Why Are Middle-Aged Men Missing From the Labor Market?

For the past five months Paul Rizzo, 38, has been delivering food and groceries through the DoorDash app. But he spent the first half of 2022 earning no paycheck at all — reflecting a surprising trend among middle-aged men.

After learning last Christmas that his job as an analyst at a hospital company was being automated, Mr. Rizzo chose to stay at home to care for his two young sons. His wife wanted to go back to work, and he was discouraged in his own career after more than a decade of corporate tumult and repeated disappointment. He thought he might be able to earn enough income on his investments to pull it off financially.

Mr. Rizzo’s decision to step away from employment during his prime working years hints at one of the biggest surprises in today’s job market: Hundreds of thousands of men in their late 30s and early 40s stopped working during the pandemic and have lingered on the labor market’s sidelines since. While Mr. Rizzo has recently returned to earning money, many men his age seem to be staying out of the work force altogether. They are an anomaly, as employment rates have rebounded more fully for women of the same age and for both younger and older men.

About 87 percent of men ages 35 to 44 were working as of October, down from 88.3 percent before the pandemic struck in 2020. The stubborn decline has spanned racial groups, but it has been most heavily concentrated among men who — like Mr. Rizzo — do not have a four-year college degree. The pullback comes despite the fact that wages are rising and job openings are plentiful, including in fields like truck driving and construction, where college degrees are not required and men tend to dominate.

Economists have not determined any single factor that is keeping men from returning to work. Instead, they attribute the trend to a cocktail of changing social norms around parenthood and marriage, shifting opportunities, and lingering scars of the 2008 to 2009 downturn — which cost many people in that age group jobs just as they were starting their careers.

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