Millions of Men Are Missing From the Job Market
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Oct 16 2016
Economists have long struggled to explain why a growing proportion of men in the prime of their lives are not employed or looking for work. A new study has found that nearly half of these men are on painkillers and many are disabled.
The working paper by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist, casts light on this population, which grew during the recession that started in 2007. As of last month, 11.4 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 — or about seven million people — were not in the labor force, which means that they were not employed and were not seeking a job. This percentage has been rising for decades (it was less than 4 percent in the 1950s), but the trend accelerated in the last 20 years.
Surveys taken between 2010 and this year show that 40 percent of prime working-age men who are not in the labor force report having pain that prevents them from taking jobs for which they are qualified. More than a third of the men not in the labor force said they had difficulty walking or climbing stairs or had another disability. Forty-four percent said they took painkillers daily and two-thirds of that subset were on prescription medicines. By contrast, just 20 percent of employed men and 19 percent of unemployed men (those looking for work) in the same age group reported taking any painkillers.
Perhaps worse, many of those taking painkillers still said they experienced pain daily. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that these drugs are far less effective and much more addictive than previously thought.
The connection between chronic joblessness and painkiller dependency is hard to quantify. Mr. Krueger and other experts cannot say which came first: the men’s health problems or their absence from the labor force. Some experts suspect that frequent use of painkillers is a result of being out of work, because people who have no job prospects are more likely to be depressed, become addicted to drugs and alcohol and have other mental health problems. Only about 2 percent of the men say they receive workers’ compensation benefits for job-related injuries. Some 25 percent are on Social Security disability; 31 percent of those receiving benefits have mental disorders and the rest have other ailments, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.