Women’s increased participation in the labor force since the 1950s is a well-known trend. Less remarked upon is the fact that men have been decreasing their participation, albeit more gradually, over the course of the same period, according to a new report by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Mitra Toossi. If current trends continue, by 2020 only 70% of working age men will participate in the U.S. labor force, and by 2050, only 66%.
“The number of men in the labor force has always been more than the number of women. The men’s labor force was 69 million in 1990, 76.3 million in 2000, and 80 million in 2005,” writes Tossi. There will still be more men in the labor force than women by 2050 (103 million vs. 91 million, according to her projections), but the participation rate of men will continue to decline. Meanwhile, she says, the participation of women will level off.
Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin says that the figures are indicative of phenomena that have been evolving for some time. They suggest that more people are exploring options outside of conventional work or choosing to opt out of the labor force all together.
“Women’s participation has been going up and now they’ve reached a kind of plateau, whereas men’s [participation] has been going slightly down for a pretty long time. That has to do with retirement, early retirement, taking time off-the choices that people make,” says Goldin, who concedes that retirement may not be as big a factor in this trend as people in their 20s delaying their entrance into the workforce.
“If I talk to my students who leave Harvard at age 22 to 23, they say, ‘Well, it’s off to the Himalayas for a year.’ There is a lot of not doing much of anything. Young people seem to have turned the idea of retirement on its head, working less now to work more later.”
Decreased participation in the workforce can mean different things depending on where it is occurring, she argues. For instance, in Europe, such a decline would suggest a worsening job market. The official unemployment rate for the European Union is 9%, far higher than the official 4% unemployment rate for the United States. The unemployment rate for European men, particularly young men, is higher still. “These people can’t get jobs, so they get discouraged. Unemployment rates for people in their 20s in Europe are in double digits, so they stay in school and get stipends for staying in school. In the United States, on the other hand, the unemployment rate for young people isn’t very high, and so people are making their own choices.”
There are many possible reasons why people might be feeling less pressure to participate in the workforce. For instance, people in their 20s are waiting longer to get married: The median age for a man to wed in the United States is 27, up from 23 during the 1950s. The presence or absence of a family to support may also influence workforce participation. In addition, young people are now more likely to move from one job to another in search of the ideal position, according to a recent RAND study. As they transition between jobs, or move from professional school to full-time employment, they may take “stop-gap” positions or simply refrain from work, thus decreasing their laborforce participation. Additionally, more young people, and especially more young women, are seeking secondary and postsecondary education. People who are in school are much less likely to participate in the labor force.
Differing generational approaches to work have greater significance than does the apparent fall-off in male participation. “Everyone in their twenties seems to be doing a little bit less in the workforce,” says Goldin. “But these aren’t giant changes and they’re not radically different. They’re relatively small, over the past 15 years or so.”
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2007.