How Recession and Disability Claims Impact Male Workforce Participation

Since the 1950s, the United States has witnessed a significant decrease in the employment rate of prime working-age men, from nearly 96% to about 86% today.

by Faruk Imamovic
How Recession and Disability Claims Impact Male Workforce Participation
© Getty Images/Eduardo Munez Alvarez

Since the 1950s, the United States has witnessed a significant decrease in the employment rate of prime working-age men, from nearly 96% to about 86% today. This change is notably lower than the average in other developed countries according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data. Economists pinpoint various reasons for this decline, including the lingering effects of multiple recessions.

Recessions have played a considerable role in shaping the job market for American men. Historically, the employment rate for men has suffered lasting damage following economic downturns. For example, during the recession of 1953, the employment rate fell sharply and never fully rebounded to pre-recession levels. This trend repeated during the Great Recession and other economic downturns, demonstrating a pattern where recovery in employment among men lagged behind the general economic recovery.

Abigail Wozniak, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, highlights that men's participation in the labor force has not fully recovered after dips caused by recessions. The aftermath of these economic setbacks has often led to reduced availability of well-paying jobs, particularly in sectors traditionally dominated by men. This economic shift has prompted some men to withdraw from the workforce, a decision exacerbated by inadequate compensation in new job opportunities compared to past positions.

The Rising Tide of Disability Claims

Another critical factor contributing to the declining work rates among men is the increasing reliance on disability benefits. Over the past several decades, there has been a substantial increase in the number of men receiving Social Security disability benefits. From 455,000 beneficiaries in 1960, the number swelled to over 7.6 million by 2022, with a significant proportion being men aged 25 to 54.

Economists like David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argue that recurrent job losses and the struggle to secure new employment drive many to apply for disability. The growing numbers reflect not only an aging population and expansions in eligibility for these benefits but also a more challenging economic environment where many find it increasingly difficult to maintain steady employment due to health issues or the changing nature of jobs.

Modern Work Dynamics: Education, Remote Work, and Incarceration

The shifting demands of the labor market have also played a significant role in the evolving employment landscape for men. Globalization, technological advancements, and the increasing requirement for higher education have reshaped job opportunities. These factors have particularly impacted industries like manufacturing, which traditionally employed a large number of men without a need for advanced degrees.

While more men are now staying home as caregivers or returning to school, others are hindered by the stigma and barriers that follow incarceration. Rising incarceration rates have significantly impacted male employment, as men who return from prison face considerable challenges re-entering the workforce. Furthermore, decreased unionization rates and stagnant minimum wages have lessened the appeal of some jobs that do not offer competitive pay.

The changing educational attainment landscape further complicates this issue, with men now making up less than half of college enrollees, potentially limiting their job prospects compared to those with higher educational qualifications. Despite some sectors showing more openness to hiring individuals without degrees, significant challenges remain in finding well-paying jobs without higher education credentials.

Princeton University
Princeton University© Getty Images/William Thomas Cain

Shifting Social Roles and Economic Realities

Economic Changes and Career Paths

The traditional pathways to employment and career stability have transformed over the past decades, not only due to economic fluctuations but also due to shifts in societal norms and roles. In the past, many men could rely on a singular career path, often in the military or manufacturing, which offered stable employment from young adulthood into retirement. However, these opportunities have dwindled. For example, federal government military employment has decreased from over three million in 1970 to less than 1.5 million in 2022, reflecting broader trends in federal employment cutbacks and shifts in defense strategies.

The military once served as a common career path for many men, providing not just a job but a suite of benefits and a reliable pension. Today, the reduced number of positions and the increased difficulty in meeting recruitment goals suggest a changing perception and diminishing allure of military service as a viable lifelong career.

The Role of Incarceration and Reintegration Challenges

Further complicating the labor market landscape is the impact of incarceration. Increased incarceration rates, particularly among men, have created significant hurdles in workforce re-entry. Once released, these individuals often find themselves at a severe disadvantage, struggling against both the stigma of a criminal record and the gaps in their employment history. These factors collectively depress the employment rate for men, as they are not counted in unemployment statistics while incarcerated but are expected to find stable employment upon release—a challenge that many fail to overcome.

Elise Gould notes that the rising rates of incarceration have contributed to difficulties in finding employment post-release, which in turn affects overall employment statistics for men. This issue, coupled with declining unionization and stagnant wages in certain sectors, has created a less favorable environment for job seekers, particularly those with less formal education or those re-entering society.

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