The American Dream is an enduring myth in American society.
In general, it refers to the idea that opportunities abound for those who work hard to pursue them, and that those opportunities get better as each generation works to leave behind a better world to the next generation. We do better than our parents, and our parents did better than our grandparents. All that is asked of us is that we work hard to earn it.
But in 2016, seven million men of prime working age (25 to 54) are neither working hard nor hardly working. They are, in fact, not working at all, and it isn’t simply that they are unemployed. They are not spending any time at all looking for work. They are what economists call “not in the labor force,” defined as persons in the civilian non-institutional population who are neither employed nor unemployed. They may have looked for work in the past 12 months and thus are “marginally attached” to the labor force, but they have not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the official current population survey, in many cases because they are “discouraged”—i.e. “they believe there are no jobs available or there are none for which they would qualify.” The number of prime-age men not in the labor force has been steadily rising for decades, and, as noted below, the percentage of men not in the labor force, regardless of age, is larger for younger generations than for old.
In a previous article, I wrote about the long-term decline in male labor force participation that the U.S. has witnessed over the past half-century. The essential fact that has been noted by many, and confirmed by data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is that the labor force participation rate of prime-age males (ages 25 to 54) has declined from 98 percent in 1954 to 88 percent today. The upshot is seven million men who are currently not in the labor force. I discussed some of the reasons that have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, including lower demand for low-skilled workers, institutional factors like imprisonment and the rise of technologies that make leisure more appealing than work.
The Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) for the president of the United States issued a report in June 2016 about this phenomenon, discussing many of the same themes. One finding, however, stands out in the way it shines light on whether the American Dream is working for men in America.
On page 11 of the CEA report, a chart appears that shows the labor force participation rate over the course of a lifetime for different age groups of men. The labor force participation rate is on the y-axis. The age of men is on the x-axis and runs from 25 to 54. It looks at prime-age men (ages 25 to 54) born from 1933 to 1942, from 1943 to 1952, from 1953 to 1962, from 1963 to 1972, from 1973 to 1982 and from 1983 to 1992. It finds the same upsidedown U shape for each age “cohort,” meaning that labor force participation rises from age 25 to early 30’s, and then gradually declines until age 54. In other words, in each age grouping, more men in their early 30’s were in the labor force than men at any other age for that group. Another way of saying this is that if you take a sample of men younger or older than men in their early 30’s, they are more likely to be out of the labor force.
The second finding of note in this graph, however, is more disturbing. The upsidedown U curve for each age group is lower than the curve for an older age group. In other words, the curve for men born 1933-1942, was higher than the curve for men born 1943-1952,; the curve for men born 1943-1952 was higher than the curve for men born 1953-1962, and so on. That is, the labor force participation rate for men of any age in a given cohort is lower than the rate for men of any age in an older cohort. As explained by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, who wrote a book entitled Men Without Work discussing the phenomenon of men leaving the labor force, this graph in the CEA report means that “a man seems less likely to be in the labor force than his older brother, who in turn is less likely to be in the workforce than his father, or his father’s older brother.”
If the likelihood of finding meaningful work is any indication of whether a generation of men is likely to do as well as, or better than, his father’s generation, these data suggest that younger generations of men may be worse off than their father or their grandfather. Either they don’t believe the opportunities for work are available to them, or they have lost interest in trying to find such opportunities.
This analysis does assume that labor force participation rates are a measure of welfare and socioeconomic opportunity. One can argue that an affluent society affords more leisure and men are taking advantage. Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago observes that increasing numbers of low-skilled men, particularly younger men in their twenties, are choosing to live in their parents’ basement and play video games. Some may argue that this is not a bad life, but as Hurst notes, when these men hit their thirties and are ready to start families, they are far enough behind in education and experience that it may be too late to catch up, which carries a host of psychological and socioeconomic problems.
A core tenet of the American Dream is that one generation of Americans is able to do better than a previous generation.
Parents make sacrifices to ensure a better future for their kids, and their kids avail themselves of the opportunities presented to them. There is much discussion these days of the continuing viability of the American Dream, given the rise of inequality, the concentration of economic and political power, and broad structural changes in American society like globalization and technological change. The causal relations between socioeconomic change and the opportunities available to younger generations of men is a theme that motivates many social science researchers. But labor force participation data appear to make clear that more and more men have given up on finding work, and are not even bothering to look for work. This is truer for younger men than older men. Since work is perhaps the primary means by which men can improve their socioeconomic prospects, the American Dream is proving to be, or will eventually prove to be for men with little work experience, out of reach for millions of American men of prime working age.
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