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

Paul Rizzo with wife Tiffany and sons Chase and Ryder outside their home in Kenner, La., on Nov. 28, 2022. (Emily Kask/The New York Times)

For the past five months, Paul Rizzo, 38, has been delivering groceries and groceries through the DoorDash app. But he spent the first half of 2022 without a paycheck – reflecting a surprising trend among middle-aged men.

After learning that her job as an analyst at a hospital company was being automated last Christmas, Rizzo chose to stay home to care for her two young sons. His wife wanted to go back to work, and he was discouraged in his career after more than a decade of corporate turmoil and repeated disappointment. He thought he could get a good financial return on his investments.

Rizzo’s decision to walk away from work during his prime working years points to one of the biggest surprises in today’s job market: Hundreds of thousands of men in their 30s and early 40s stopped working during the pandemic and have been on the fringes of the labor market ever since. . Although Rizzo has recently returned to earning money, many men his age seem to be out of the workforce altogether. These are anomalies, as employment rates have increased more fully for women of the same age and for both young and old men.

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About 89.7% of men aged 35-44 were working or looking for work as of November, up from 90.9% before the pandemic. The group’s employment rate showed signs of picking up again last month, but has been unusually depressed on average over the past year.

The decline in labor force participation among middle-aged men cut across racial groups, but it was most concentrated among men like Rizzo without a four-year college degree. The retreat is taking place in male-dominated fields such as trucking and construction, where college degrees are not required, despite higher wages and more jobs.

Economists have not identified any factors that prevent men from returning to work. Instead, they attribute the trend to changing social norms around parenthood and marriage, the changing possibilities of the 2008-09 crisis and the lingering scars that cost many people in that age group when they started their careers.

“Now all of a sudden you’re putting your life together and if you’re in the wrong industry…” Rizzo said when discussing his recent labor market experience. “I wasn’t the only one who left school. I can tell you that.”

Men have been dropping out of the workforce for decades. In the years after World War II, more than 97% of men in their prime working years, defined by economists as 25 to 54, were working or actively looking for work, according to federal data. However, starting in the 1960s, this share began to fall, reflecting the decline in domestic manufacturing jobs.

What’s new is that a small demographic — men early in their careers during the 2008 recession — seems to have been hit the hardest.

“I think there are a lot of disheartened people out there,” said Jane Oates, a former Labor Department official who now heads WorkingNation, a nonprofit focused on workforce development.

During the 2008 financial crisis, men lost their jobs in staggering numbers as the construction and homebuilding industries contracted. It took years to recover this ground; Employment rates for men in their 20s and early 30s who were just starting their careers never fully recovered.

Economists have offered a number of explanations for men’s slow return to the workforce. After the crackdown on crime in the 1980s and 1990s, more men had criminal records that made it difficult to find work. The rise of opioid addiction has left others out. Video games had improved in quality, so staying at home could be more appealing. And the decline of nuclear family units may diminish the traditional male role as economic provider.

Now recent history is repeating itself – but for a certain age group. The question is why men aged 35-44 are more likely to be out of work and out of the job search than other demographics.

Patricia Blumenauer, vice president of information and operations at Philadelphia Works, a workforce development agency, said she has seen a decline in the number of men in this age range coming for services. Disproportionately high share of non-hiring leavers.

Blumenauer said the age range is a group we “don’t see.” He thinks some men who lost their blue-collar jobs at the start of the pandemic may be looking for comfort and something higher paying. “The ability to work from home three days a week or have a four-day weekend—things that other jobs take for granted—is not possible for these types of professions.”

When men can’t find or compete for these flexible jobs, Blumenauer said, they may choose to make ends meet by staying with relatives or working under the table.

Economist Ariel Binder said the pandemic likely slowed America’s already weak family formation, giving single or childless men less incentive to settle into steady jobs. On the other hand, interruptions in schooling and childcare meant that some men who already had families may have stopped paid work to do more housework.

“So on the one hand, you get these men who don’t expect to be in a stable romantic relationship for most of their lives, and they schedule their time around that,” Binder said. “Then there are men who participate in these family structures but do so in unconventional ways.”

Like labor force experts, government data suggests a combination of forces is at play.

An increasing number of men are taking on childcare responsibilities, according to time-use and other survey data. But the transition to being a stay-at-home dad is unlikely to be the full story; Employment trends appear to be similar for men in the age group who report having young children and those who do not.

Education is clearly important. The decline in participation is more concentrated among people who have not completed college, based on detailed government survey data.

Some economists believe that the disproportionate decline may be due to the age group being exposed to repeated crises, weakening their foothold in the labor market. They lost their jobs early in their careers in 2008, then experienced a slow recovery and find themselves at risk again in 2020 amid layoffs and the ongoing shift toward automation.

David Dorn, a Swiss economist who studies labor markets, says, “This group has been hit by automation, globalization.

This theory of fragility makes sense to Rizzo.

He saw the Navy as his ticket out of poverty in Louisiana and expected a career in the service until he broke his back during basic training. He retired from military service after a few years. Then he earned a two-year degree at Georgia and began his undergraduate degree at Arizona State University—with dreams of one day working to cure cancer.

Then the Great Recession hit. Rizzo worked nights at the lab to pay rent and tuition, but the job ended abruptly in 2009. Phoenix was zeroed out for the fall of the financial crisis.

A frenzy of job applications came to nothing, and Rizzo had to drop out. Worse, he found himself staring at imminent homelessness. A tax refund saved him by allowing him and his wife to return to Louisiana, where jobs are more plentiful. But after the divorce, she hit a low point.

“After my 20s, I had nothing to show for my life,” he said.

Rizzo spent the next decade rebuilding. He held various corporate positions where he learned skills in Excel and Microsoft SharePoint, remarried, had two sons and bought a house.

However, he regularly faced the risk of losing his job due to layoffs or technology, including at the end of last year. The company he worked for wanted him to take on a new role, perhaps as a traveling salesman, after his desk job disappeared. But their son has special needs and that wasn’t an option.

He resigned in January. He watched the kids, posted on his YouTube channel about investing, and watched Netflix. He thought he could live on military pay and dividend income, being part of the “Financial Independence, Retire Early” or FIRE trend. But then the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, and the markets rumbled.

“IT’S ON FIRE, okay,” he said. “My entire portfolio was burned.”

Rizzo applied to DoorDash on July 4th, receiving his first paycheck. While technically back on the job market, gig work like that doesn’t rank well in job data. If many men follow a similar path but do not work every week, they may be overlooked in surveys that ask whether they worked for pay in the previous week to determine whether someone is employed.

Rizzo is waiting to see what happens to DoorDash’s revenue in the economic downturn before ruling out the corporate job forever. Already, other venture capitalists are complaining that business is slowing down as people spend their pandemic savings.

The veteran considers himself lucky. He knows men of his generation who are struggling to find a place in the labor market.

“These are the results of 2008 and 2009,” he said. “Everyone had to start their lives from scratch.”

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