Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Lance Kenworthy and the Declining Employment Status of Men

Lance Kenworthy has written a two-part essay appearing in Foreign Affairs (Part 1Part 2) discussing the argument that the employment prospects for prime working-age men (age 25-54) have deteriorated.  His Figure 1 shows a decline in the employment-population ratio for men age 25-54 from about 94% in 1950 to about 85% in 2016.  (Over the same time period, the employment-population ratio for women rose from about 33% to about 71%; overall, the employment-population ratio has increased from about 63% to about 78%.)  In general, his discussion of factors proposed as causes specifically for the decline in men's employment-population ratio is reasonably comprehensive (he leaves out one major factor, of which more below) and quite good.

But this discussion is only partial, and, when it touches on differences between with and black men, does not deal with those differences in depth.  Below is a chart showing the employment-population ratios for white and black men, ages 25-54; unfortunately, the available data go back only to 1994.  What this chart shows is something that one would not expect, based on Kenworthy's discussion (all data from the BLS web site):

(Click to enlarge)

The remarkable aspect of this, to me, is that between 1994 and 2007, both for black males and for white males, the employment-population ratio was remarkably stable--between 75% and 80% for black males and between 88% and 90% for white males.  Unsurprisingly, employment dropped sharply for both groups in The Great Recession, and began to recover in only in 2009 for white males and in 2011 for black males.  Perhaps surprisingly, the recovery has actually been greater for black males--up from 66.4% in January 2011 to 74.9% in February 2017 (for white males, the recovery began from a low of 81.4% in January 2009--two years earlier than for black men--but has reached only 86.1% by February 2017). 

If anything represents a problem here, it  is not that the employment population ratio for prime-age men has continued to fall; it is that the recovery of employment since the trough of the recession has been so slow.  If there is an issue to discuss with men's employment, it is the contrast, during the same period, with women's employment-population ratios (also for blacks and whites, age 25-54:

(Click to Enlarge)

In contrast to men, women's employment fell much less (albeit more for black women than for white women) during the recession and recovered to their pre-recession levels by 2017 (while men's employment levels remained below their pre-recession levels).  The story, then, since 1994, is (1) relatively stable employment-population ratios for prime age men and women, disaggregated by race and (2) the recovery of women's employment, but not men's, to the pre-recession level. 

The policy challenge, then, might be something quite different from what Kenworthy focuses on (especially in part 2 of his discussion)--what needs to be done--or, perhaps, what should have been done during the recovery from 2009 to 2017--that would move men's employment prospects back to their pre-recession levels.  The number of jobs involved is large--about 1.860 million (3.9%) more jobs for prime-age white men, and 0.450 million (3.1%) more jobs for prime-age black men. 

An economy that had generated 2.3 million more jobs by February 2017 would look very different from the economy that we actually have.