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.

“Now, all of a sudden, you’re kind of getting your life together, and if you’re in the wrong industry …” Mr. Rizzo said, trailing off as he discussed his recent labor market experience. “I wasn’t the only one who dropped out. I can tell you that.”

Men have been withdrawing from the labor force for decades. In the years following World War II, more than 97 percent of men in their prime working years — defined by economists as ages 25 to 54 — were working or actively looking for work, according to federal data. But starting in the 1960s, that share began to fall, mirroring the decline in domestic manufacturing jobs.

What is new is that a small demographic slice — men who were early in their careers during the 2008 recession — seems to be most heavily affected.

“I think there’s a lot of very discouraged people out there,” said Jane Oates, a former Labor Department official who now heads WorkingNation, a nonprofit focused on work force development.

Men lost jobs in astonishing numbers during the 2008 financial crisis as the construction and home-building industries contracted. It took years to regain that ground — for men who were then in their 20s and early 30s and just getting started in their careers, employment rates never fully recovered.

Economists came up with a range of explanations for the men’s slow return to the labor force. After the war on crime of the 1980s and 1990s, more men had criminal records that made it difficult to land jobs. The rise of opioid addiction had sidelined others. Video games had improved in quality, so staying home might have become more attractive. And the decline of nuclear family units may have diminished the traditional male role as economic provider.

Now, recent history appears to be repeating itself — but for one specific age group. The question is why 35- to 44-year-old men seem to be staying out of work more than other demographics.

Patricia Blumenauer, vice president of data and operations at Philadelphia Works, a work force development agency, said she had observed a dip in the number of men in that age range coming in for services. A disproportionately high share of those who do come in leave without taking a job.

Ms. Blumenauer said that age range is a group “that we’re not seeing show up.” She thinks some men who lost their blue-collar jobs early in the pandemic may be looking for something with flexibility and higher pay. “The ability to work from home three days a week, or have a four-day weekend — things that other jobs have figured out — aren’t possible for those types of occupations.”

When men don’t find those flexible jobs or can’t compete for them, they might choose to make ends meet by staying with relatives or doing under-the-table work, Ms. Blumenauer said.

The pandemic has probably also slowed America’s already-weak family formation, giving single or childless men less of an incentive to settle into steady jobs, said the economist Ariel Binder. On the flip side, disruptions to schooling and child care meant that some men who already had families may have stopped doing paid work to take on more household tasks.

“So on the one hand you get these men who are just not expecting to have a stable romantic relationship for most of their lives and are setting their time use accordingly,” Dr. Binder said. “Then there are men who are participating in these family structures, but doing so in nontraditional ways.”

Like labor force experts, government data suggest that a combination of forces are at play.

A growing number of men do seem to be taking on more child care duties, time use and other survey data suggests. But a shift toward being stay-at-home dads is unlikely to be the full story: Employment trends look the same for men in the age group who report having young kids living with them and those who don’t.

What clearly does matter is education. The employment decline is more heavily concentrated among people who have not graduated from college and who live in metropolitan areas or suburbs, based on detailed government survey data.

Some economists speculate that the disproportionate decline could be because the age group has been buffeted by repeated crises, making their labor market footing fragile. They lost work early in their careers in 2008, faced a slow recovery after and found their jobs at risk again amid 2020 layoffs and an ongoing shift toward automation.

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

That fragility theory makes sense to Mr. Rizzo.

He had seen the Navy as his ticket out of poverty in Louisiana and had expected to have a career in the service until he broke his back during basic training. He retired from the military after a few years. Then he pivoted, earning a two-year degree in Georgia and beginning a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University — with dreams of one day working to cure cancer.

Then the Great Recession hit. Mr. Rizzo had been working nights in a laboratory to afford rent and tuition, but the job ended abruptly in 2009. Phoenix was ground zero for the financial implosion’s fallout.

Frantic job applications yielded nothing, and Mr. Rizzo had to drop out of school. Worse, he found himself staring down imminent homelessness. His tax refund saved him by allowing him and his wife to move back to Louisiana, where jobs were more plentiful. But after they divorced, he hit a low point.

“I had nothing to show for my life after my 20s,” he explained.

Mr. Rizzo spent the next decade rebuilding. He worked his way through various corporate positions where he taught himself skills in Excel and Microsoft SharePoint, married again, had two sons and bought a house.

Yet he was regularly at risk of losing work to downsizing or technology — including late last year. The company he worked for wanted him to move into a new role, perhaps as a traveling salesperson, when his desk job disappeared. But his sons have special needs and that was not an option.

He quit in January. He watched the kids, posted on his investment-related YouTube channel and watched Netflix. He thought he might be able to live on military payments and dividend income, becoming part of the “Financial Independence, Retire Early,” or FIRE, trend. But then the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and markets gyrated.

“I got FIRE, all right,” he said. “My whole portfolio got set on fire.”

Mr. Rizzo, who began working for DoorDash in July, making a delivery in Kenner.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

Mr. Rizzo turned to DoorDash, earning his first paycheck on July 4. While he is technically back in the labor market, gig work like his isn’t well measured in jobs data. If many men are taking a similar path but do not work every week, they might be overlooked in surveys, which ask if someone worked for pay in the previous week to determine whether they were employed.

Mr. Rizzo is waiting to see what happens to his DoorDash income in an economic pullback before he rules out corporate work forever. Already, other dashers are complaining that business is slowing as people have spent down pandemic savings.

The veteran counts himself fortunate. He knows men in his generation who have struggled to find any footing in the labor market.

“It feels like it’s the after-affects of 2008 and 2009,” he said. “Everyone had to restart their lives from scratch.”

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