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Drugs, jail, video games tell tale of the lost American male

CNBC logo CNBC 11/10/2017

Drugs, jail and video games have taken millennial men out of the workforce and they aren't likely to return, a phenomenon dubbed "the tale of the lost male" by economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

A decline in the labor force participation rate since the financial crisis masks stark differences between men and women, Bank of America economists Michelle Meyer and Anna Zhou wrote Friday.

"Prime-working age women (25-54 years old) have returned to the labor force with a participation rate edging back to pre-crisis levels," they wrote, "but the participation of prime-working age men has remained close to recession lows."

Male employment fell by a cumulative 6.9 percent during the recession compared to a 3.2 percent drop for women, noted the economists. But a closer look into the data reveals that the lack of labor participation among younger, millennial men is "particularly acute," offset by an uptrend in participation among men aged 45-54 years old.

To be sure, while much of the decline in the participation rate is due to the aging population, the recession hit men especially hard. The goods-producing manufacturing and construction sides of the economy – where men typically hold higher rates of employment – hemorrhaged workers as the housing bubble burst.

Such a disastrous economic setback discouraged younger generations from seeking skills in those fields. And as a result, the average age of a construction worker in the U.S. increased to 42.7 in 2016 from 40.4 before the crisis, according to Meyer and Zhou.

Declines in the male participation rate

a close up of a map© Provided by CNBCSource: Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BLS, Haver Analytics

But that's not the only reason the economists believe millennial men are not (or not trying to be) employed.

Citing work from Princeton's Alan Krueger, the economists note that the rise of opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2015 could account for 20 percent of the decline in the male participation rate. The 2013 American Time Use Survey found that 43 percent of prime age men who were not in the labor force indicated having fair or poor health, way higher than the 12 percent for working men.

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But men may also be putting a priority on leisure, which could be keeping men at home. The U.S. Labor Department's American Time Use Survey found that between 2004 and 2007 and from 2012 to 2015, the average amount of time men aged 21 to 30 worked declined 3.13 hours per week while the number of hours they spent gaming increased 1.67 per week, according to the economists.

Work by Krueger finds that game playing is associated with increased happiness and less fatigue than TV watching and is now considered a social activity.

But whatever the reasons, a quick look at recent jobs data will provide even more evidence. The largest relative increases in the ratio between job openings and hires have been in construction, transportation and utilities. This chronic lack of workers was no better highlighted than in the aftermath of two hurricanes this fall, as homeowners in Florida and Texas scrambled to find assistance in repair.

"This is the goods side of the economy where men tend to be a larger share of the working population, therefore highlighting the challenges in the economy from the shortage of men participating in the labor force," concluded Zhou and Meyer. "The consequence: the cries of labor shortages will remain loud."


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