We've heard a great deal this campaign year about the plight of the working class. The left tells a story about the middle class being destroyed by predatory millionaires and billionaires who are soaking up 99 percent of the "income gains" (as if national income were one giant Big Gulp and the 1 percent managed to nab the biggest straws).
Donald Trump tells a different story. The jobs that once provided a stable middle-class income have been outsourced. If people are unemployed, it's because the factories are all in Guangzhou or Juarez. Trump promises that he will bring those jobs back.
Of course, neither Trump nor anyone else can bring those manufacturing jobs back, because they weren't lost primarily to foreign competition. Manufacturing jobs (as opposed to manufacturing outputs, which continue to rise) have been in steep decline since 1947, mostly due to automation and efficiency. Service jobs have been increasing, and as AEI economist Mark Perry notes, the U.S. trade surplus in services vis a vis the rest of the world (including China, Japan, Mexico and the European Union) has shown a 450 percent increase since 2005 and continues to grow. (He winks: Are we "killing them" and "laughing at them"?)
You would imagine that if people were unemployed because the 1 percenters have hoarded all the wealth, or because foreigners have absconded with all the factories, the unemployed would express a desire to work. Yet a report from the president's Council of Economic Advisors finds that only 16 percent of prime age (25-54) men who were not in the labor force in 2015 said they would like to be working. Many are living off relatives and disability payments.
Most adults are in the labor force (88 percent of men and 75 percent of women). But particularly for men, the labor force participation rate has been declining steadily. It was close to 98 percent in 1955. As the CEA reports, non-work is associated with a host of troubles: "Job loss is connected to ... increased body weight. ... Unemployment is also associated with lower overall well-being and reported happiness. ... For parents, job loss is associated with negative consequences for children ... and increased reliance on Unemployment Insurance and social assistance in the long term."
So far, so good. The president's economists are identifying the worrying trends in non-work among lesser-educated men. These findings follow other scholarly work such as that by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who published a paper last fall showing that death rates among white, middle-aged Americans with high school educations have increased over the past 15 years, while the death rates for other ethnic groups have declined. Alcohol and drug poisoning lead the causes.
What the CEA does not grapple with is the fact that while men's employment rates and wages have been declining, women's have been increasing. Women's labor force participation rates have declined since 2001, but not nearly as much as men's. As David Autor and Melanie Wasserman of MIT have shown, except for high school dropouts, women at every level of education have seen their wages rise since 1979. But men in every category except college graduates have lost ground.
It's likely that the decline in brawny jobs, due to their automation, has hurt men more than women. But these trends have been very long term and don't explain why men have not been as adept as women in adjusting to changes in the jobs landscape. It also does not explain why women are outpacing men at every level of education from high school graduation on up. This is new.
In their report "Wayward Sons," Autor and Wasserman, unlike the president's CEA, have looked beyond the usual explanations (de-unionization, globalization, automation, immigration) for what ails American men and examined the biggest change of the past 50 years — family life. While growing up in single-parent homes handicaps both girls and boys, it's more devastating for boys. They lag in school, are less ambitious, and are less likely to be gainfully employed when they reach adulthood. A significant number also commit crimes and wind up in prison.
With more young men failing to thrive, the pool of marriageable men for young women to consider thus becomes smaller, and the pattern of women raising children without fathers is repeated in a pernicious spiral.
Unsurprisingly, the CEA offers Democratic Party boilerplate: infrastructure spending projects, expanding paid family leave, increasing the minimum wage and reforming the criminal justice system.
There is no silver bullet for a problem as complex as the fading fortunes of men. But every proposal should start with the question: Will this discourage or encourage family formation and stability? That, clearly, is key for men's well-being — which in turn affects women, and the next generation.