The unemployment rate today sits at 5 percent. That’s half of what it was at the height of the Great Recession. But some say that number hides darker truths about the American workforce, namely, a jobless epidemic among men. Last year, 20 million men of prime working age in the U.S. did not have paid employment. And seven million men between the ages of 25 and 55 are no longer looking for work. Though this trend has been growing for nearly half a century, many argue it hasn’t gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves. A look at why millions of men have left the workforce, and what can be done to bring them back.


  • Nicholas Eberstadt The Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy, American Enterprise Institute
  • Jared Bernstein Senior fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; former chief economist and economic policy adviser for Vice President Joe Biden
  • Susan Chira Senior correspondent and editor on gender issues, The New York Times


  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Fewer than 85 percent of American men are gainfully employed. That's a smaller percentage than in 1940 at the tail end of the Depression. A new book titled "Men Without Work" explores who these men are, why the dropped out of the workforce and how to bring them back. Nicholas Eberstadt, the book's author, joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:23

    MR. NICHOLAS EBERSTADTThanks so much for inviting me.

  • 11:07:24

    PAGEWe're also joined by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Thanks for being with us.

  • 11:07:30

    MR. JARED BERNSTEINMy pleasure.

  • 11:07:31

    PAGEAnd by phone from New York, New York Times reporter, Susan Chira. Welcome.

  • 11:07:35

    MS. SUSAN CHIRAThanks very much.

  • 11:07:36

    PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, it's 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at or leave us a message on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Nicholas, let's talk -- start by talking about your book. You find all these men out of work. Is this unusual?

  • 11:08:01

    EBERSTADTWell, it's kind of a quiet catastrophe. It's not new. In that sense, it's not unusual. It's a trend that's been going on for half a century. The employment population rates, what's called the work rate, and the labor force participation rate for guys have been going down for 50 years. If we had the same work rates that we had back in the mid '60s, we'd have almost 10 million more men with paid jobs today in America. Think how different that would be.

  • 11:08:33

    PAGE10 million men who are not working now who a quarter of a century ago would have been in the work force.

  • 11:08:39

    EBERSTADTYeah, yeah.

  • 11:08:40

    PAGESo tell us about who these men are. What are their demographic characteristics?

  • 11:08:44

    EBERSTADTWell, what has come to dominate the character of nonworking male America is the people who are out of the labor force altogether. There are now three times as many guys between the ages of 25 and 54 who are neither working nor looking for work as who are unemployed, without a job, and looking for work. So we've got this army of 7 million guys who are out of the labor force in this prime group. And 7 million guys, you're going to have pretty much some of everybody, but there are groups that are overrepresented.

  • 11:09:18

    EBERSTADTPeople with lower education are definitely overrepresented. Guys who are never married or don't have children at home are overrepresented. Native-born Americans are overrepresented and African Americans are overrepresented. Interestingly enough, among people of color, Latinos, Hispanics, have higher work rates and higher labor force participation rates than the national average.

  • 11:09:46

    PAGESo Jared, is this a problem? Should we be worried about this?

  • 11:09:49

    BERNSTEINUnquestionably. We should be worried about it for two reasons at least. One is that in our country particularly with fairly weak kind of safety nets, particularly for men who are disconnected from families, it's simply a matter of being able to make ends meet without a regular paycheck. Now, some of these guys are working off the books, but they have a real kind of micro economic problem, just getting by without work in America.

  • 11:10:17

    BERNSTEINThe other problem is a macro economic problem. One of the reasons our GDP is growing more slowly than we'd like it to is because the supply of labor, which is a key input into economic growth, has slowed considerably. Now, a good chunk of that and part of what Nick was describing, at least initially, is the fact that we have an aging workforce so there's lots of baby boomers who are retiring. That's kind of a legitimate problem, quite different from this prime age or 25 to 54 year old problem that we'll all be talking about.

  • 11:10:48

    BERNSTEINSo part of the decline in the labor force is expected. But when you're missing millions of people who could be contributing to the economy, that's a problem for them and it's a problem for overall growth.

  • 11:10:59

    PAGESusan, about a week ago, you had an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, "Men Need Help. Is Hillary Clinton the Answer?" Tell us how -- to what degree you think this trend of increasing number of men who are not employed, not in the workforce and disconnected some from the larger society in some ways, has that been a factor in the presidential election we've seen this year?

  • 11:11:21

    CHIRAOh, there's no question in my mind. And I think polls support that, too. I think -- I was very struck by Nick's book as I was thinking along the course of this election, obviously, it's become kind of cliché to talk about the angry white man who appears to be supporting Donald Trump and that translates in a poll sense into men largely without college education, many of whom are disproportionately represented among the men without work. But it's actually a much broader problem than that because it is not just white men.

  • 11:12:02

    CHIRAIt includes a number of African American men. It's not just men without college educations. But there is certainly a potent political dynamic where I think that men feel very much disempowered, disenfranchised, you know. They feel despairing. They feel angry. They feel dislocated. And that's a force in this election. But any president would face a much broader problem.

  • 11:12:30

    BERNSTEINSo I want to add a very important factual point right here in the discussion. It's not just men. All right. If you -- the long term trend, which is largely what Nick is writing about, is very much a men's story, but if you look since 2000, the women have also had very similar trends and in some cases, some comparisons for some groups, even worse. So I think it's really important to discuss the men in terms of the long term perspective, but not forget that this is just as much a gender problem, starting at around 2000.

  • 11:13:04

    EBERSTADTThis is something that Jared and I totally agree on. I mean, it is actually kinds of horrifying to look at what's happened since about the year 2000 to work rates for men and women in the United States. They have both gone down in kind of an eerie lockstep. As the economy has been growing, slower long term then in any period in post war history, and while wealth holdings for private wealth have been reaching new highs. So it's a very snaky time.

  • 11:13:33


  • 11:13:34

    CHIRAYes. I fully agree and in my article, which had to focus on men, I made that very point that, you know, John and Nick are raising. It's very important to remember that...

  • 11:13:44


  • 11:13:45

    CHIRA...women are -- I'm sorry, Jared. Pardon me. Are raising and I really feel we would be doing a disservice to limit it to men, but I do think that there is -- when you look at a large -- a wider array of data than employment, you also have a cluster of issues facing men that are disproportionate that Nick has raised and Jared, too, but you have the men who are disproportionately convicted of felonies and have trouble finding employment. You have health data that's worse for men than women. But I completely agree that we should not neglect the problem that affects both genders about employment.

  • 11:14:26


  • 11:14:26

    BERNSTEINWell, another interesting difference, according to a really great paper by economist Alan Krueger that recently came out and Susan wrote about this, is that men without work tend to be just a lot less happy than women without work. Now, I'm not saying that every -- women without a job is running around feeling great about it, but if you actually look at social wellbeing, not just health, but also how people feel about their lives, the men are just feeling a lot worse than some of the women.

  • 11:14:55

    PAGEWell, Susan, I know you write about gender issues for the New York Times. Is that because there's an expectation that men are going to provide for their families and so it's more of a kind of an assault on them psychologically than being out of work might be for a woman?

  • 11:15:09

    CHIRAAnd I think that's a really plausible explanation. I know that, you know, a great deal has changed and now women are in the workforce in so much bigger numbers. So I know that for women, it can be equally devastating, but I think there's a good argument to be made that traditionally in our society, men were seen as the provider. It was a very core definition of masculinity so psychologically I know it's very bruising.

  • 11:15:32


  • 11:15:34

    EBERSTADTIn my book, "Men Without Work," I spend one chapter looking at what do you call time use surveys, how do people spend their time from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to sleep. Men and women who are out of the labor force have characteristic differences and the picture of the guys is pretty dispiriting. Basically, prime age men who are out of the labor force don't do civil society. They don't do charitable work or at least they don't report doing it. They don't do volunteering, very little religious activity, very little helping out with children or others around the home.

  • 11:16:12

    EBERSTADTThere's a care chasm between women who are out of the workforce and men, what they do, what the men do is watch. They spend, like a full-time job, 2000 hours a year plus, with television, videos, internet, handheld devices. And add to this what Jared mentioned, the Alan Krueger paper showing that about half of these guys are on pain pills, and it's a pretty dispiriting picture.

  • 11:16:41

    PAGESo how do they -- if you're a man between 25 and 55 and you've basically dropped out of the workforce, how are you living?

  • 11:16:49

    EBERSTADTWell, according to government data from the census bureau and from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you're not earning much yourself, as Jared pointed out. There's probably a little bit of moonlighting, but I don't think people are making a fortune off of that. It's help from family and friends, from spouses, girlfriends, other relatives and to some degree, help from government programs. We probably will have a debate about how important the disability insurance program is in all of this.

  • 11:17:22

    EBERSTADTBut disability is part of that. Means tested benefits are part of that as well.

  • 11:17:27

    PAGENicholas Eberstadt, he's the author of a new book. It's titled "Men Without Work." And we're also joined by Jared Bernstein. He's a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, former chief economist and economic policy advisor for Vice President Joe Biden. And he's the author of "The Reconnection Agenda." And joining us by phone from New York, Susan Chira, senior correspondent and editor on gender issues for the New York Times.

  • 11:17:51

    PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. We'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Give us a call. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:02

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today filling in for Diane Rehm. We're joined this hour by Susan Chira from The New York Times, Jared Bernstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Nick Eberstadt, he's the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis."

  • 11:20:22

    PAGEHere's an email we've gotten. This person writes, I am a witness to a man of age 43 who is not working. He has a college degree in computer science, but he has a criminal background and he is on a Megan's Law list. It is impossible for him to get a job. I think he stays home and plays video games most of the time. I'm supporting this man and it is imminently irritating that he doesn't continually try to find employment or help around the house, at least. So this person sounds a little frustrated about that. But one of the things you write in your book, Nick, is about whether -- this huge number of Americans, and especially men, who have criminal records, and the problems that can create for them in getting work.

  • 11:21:00

    EBERSTADTI'm glad you mentioned that. In doing my homework for this book, "Men Without Work," the thing I was most shocked about was the lack of government information on people who have a criminal record in their background, a felony, prison time, whatever. It has been left to private-sector demographers to try to estimate this sort of stuff, because government doesn't do this. But roughly 20 million Americans are not behind bars at this point, but do have at least a felony in their biography. That's more than one in eight adult guys. And because the government, in its wisdom...

  • 11:21:41

    PAGENow that's an amazing -- one of eight...

  • 11:21:42

    EBERSTADTYeah. More than.

  • 11:21:43

    PAGE...American men...

  • 11:21:44


  • 11:21:44

    PAGE...have a criminal record.

  • 11:21:45

    EBERSTADTA felony at least in their background.

  • 11:21:48


  • 11:21:49

    EBERSTADTAnd the desperate problem is, when you've got such a huge proportion of our society with this sort of, you know, problem in their past and we don't collect any regular information about income or employment or what's working and what's not working and how we get people back to work, we're kind of flying on anecdote.

  • 11:22:11

    BERNSTEINSo I want to speak to both that point and the emailer, without thinking about retail advice to somebody I don't know, of course. This is a huge problem. By the way, the 20 million, which is an absolutely surprising and remarkably large number, I didn't think that those were all people with felonies. I thought those were all people with criminal records.

  • 11:22:31

    PAGESo some of them were just arrested and not convicted.

  • 11:22:33

    BERNSTEINThat's my understanding. Or they...

  • 11:22:34

    EBERSTADTThat's even bigger, if you (word?) .

  • 11:22:36

    BERNSTEINOh, okay. Well, you know, they may have been arrested and convicted, but not of a felony. In other words, it could be a lesser crime.

  • 11:22:42

    EBERSTADTThese are all -- I believe these were all felons or ex-prisoners. It's the combination of the two. It's -- not everybody has gone to prison though. Only about -- it's a much smaller group.

  • 11:22:51

    BERNSTEINSo there's no question in my mind that we have to weld public policy in such a way as to help these people get over the barriers they face and back into the labor market. Now I don't know if the guy in the email's not trying hard enough. But I do know that there are a lot of people with criminal records who could, who want to, who are able to make a contribution, but they're blocked because of their criminal records. And there's an ongoing set of policy ideas that could help them. I can talk about some of them.

  • 11:23:20

    BERNSTEINBut at least one of them would be to simply reform the criminal justice system, starting at the inflow level, right at the beginning. Because a lot of people are getting prosecuted for crimes that -- by which they end up with a criminal record that they don't deserve and that keeps them out of the labor market and not only screws up their life but their family lives. There's an idea called ban the box, which I actually think is a neat idea.

  • 11:23:44

    PAGEAnd that -- tell us what ban the box is.

  • 11:23:45

    BERNSTEINSo ban the box is saying, if you're being interviewed for a job and you have a criminal record, you don't have to reveal that in the very first part of the interview. So there's no box -- you're banning a box that says, do you have a criminal record? Check this. It doesn't say that the employer can't -- doesn't get to find that out. Because the employer should find that out at some point. But what happens too often is that because there's this check the box as opposed to ban the box -- yes, I have a criminal record -- a lot of these guys, and they are mostly guys, aren't getting past round one.

  • 11:24:15

    PAGEYeah. Here's an emailer from Thomas in Kalamazoo, Mich. He writes, I'm 50 and haven't really worked since the late '90s. Prior to that, I was mostly just a clerical temp. I get by because an older lady friend, sadly no children, some college but saw no direction there, have never taken government assistance of any kind. Sometimes I've been despondent, wondering if I'll ever make a mark or find fulfilling work. Nick, this sounds very much like...

  • 11:24:40


  • 11:24:41

    PAGE...the mindset...

  • 11:24:43


  • 11:24:44

    PAGE...the depressed mindset that a lot of these guys have.

  • 11:24:45

    EBERSTADTNo. I mean, that is a human version of the kind of statistical, impersonal presentation that I talk about in this book. It's -- and you have to think about just the humanity of this situation. It's not just the economics -- which Jared rightly described, the economic loss and the loss of human potential -- but the human suffering that's involved in this.

  • 11:25:14

    PAGESo, Susan, you've written about what the next president might do, what policies he or she might pursue that would try to address this problem. What are the policies that make sense to you? What could be done to try to address this problem?

  • 11:25:27

    CHIRAWell, I know that Jared and Nick have lots of good ideas on this too. I spoke to a wide range of economists, just to start brainstorming. I mean, most immediately, everyone -- both candidates agree that a very ambitious infrastructure allocations, which would provide jobs in construction and engineering and a whole bunch of other areas, as well as possibly help productivity, increase the efficiency of our transportation system and our road network, that's one that seems to have bipartisan support.

  • 11:26:03

    CHIRAThere are a number of other longer term questions that depend on where you fall on the conservative or liberal end of the spectrum. People are talking about minimum wage increases, although that can have other knock-on effects. People are talking about trying to look again about health insurance, to address some of the issues that Alan Krueger highlighted in his research. So obviously there's a raging debate right now about Obamacare and that is going to continue, but addressing the health concerns of men and women through expanded insurance in some way seems crucial.

  • 11:26:42

    CHIRAAnd as Jared pointed out, there had been a bipartisan impetus for some kind of sentencing changes in Congress, but it got stalled. And I think those are just some of the policies -- there are many more -- that need to be addressed by the next president.

  • 11:26:59

    BERNSTEINSo I just made a list of all the policies I think would help. I don't have to go through infrastructure, because Susan said it. I'm just going to tick off my list.

  • 11:27:06

    PAGEWhich has been a proposal of Hillary Clinton. She said in the first hundred days she would pursue a big infrastructure bill.

  • 11:27:10

    BERNSTEINAnd if you were to ask me -- and I think it'd be a good question -- what might be a likely policy that Hillary Clinton might be able to get over the...

  • 11:27:19

    PAGEYes. Let me ask you that.

  • 11:27:20


  • 11:27:20

    PAGEWhat would be a likely policy?

  • 11:27:21

    BERNSTEINI actually think infrastructure. Because it is -- there is some bipartisan energy for that. I mean, finding the pay for it is going to be tough. But I do think that's a possibility. But let me tick down my list of things that I think would help the problem that Nick and others are writing about. Apprenticeship programs work very well in some other countries, particularly Germany. We do very little of it. I think it's -- we should do a lot more. By the way, Hillary happens to have a plan for that as well.

  • 11:27:43

    PAGESo people could get trained for the skilled trades.

  • 11:27:45

    BERNSTEINEarn while you learn. Exactly. They don't just get trained, but they actually have a job where they're earning as they're learning. But then there's a whole retraining agenda, which has to be very sectoral. You can't just retrain people, you have to retrain them for existing jobs. One of my big arguments here -- and something Nick downweights in his book -- is the importance of the demand side of the equation, the job opportunities for these guys. Manufacturing policy, I think we could do more in that space. Criminal justice reform, we've alluded to.

  • 11:28:13

    BERNSTEINAnd here's one that's a little outside the box, direct job creation. I'd take a lot of these guys and I'd say, here's your job. Go to it.

  • 11:28:19

    PAGEYeah. Good luck getting that through -- funding for that through Congress.

  • 11:28:21

    BERNSTEINWell, we'll see.

  • 11:28:23

    PAGEYou know, Nick, one of the things you talk about in your book, "Men Without Work," is revising, revamping the disability programs that many of these men are getting payments from -- a somewhat controversial proposal. What do you think ought to be done?

  • 11:28:36

    EBERSTADTWell, in addition to the items that Jared's put on the table, let me put a couple -- two others in addition -- one other in addition to the disability insurance reform. Jared obviously is on the progressive side. I'm on the conservative side. But we're both in -- we both contribute to this book, "Men Without Work," because we see this as an important thing that you need to get everybody in America talking about and everybody has to agree that this is a big problem we need to address. And we're not going to get anywhere unless you've got a buy-in from all over the public square.

  • 11:29:09

    EBERSTADTSo in addition to what Jared's mentioned, I would mention somehow trying to revitalize business, and in particular smaller businesses, which have created so much of the jobs. Since 2007, we've had net business death in America, more closing than opening. That can't be good for the prospect. But disability reform. At this point in time, about three-fifths of the non -- of the unworking men, the non-labor force, prime-age men, report taking one or more disability -- government disability benefit. A million of the seven million are getting two or more of the disability benefits. We have these programs because people need them, because they're disabled people who need them.

  • 11:29:54

    EBERSTADTBut we also have programs that have unintended, perverse consequences which I think incentivize helplessness. I would like to see a disability reform that would move toward something like a work first principle.

  • 11:30:10

    PAGESo what do you think incentivizes helplessness? What provisions of these disability programs do that?

  • 11:30:16

    EBERSTADTWell, if we have -- if we do not have serious alternatives for training and education and serious incentives for job placement -- Jared will talk about job creation, I'll talk about job placement -- and also incentives for showing up at your job once you get them, you tend to incentivize helplessness. I would look back towards what happened 20 years ago with welfare reform for single mothers. It wasn't a perfect experiment, but it worked an awful lot better than many people thought it would.

  • 11:30:56

    BERNSTEINSo I think the question -- and this is an old argument...

  • 11:30:59


  • 11:30:59

    BERNSTEIN...going back I think to the Poor Laws of about 1650 in England. This is a very old argument. I think, one of the parts of Nick's book that I kind of objected to was this idea that they're -- that the problem is men fleeing work as opposed to work fleeing men, just not enough job opportunities. And so I think if you look at the lay of the land, the disability part of the equation -- which is real and problematic, no question -- explains less than 10 percent of the change in -- of this decline in labor force participation for these guys. Less than 10 percent. So that leaves over 90 percent of the explanation.

  • 11:31:40

    BERNSTEINBut here's another point. And actually, here is maybe the only one of the only positive things that have been said on this show today, I'm about to say. If you actually look at the employment rates of these guys, these prime-age guys, they fell, I don't know, 6, 7, maybe 8 percentage points in the Great Recession, really tanked. I mean this was a disaster. They've climbed back two-thirds of the way. Now, if you've listened to this discussion up to this point, you might think, well, they haven't climbed back at all. In fact, they've climbed back two-thirds of the way. They've, you know, maybe it was 6 points down and now they're 4 points back up. Now that's not enough and it's already year seven of the expansion, so I'd like to see more.

  • 11:32:18

    BERNSTEINBut they're trying to climb off the floor as labor demand increase, as there's more opportunities.

  • 11:32:25

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to the phones and talk to Daniel. He's calling us from Syracuse, N.Y. Daniel, thanks for holding on.

  • 11:32:35

    DANIELHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just had a comment about people in general. Everybody in the world is too politically correct or too whiney. They want to blame the government, boo-hoo-hoo. Suck it up and go do what you have to do to pay your bills and to support your families. Whether you're a man or a woman, get out there and get it done. I lost everything during the Great Recession. I lost my home. I lost my cars. I lost everything. I took a much, much, much lower paying job and bounced around several different employers. And I busted my butt and I put my head down and I worked hard and I got it all back. I'm sick of hearing people whine and complain about how things are so tough.

  • 11:33:25

    DANIELIf it's hard for you, do something about it. Don't sit around with your hands in your pockets waiting for the government to make it better for you. Get out there and do it.

  • 11:33:33

    PAGEDaniel, let me ask you, what kind of work are you doing now?

  • 11:33:37

    DANIELCurrently I'm a truck driver. I have done roofing. I've done demolition. I've been a janitor. I've been a welder. I've bounced all over the place doing all kinds of different things, whatever it took to put food in the refrigerator and clothes on my children's backs. And that's what people need to do today. Everybody today is too whiney. Boo-hoo-hoo. Times are tough. Suck it up and do it.

  • 11:34:00

    PAGEAll right, Daniel. Thanks so much for your call and congratulations on getting back on your feet. Susan Chira, let me let -- give you a chance to respond to what Daniel was saying.

  • 11:34:10

    CHIRAWell, I think it's a, you know, it's a very important point that, you know, that, as Nick points out, there are 7 million men who appear not to be looking. And, of course, the question is, are there jobs available, as Jared points out. But I was at a rally in Ambridge, Pa., a Trump rally. Ambridge is in a very depressed section of Western Pennsylvania. It used to be the hub of a thriving steel and energy industry. And I spoke with a number of men who were truly heartbroken and very, very concerned that they couldn't find jobs.

  • 11:34:51

    CHIRAI mean, I particularly was haunted by a talk I had with two men who were 61 years old, friends since high school. One had a college degree, one had a high school degree. But they are despairing of finding employment because they were recently laid off, and they're older, and they're not as physically able to take on certain jobs. So I think it's, you know, it -- I certainly sympathize with doing everything you can. But there is definitely a legitimate issue of demand.

  • 11:35:20

    BERNSTEINI mean, I've been in this debate for 35 years now. And I have concluded the following. If you think, kind of like Daniel, that it's all up to you and that, if you're failing, it's your fault, you're wrong. If you think, like the characteristic sort of liberal portraiture, that it has nothing to do with you and your effort doesn't matter at all, you're also wrong. Both sides are right. And I think that Nick makes an important contribution and his concerns about incentives are valid. But as Susan said, there's also this issue of job opportunity. And you have to think about both if you want to understand this.

  • 11:36:00


  • 11:36:01

    EBERSTADTYeah. If you look just at the stats, and obviously the stats don't have a human face, about one out of seven guys in this army of 7 million unworking men say that they are there because they can't find a job. That's not a small number. That's a lot of human beings. What you can also see, in addition to the big social forces, the big influence of education, the big influence of ethnicity, is indications of human agency. So, for example, when you look at the most disadvantaged guys, the guys without a high school diploma, married guys who are high school dropouts have the same labor force participation profile as college grads. So, in that case, marriage trumps -- pardon the verb -- trumps education.

  • 11:37:02

    EBERSTADTIf you take a look at married African-American guys, higher than whites -- race trumps, you know, race was trumped by a marriage.

  • 11:37:12

    PAGEWe're going to take another short break. And when we come back, we'll go back to the phones. We'll take more of your calls and questions. We'll talk about whether the experience in the United States is similar to that in other developed countries. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:02

    PAGEWelcome back, I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the exodus of millions of men from the workforce in America. We're joined by Nicholas Eberstadt, Jared Bernstein and Susan Chira. And we had a caller, Daniel, who talked about how he had lost everything during the great recession, he's gotten back by working as a janitor, as a truck driver, as any job he could get, and he said that others should just work harder. Here's one that -- here's a response that we got from an email that said that he should be careful working as a -- his work as a truck driver because that is a field that may go to automation.

  • 11:40:41

    PAGEWe know we've heard stories in the past couple days about a beer truck that when 100 miles to deliver beer with automated driving. To what degree does automation -- is automation a factor in the exodus of the kinds of jobs that these men might have?

  • 11:40:56

    EBERSTADTWell, I don't think it's a dominant factor. Oftentimes automization or technology and globalization, trade and trade policy, are linked together here. I think it's much more the latter than the former. We've had very large trade deficits in this country, and I think Susan was talking about a community that lost factory jobs, and certainly that's a very highly elevated issue in the current campaign.

  • 11:41:27

    EBERSTADTNow technology is an ongoing force, automation is an ongoing force. It's consistently disemployed people throughout history. But it also creates demand in other sectors. One of the problems we face in this case, though, is that those sectors demand more skill, they ask for more highly educated workers than a lot of these guys.

  • 11:41:45

    PAGELet's take another caller. We're going to go to Amy. She's calling us from Cleveland. Hi Amy.

  • 11:41:49

    AMYHi. I called to ask about maybe geographic differences in both the nature of the problem and the solutions. So calling from Ohio, both Southeast Ohio and around Cleveland, there's a high poverty rate, but Southeast Ohio is very rural, and Cleveland, of course, is urban. So I'd just like to hear them discuss differences in both the way that the problem works and then how we might differently solve the problem.

  • 11:42:12

    PAGEOh interesting. Nick, could you do a map of the United States and show great differences in the situation that men face in different places?

  • 11:42:21

    EBERSTADTYes, you could, and you actually could show increasing disparities at a statewide level. The disparities state by state have been steadily growing since the 1980s, and that's kind of strange to people who would think we have a national labor market because in economics one you learn that things are supposed to kind of seek their own level.

  • 11:42:42

    EBERSTADTIn my book "Men Without Work," I show a couple of very unusual cases, for example West Virginia, which has got the highest proportion of men not in the labor force in their prime working ages, is adjacent to Virginia and Maryland, which are two of the better states. Maine and New Hampshire, same sort of way. There's decreasing geographic mobility in the United States, and that's somehow linked to this.

  • 11:43:09

    PAGEJared, yes.

  • 11:43:12

    BERNSTEINYeah, the -- the differences have a lot to do with industries and occupations that are adding jobs versus ones that are losing them. So if you think about West Virginia and coal, not only is coal being hit by environmental concerns but also by the low prices of alternatives. And so if you look in the areas where these prime age men are climbing back, and as I mentioned you could actually see that in the data, it's a positive sign, it tends to be places where job creation is stronger, and that to me gets at the core of this issue that it's not just about the guys themselves, that's in the mix, the agency Nick's talking about, but it's the amount of opportunities they have, as well.

  • 11:43:56


  • 11:43:57

    CHIRAYes, I wanted to throw into this debate a provocative idea that Isabel Sawhill and Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution have surfaced, which is that the parts of the economy that have been growing have been the service economy and so-called HEAL jobs, health, education, administration, literacy, which have been disproportionately occupied by women. They're also called pink-collar jobs. So their argument is we have to destigmatize these and make men find them more appealing and not in some way emasculating. So I wanted to throw that into the conversation.

  • 11:44:28

    EBERSTADTWell maybe you don't call them pink-collar jobs, it would help.

  • 11:44:31


  • 11:44:31

    PAGEWell true, of course they also tend to be lower-paying jobs than what we used to think of as male jobs I the manufacturing sector.

  • 11:44:39

    CHIRAThat's exactly right, and some of them will not earn the wages that a manufacturing job would have, but they are growth sectors of the economy.

  • 11:44:48

    EBERSTADTI mean it is true that you take a guy, and you train him in meds and eds, so you take a guy who's coming out of a manufacturing, high-value-added job, and you train that guy to be able to service the MRI at the new health center, I mean, maybe it's not as great a job, but it's a good job, and again, this is what other countries are doing to try to deal with this problem much more so than we are.

  • 11:45:13

    PAGEWe have another job-seeker on the line, Nicholas, he's calling us from Florida. Nicholas, hi, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:45:20

    NICHOLASHi, thanks so much for taking my call. I am currently 19 years old. I have been looking for a job since I was 14. I only recently, within the last six months, obtained my first job. I literally catalogued every single place I applied, when I applied, who I talked with and all, and the place I currently have my job at, that was location number 747 that I searched at to get a job. So I don't honestly think it's just a matter of -- I mean, yes, some people might not be looking, but I also think it's a matter of there just don't seem to be enough people hiring.

  • 11:45:59

    NICHOLASNow granted I also am disabled by the fact of autism, which does not look good on an application, and I'm sure many others of the males who are not looking for or not currently employed may also be afflicted by that. But I just have a feeling there's just not enough jobs to go around, it seems, and even when there are, there always seems to be someone better qualified.

  • 11:46:24

    PAGESo Nicholas, let me ask you a question. So you got a job on your 747th try. Kudos to you for sticking in there to keep applying for jobs. Has it made a difference in your life, do you think, to have this job finally as a bagger at a grocery store?

  • 11:46:41

    NICHOLASAnd honestly it feels good to finally have something, even if it's hard work. It's a paycheck. It's money that I put towards paying myself through college since I did not have a college fund initially. It's something to say I've actually contributed something to life, but it also is extremely disparaging that it took that long and that many tries at so many places to even have someone give me the time of day, basically. Most places would not even call back.

  • 11:47:10

    PAGEYeah, you know, one thing I found in life is that your first job may be the hardest one to get because then you're in the workforce, and you prove yourself. So Nicholas, I hope that works out for you. We have an email from Charlie, who writes, I'm a 27-year-old male disabled with cardiomyopathy. I receive Social Security disability benefits, but I'd like to find part-time work. Can you give me some advice?

  • 11:47:30

    BERNSTEINWell I don't like to dole out retail advice to people I don't know, but Charlie, one thing to keep in mind is that you are allowed to work under the disability program for a certain amount of hours per month. I can't remember the number. Maybe Nick would. And the idea there is that there are people on disability who believe that if they work an hour, they're going to lose their check. That's not true.

  • 11:47:53

    BERNSTEINAnd in fact if I were thinking about public policy in this space, especially given the move from manufacturing or more physically oriented employment to more service-oriented employment, that's an area of DI, disability insurance, I'd try to ratchet up.

  • 11:48:07

    PAGELet's talk to Brent. He's calling us from Burlington, North Carolina. Hi Brent.

  • 11:48:10

    BRENTHi, good afternoon. Yeah, I was listening to your guest. I was -- I'm 42, and I spent from 20 years old to 32 in a penitentiary and the last six months I was...

  • 11:48:28

    PAGEBrent, are you there? I'm sorry we've lost him. I know from the -- from the note from the screener than Brent was in a work release program toward the end of his prison term and that it's worked out for him, but he's got to be the exception when it comes to somebody who spent how many years, 12 years, in prison.

  • 11:48:46

    EBERSTADTCan I just mention something about that?

  • 11:48:46

    PAGEYes, absolutely.

  • 11:48:47

    EBERSTADTOne of the things which I find really scandalous is that our government doesn't collect the sorts of information that would allow us to have evidence-based policies about what works on re-entry for people whose paid their debt to society. We're in the ironic situation where a lot of this -- the forefront in this area is in private business and big data, proprietary information.

  • 11:49:11

    EBERSTADTPlaces like Uber are -- have got very interesting experimental programs trying to figure out what sorts of drivers they can got who have got some sort of problem in their past, and thus far it's worked out really well.

  • 11:49:25

    PAGEYou know, here's two related emails. Susan, I'd like to get your reaction to this, an email from Mary, who is writing us from Ohio. What percentage of these men are now primary caregivers for young children or aging parents? Their partners earn more, and it makes sense for them to be the primary breadwinner. Similar note from Candace, who sends us an email. How about a shift in gender roles? My husband is no longer in the workforce because he stays at home caring for our five-month-old daughter.

  • 11:49:47

    PAGEI'm a woman, have a master's degree and have been the primary income earner in our home since graduating in 2009. Susan, to what degree is that a factor in this -- in this trend that we see?

  • 11:49:58

    CHIRAI think it's actually a very important point. I'd like to make two points, and one is to give credit to Nick Eberstadt because in his overview of a lot of the men who are not looking for work, almost -- very, very few of them were doing anything at home, either housework or caregiving, and clearly more should be done on that score. But in the broader sense about shift in gender roles, it seems to me really urgent that we allow men to fulfill roles as caregivers and that we allow men to feel rewarded and respected if they want to contribute to their families in that way.

  • 11:50:40

    CHIRAI mean, Hanna Rosen wrote a very interesting book called "The End of Men" in which she looked at shifts in gender roles where women who were better educated were playing a larger role.

  • 11:50:51

    BERNSTEINJust a quick comment there, totally agree with the points that the emailers and Susan made, but just a factual point here that I think is really important. A lot of the guys that we're talking about, a lot of guys who are not in the labor force, they don't have spouses, and they don't have kids. And in fact once you add a kid, and once you add a spouse, and once you add both a kid and a spouse, you actually find that their trend of labor force participation has been very consistent.

  • 11:51:19

    BERNSTEINThey're not the folks that have been dropping out, for the most part. So while such a shift as we've been describing would be I think a great advance for society and for women in particular, it's constrained in terms of solving the problem by the fact that a lot of these guys don't have kids or spouses.

  • 11:51:37

    EBERSTADTIf we could wave a magic wand and somehow strengthen American families, I think we would see a very different set of labor force participation profiles for men and a very different set of relations with men engaged with their children. The government can't wave that wand. The only people who can affect this are people in civil society.

  • 11:51:59

    PAGEWell, do men with children, more likely to work because they feel obliged to provide for their children or because there's something about having a child that makes you more energetic.

  • 11:52:08

    BERNSTEINOr makes you want to go to work.

  • 11:52:08

    PAGEMakes you want to go to work.

  • 11:52:12

    EBERSTADTIt's -- there's a lot of research that has been done on the way that family transforms people, both in terms of their economic behavior and also in terms of their outlook and motivations. So probably a little bit of both.

  • 11:52:28

    BERNSTEINWell let me just -- a quick point. You know what's a real problem here? Gender wage gaps, gender wage disparities. For a lot of people, if you just look at a man and a woman, they go to work, she earns 15, 20, 25 percent less than he does doing the same job, that's a real disincentive. Now that gender gap has been shrinking, and that's a very positive development in this space.

  • 11:52:47

    PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Jeri. She writes, my husband is 28 years old, a combat vet, he has a great job with the railroad, smart, hardworking, he's in college finally, but he wants a new job. We live in St. Louis. He's tried to apply at Anheuser-Busch. Because he doesn't hold a degree but has all the other qualifications, he is almost immediately denied. By not holding a college degree, you are almost doomed of any decent job. College is key, and without that you can say goodbye to any possibilities. Is that true? What do you think, Nick?

  • 11:53:21

    EBERSTADTWell -- Jared, do you want to go? Not -- college isn't for everybody, but skills definitely should be for everybody. And having a greater focus in our country and our society on augmentation of skills I think is going to be absolutely critical, especially given the future uncertainties.

  • 11:53:41

    PAGEYou know, we have several people who have emailed us, saying that you can't get training anymore on the job. Here's one, Karen, who is writing us from Indiana, says, why don't employers give men training? You could go to technical school and never get a job. Companies used to hire for the work ethic then train you. We've gotten several emails along those lines.

  • 11:53:56

    BERNSTEINI want to speak to this sort of suite of questions that's come up a little bit. First of all, it happens to be the case, I'm sure this number is going to surprise people, that two-thirds of the workforce is non-college-educated. So there are a majority of people out there who are working who don't have college degrees. That doesn't contradict the emailer's point. I mean, the skill demands of employers continue to ratchet up. So it's much better to have college access.

  • 11:54:20

    BERNSTEINBut this point about training, if you look at countries like Germany who have solved this problem relative to us, I don't mean that they don't have the problem, but they do much better with it, they do a lot more apprenticeships, training, sectoral training, meaning training workers specifically for existing jobs, and the government has to play a role in that.

  • 11:54:38

    BERNSTEINAnd there the U.S. is very much a laggard. We spend far, far less. Companies themselves aren't always going to do it, in part because they can't recoup the return on investment.

  • 11:54:47

    PAGEAnd you wrote, Jared, recently on your blog about the non-mystery of non-work Germany versus the United States. how is the experience of these two industrialized nations different?

  • 11:54:56

    BERNSTEINDo you mean Yeah, well, not only are they very different for men, but they're even more different for women. If you look at the work rates, the employment rates that Nick was talking about earlier, they've gone up considerably in Germany while they've been falling here, and they've gone up even more for women than for men. And it's just the point that I was making. I can be brief.

  • 11:55:16

    BERNSTEINIt's the investment in trying to solve this problem at a government level, at a union level, union coverage is really high in Germany compared to here, and at the level of the firm. They really try to do training, they invest in manufacturing, apprenticeships, and they even try to make sure that their businesses can be aggressive exporters to help their manufacturers.

  • 11:55:37

    PAGEWe're almost out of time. I want to read an email from Kelly, a skeptic, I think, of our conversation. Here's what Kelly writes. Something completely missed in this hand-wringing is the U.S. economy does just fine without the contribution of those millions, and the employers who could quickly change the situation don't want or need these people. Susan, what do you think?

  • 11:55:57

    CHIRAWell, I feel that's an overly sunny view myself. I mean, there's a lot of room for economic growth in the United States, and our productivity has slowed, and our job creation has slowed.

  • 11:56:10

    PAGEYeah, Nick, what do you think?

  • 11:56:13

    EBERSTADTIf you like the way the U.S. economy is working today, if you think that's great, then sure, but the problem is that this non-working-men problem is at the epicenter of so much that's sad and I think wrong in America today, the slow growth, the wealth disparities, too big government dependence, too big government debt, fragile families, low social mobility, weak civil society. We need to have a spotlight on this, and I think people from all over this political spectrum can come together and say this is a problem we've got to fix, or else it's going to get worse.

  • 11:56:48

    PAGELet me give you the last word, Jared.

  • 11:56:52

    BERNSTEINThere's a lot of pain out there, and I don't think we could ignore it. The economy, as I said, this gets back to my very first comment, the economy itself would do better if these guys could contribute, and they themselves would be a lot more happier. I very much disagree with the point that there's somehow too much government in the mix. I think if we're going to go the route of other countries who have really dealt with this problem, we're going to need more investment, not less.

  • 11:57:13

    PAGEJared Bernstein, Susan Chira, Nicholas Eberstadt, thanks so much for joining us this hour on the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 11:57:19

    CHIRAThank you, Susan.

  • 11:57:19

    EBERSTADTThank you.

  • 11:57:19

    BERNSTEINThank you.

  • 11:57:19

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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