Why Are So Many Men Leaving the Workforce?

Last week, CNN featured a story called “Men are dropping out of the workforce. Here’s why” The article went on to tell us virtually nothing at all about why so many men are leaving the workforce. Although as many as seven million men have stayed out of the workforce for varying reasons, the CNN piece was really about how more women are joining the workforce, and how wonderful it is that more women are working in “male dominated” fields. The fact that more women are joining the workforce, however, tells us nothing about why men are leaving. Indeed, the CNN piece offered only one reason to answer why men are leaving the workforce: they’re becoming stay-at-home dads.

That category, however, is fairly small and numbers only in the hundreds of thousands. That leaves us wondering why millions of men have left the workforce for reasons other than raising children. If we look deeper into the available information on the question, the reality appears to be a lot less rosy than CNN’s suggested reason of “their wives are so doggone successful, these men decided to stay home and raise the kids.” 

Instead, the reasons driving the lion’s share of missing men to leave the workforce appear to be illness, drug addiction, a perceived lack of well-paying jobs, government welfare, and the decline of marriage. None of these are reasons to celebrate, and few of these reasons lend themselves to any quick fixes through changes in law or policy. 

As I noted earlier this month, there are at least six million men of “prime age” (age 25-54) who are out of the workforce for various reasons. Historically, this number has been getting larger at a rate faster than growth of total men in that age group. That is, fewer than 3 percent of prime-age men were “not in the workforce” in the late 1970s, but 5.6 percent of men in this group were out of the labor force in 2022. That translates into approximately 7.1 million men according to the Census Bureau’s count of men “not in labor force.” 

We could contrast this with the proportion of women who are not in the labor force. Fewer prime-age women today are out of the labor force than was the case in the late 1970s. Women tend to remain out of the labor force in much larger numbers of men, so we find that in 2022, the total number of women out of the labor force is approximately 15 million. That number is smaller than what was common in the late 1970’s, however. As more women have joined the labor force over the past 40 years, more men have left. 

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