We continue to see a steady drumbeat of news stories and opinion pieces about the problem of men, and especially less-educated men, in the modern economy. The pieces always start with the fact that large numbers of prime-age men (ages 25–54) have dropped out of the labor force. The latest entry is a NYT column by Susan Chira that highlighted recent research showing that a large percentage of men who are not in the labor force are in poor health and frequent users of pain medication.
While this is interesting and useful research, it is unlikely that it explains the decline in employment among prime-age men. The reason, as I (along with Jared Bernstein) continually point out, is that there has been a similar drop in the employment rates of prime-age women since 2000.
The issue here should be straightforward. If we see drops in employment rates for both prime-age men and women, then it is not likely that they will be explained by problems that are unique to men. More likely, the problems stem from the overall state of the economy. In other words, the problem is with the people who design policy, not with the men who have dropped out of the workforce.
This doesn't mean that non-employed men are not facing real problems. Undoubtedly many are, although the extent to which these problems are the result of their unemployment or a cause will often not be clear. Nonetheless, steps that can improve public health will be a good thing, but the better place to look to solve the problem of unemployment is Washington.