The NYT had an editorial highlighting new work by Alan Krueger that examined prime-age men (ages 25–54) who are not working or looking for work. The work shows that 40 percent of the men who have dropped out of the labor force report feeling pain that keeps them from taking jobs. It reports that 44 percent report taking pain medication the previous day. Both Krueger and the editorial make it clear that the causation could go in both directions.

While this is interesting work, implying that the problem of people dropping out of the labor force is a story about men is seriously misleading. Both prime-age men and women have been increasingly dropping out of the labor force in the last 15 years. The falloff since the peak year of 2000 is somewhat sharper for men than women, but it is important to note that labor force participation rates had been rising for women prior to 2000 and were almost universally projected to continue to rise. The employment rate for prime-age men fell by 4.1 percentage points from 2000 to 2015, while the employment rate for prime-age women fell by 3.2 percentage points. (Employment rates are a cleaner measure, since the decision to look for work, and therefore stay in the labor force, is affected by eligibility for unemployment benefits.)

The reason this matters is that clearly the employment rate is dropping for reasons not related to any behavior or conditions unique to men since the drop has occurred for women as well. The more obvious source of the problem lies with the people (disproportionately men) designing economic policy.