When I was born, in 1967, only 5.2 percent of men between ages 25 and 54 were jobless. Over my lifetime, I have watched that number grow relentlessly to 16.6 percent today. This ocean of underemployment is the country’s most difficult social issue, because we are far from agreeing about how to get America working again.
Those on the left favor infrastructure spending; the right wants to reform the social safety net. Political action, however, will require finding middle ground — or this shameful waste of valuable human capital will continue.
The accompanying chart shows prime-age unemployment for men since World War II. My focus on male statistics does not imply that I’m not equally concerned about women who seek work and can’t get it. But formal labor force statistics poorly measure many women’s work experiences: No mother of three young children is really jobless, even if she doesn’t draw a paycheck.
For the first 25 years after the war, male employment waned with recessions and then, as a recovery began, increased again. After 1970, however, a new pattern emerges. More men still were out of work during downturns, but the jobs never fully returned. Even during the best years of the 1980s and 1990s, the joblessness rate was always more than double its 1967 level.
The current recovery continues this same pattern, but, like everything else post-Great Recession, takes it to a new extreme. Between 2007 and 2009, the share of prime-aged males without jobs rose from 12 to 17.5 percent and then fell to 16.6 percent in the first quarter of 2014. That’s more than 10 million men looking for work.
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