- Working-age men without degrees are exiting the workforce because it isn’t helping their social status.
- Many worry a dead-end job will harm their marriagability, a Boston Fed study found.
- Seeking some sort of education or training is the best way to secure that pay growth, an economist told Insider.
Many men aren’t feeling good about the social status they can attain through work.
So they’re not working.
That’s according to a new paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which analyzed data showing that the decline of men’s labor force participation over the last four decades has been largely driven by working-age men without a four-year college degree.
That’s as men without a college degree have seen their real earnings fall by 30% since 1980, compared to those of all “prime-age” workers between the ages of 25 and 54.
The study, conducted by Pinghui Wu, a researcher at the Boston Fed, found that men without a college degree are more likely to stop working or seeking work when their expected earnings fall in comparison to other workers. For these men, jobs aren’t just a source of income; they’re a source of social status.
That’s especially true for white men, Wu writes, and younger men, who see a job with limited pay growth — which they believe could affect their marriage prospects and social status — as worse than no job. So what are they doing instead? Wu cited research showing that prime-age men who are not in the labor force spend twice as much time on leisure activities and sleeping, compared with labor force participants.
Why men without college degrees are leaving the workforce to save their social status, and what they can do instead
Wu said marriage market anxiety for younger male workers is likely the prime reason for leaving the workforce when their social status declines.
In addition to that, she said, 30% of prime-age men who left the workforce reported disability conditions at the time of their exits. Studies show that stress and low-self-esteem linked to lower social status contribute to worse health and early death.
Some of these men are going back to school as well. The percentage of exiting workers enrolled in school by the time they left work increased “modestly” from 11% to 14% over the last 20 years, Wu found.
That’s something more men should consider if they’re looking to increase their pay, Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics, an economic forecaster, told Insider.
“The more you learn, the more you earn,” he said, saying that applies to college and graduate school, but vocational training for careers like plumbing and healthcare as well.
College grads still earn more than workers with no university degree, research shows. That’s despite the declining appeal of going to college as enrollments are down and an ongoing student debt crisis threatens many Americans’ financial stability. The US has also seen a growth in the number of jobs available to those without college degrees. 41% of US-based job postings required at least a bachelor’s degree as of November, think tank Burning Glass Institute told The Wall Street Journal, down from 46% in early 2019.
Still, Schenker said that education or training of some kind is the key to creating more economic, status, and educational opportunities for these men and getting them back to work.
“The lack of future earnings potential is equated with a loss of status,” he said. “If you’re going to be in a job like plumbing, you do your certificate, you do an apprenticeship, maybe eventually run your own business, and your money goes up over the years. But unless you’re on a path that has some material economic upside which is also correlated with status, you can’t earn more or have an upward trajectory — that doesn’t exist without some sort of specialized training or education for many people.”
It’s an extension of the way that the country has been moving for years now, he explained, referencing that the number of undergraduate students has decreased since 2009, but the amount of graduate students has increased.
“This narrative of ‘education doesn’t pay’ is just not true,” he said. “For people in the 60s and 70s, if you graduated high school, you made it. 80s 90s, college, you made it. Now you need grad school for that, but you need college for that. The bar for what it takes to make a lot of money is moving up as jobs require more.”