Why Bother With Women not Working When We Can Talk About Men Not Working?

October 04, 2016

Economists just hate to let the data get in the way of a good morality tale. For this reason we keep seeing stories about the problem of men not working, and in particular less-educated men not working. The big theme here is that technology has eliminated the need for the sort of work these less-educated men do. We got another example in this genre from Justin Fox in a Bloomberg piece.

The big problem with this story is that there has been a decline in employment rates for both men and women, including those with college degrees, since 2000. Furthermore, if we focus on less-educated workers (those without college degrees) the drop in prime-age employment rates has been larger for women than for men. (The Fox piece tries to make a case for the technology story with data that refuse to cooperate. A chart in the piece that is supposed to show men dropping out of the labor force everywhere, shows that in Canada the rate of non-participation went from 9.5 percent in 1995 to 9.5 percent in 2015. In Germany it fell from 8.4 percent in 1995 to 7.6 percent in 2015.) 

This suggests that the problem is a lack of demand in the economy, not the destruction of jobs held by less-educated men due to technology. The remedy in this case would be create more demand by policies like getting the government to run larger budget deficits or by getting the trade deficit down through a lower valued dollar. We can also look to create more jobs by reducing the duration of the average work year through policies like paid sick days and family leave and mandated vacation time. In this story, we certainly wouldn’t want the Fed to deliberately slow the economy and rate of job creation with higher interest rates.

It is worth noting that the dismal labor market prospects of formerly incarcerated people is a real issue. The piece is right to highlight this issue, it just cannot explain the larger falloff in employment rates over the last 15 years.


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