports himself by borrowing against the rising value of his Los Angeles home. Other men fall back on wives or family members. But the fastest growing source of help is a patchwork system of government support, the main one being federal disability insurance... The disability stipends range up to $1,000 a month and, after the first two years, Medicare kicks in, giving access to health insurance that for many missing men no longer comes with the low-wage jobs available to them.

No federal entitlement program is growing as quickly, with more than 6.5 million men and women now receiving monthly disability payments, up from 3 million in 1990. About 25 percent of the missing men are collecting this insurance.

The ailments that qualify them are usually real, like back pain, heart trouble or mental illness. But in some cases, the illnesses are not so serious that they would prevent people from working if a well-paying job with benefits were an option. The disability program, in turn, is an obstacle to working again. Taking a job holds the risk of demonstrating that one can earn a living and is thus no longer entitled to the monthly payments...

As a rule, out-of-work men are less educated than the population as a whole. Their numbers have grown sharply among black men and men who live in hard-hit industrial areas like Michigan, West Virginia and upstate New York, as well as those who live in rural states like Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The missing men are also more likely to live alone. Nearly 60 percent are divorced, separated, widowed or never married, up from 50 percent a decade earlier... Sometimes women who are working throw out men who are not, says Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. In any case, without a household to support, there is less pressure to work, and for men who fall behind on support payments, an incentive exists to work off the books — hiding employment — so that wages cannot be garnisheed.

“What happens to a lot of guys who become unmoored from family life, they become unmoored from everything,” Ms. Edin said. “They are just living without attachments and by the time they are 40 or 50 years old, the things that kept these men from falling away — family and community life — are gone.” ...

At the low end of the spectrum, men emerging from prison with felony records are not easily absorbed into steady employment. Hundreds of thousands of young men were jailed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, in a surge of convictions for drug-related crimes. As prisoners, they were not counted in the employment data; as ex-prisoners they are. They are now being freed in their 30’s and 40’s and are struggling to be hired. Roughly two million men in this group have prison records, according to a calculation by Richard Freeman and Harry J. Holzer, labor economists at Harvard and the Urban Institute, respectively. Many of these men do not find work because of their records. ...

Indeed, a larger share of working-age men are not working today than at almost any point in the last half-century, which raises the question of how they will get by as they age. They may be forced back to work after years of absence, they may fall into poverty, or they may be rescued by the government. ...

[T]he great majority of the missing men are out of the work force for months or years at a time rather than drifting in and out of jobs. There appears to have been no rise since the 1960’s in the percentage of men out of work for short periods, according to research by Chinhui Juhn, a University of Houston professor, and other economists. ...

Men ... neither working nor looking for a job, also have become more common in the popular culture, making the phenomenon more acceptable. On the television show “Seinfeld,” Cosmo Kramer, who did not work, and George Costanza, who regularly lost jobs, were beloved figures. ...

“Men don’t feel a need to be in a career, not as much as they once did,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Nor do men have the incentive they once had to pursue a career, not when employers are no longer committed to them.” ...

    Posted by on Monday, July 31, 2006 at 07:27 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (30)

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