March 29, 2023

A large number of American men of prime working age — between 25 and 54 years old — are not working or even looking for work, resulting in a major hole in the American economy.  

In 1953, 98% of men in that age range had a job or were looking for one. That number has fallen ever since. Today, 7.2 million men have essentially dropped out of the workforce. 

It’s “a matter of our national identity,” said Mike Rowe, the host of “Dirty Jobs” on Discovery. “I think it’s a giant issue. … And by the time we realize how big an issue it is, we’re going to have a hard time turning the temperature down.”

It’s not an issue rooted in the unemployment rate, which at 3.5% is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. So, what’s behind the phenomenon?  

More jobs than workers

“We have more jobs than we have people for — about one and a half jobs for every one worker,” said Jay Timmons, who leads the National Association of Manufacturers, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that represents thousands of manufactures across the country.  

Timmons describes all this as a profound problem for the companies he represents. The No. 1 challenge for most of them right now is filling open jobs.

“I never thought I’d be able to say that,” he told CBS News. “But now it’s kind of an all hands on deck. We’ve got to fill these jobs that are open.”

More than 770,000 manufacturing jobs are open right now, according to the latest federal count, from November. The number has surged in recent years as companies reinvest in American-made products — or try to. 

With manufacturing workers earning more than $30 an hour on average, Timmons said the problem is not the pay, but the perception.

“It used to be dirty, dark, and dangerous,” he said. “Today it’s very sleek. It’s very technology-driven.”

Not just perception

Karla Trotman, CEO of Electro Soft, a company outside Philadelphia that makes circuit boards, said she wishes 45 people worked there instead of 30, but that she can’t find people to fill the roles — costing the company around $5 million in top-line revenue as she has been forced to down potential contracts.

She suspects some people may be sitting out because of the recent change in how many of us look at work.

“I think it’s fulfillment. I think it’s culture. I think people really want to feel as though they are appreciated,” she said.  

“It’s an overall feeling of being fed up … and being taken for granted,” she added. 

But there’s more to it, according to Laura Dawson Ullrich, a senior regional economist at the Charlotte branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Some non-working men have a “skills mismatch,” while others have criminal records that make them ineligible for many jobs and make some employers hesitant to hire them. 

Many others rely on safety nets, such as disability payments.

It might also come down to values. 

Many public schools have stopped offering shop classes, which means many students may have stopped even considering some lines of work.

“It goes back to the stigmas and stereotypes and myths and misperceptions that are keeping guidance counselors from talking about opportunities like this to the kids in their care,” said Rowe, who created the mikeroweWORKS Foundation in 2008 to promote careers in the vocational arts. “It’s those things that are keeping parents from putting all the options on the table.”

Leisure time

How are non-working men between 25 an 54 spending their time? On average, nearly seven hours each weekday are dedicated to leisure time — relaxing, playing games and watching TV, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2021.

Data also shows that men who are not working or looking for work are spending less time caring for other household members, like children, than men who are at work.

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