Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Men who do not work during their prime years: What do the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth data reveal?

By Donna Rothstein

The labor force participation rate of prime-working-age men (ages 25 to 54) has been mostly falling since the late 1960s, with steeper declines during recessionary periods. In 1969, the labor force participation rate of men ages 25 to 54 was 96 percent, and in 2015, the rate was under 89 percent.1 Prime-age men who were out of the labor force in a given month increasingly reported they did not work in the previous year.2 Time spent not working has implications for future job and earnings potential, as well as for the well-being of the individual and his family.

This Beyond the Numbers article examines nonworking status across two generations of men. It evaluates whether men’s prior work history as well as education, family structure, personal health, incarceration status, and living situations differ between nonworkers across the two cohorts and between nonworkers and their working peers within cohorts. The article uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97). The first cohort was made up of men from the NLSY79 who were born in the years 1960 to 1964, and the second cohort was formed from men in the NLSY97 who were born in the years 1980 to 1984. This divided the participants into two cohorts of men that were born 20 years apart and who were ages 30 to 36 at the time of their interviews in 1996 (NLSY79) and in 2015–16 (NLSY97). This article defines nonworkers as those men who did not work in the year prior to the 1996 or 2015–16 interview.3

A number of recent papers by economists document and try to explain the decline in labor force participation of prime-age men over time. Alan Krueger found that health conditions, disability, and the rise of opioid prescriptions may be important contributing factors.4 John Coglianese suggested that much of the decline in prime-age men’s labor force participation is due to the increase in men who temporarily leave the labor force. He credited this phenomenon to the rise in men living with parents and to a wealth effect for married/cohabiting men due to the increase in female earnings over time.5 Some economists have suggested that trade and automation are the most responsible for the decline over the last twenty years or so, with increased participation in disability insurance programs, the real value of the minimum wage, and the rise in incarceration and the growth in the number of people with prison records also having an impact.6 Jay Stewart found that a small fraction of men accounted for the majority of years that men spent not working during 1987 to 1997. He found that a substantial proportion of nonworkers lived with family members and received financial support from them.7

Description of the data

The NLSY79 is a nationally representative sample of 12,686 men and women born from 1957 to 1964 and living in the United States at the time of the initial survey in 1979. Respondents were interviewed annually from 1979 to 1994 and biennially since then. The NLSY97 is a nationally-representative sample of 8,984 men and women born from 1980 to 1984 and living in the United States at the time of the initial survey in 1997. Respondents were interviewed annually from 1997 to 2011 and biennially since then. The two datasets are well suited for studying nonworkers because they both contain a complete work history of individuals since their teens, a cognitive test score, and information about incarceration status, education, personal health, and living situations, among other topics.

Work status across two cohorts

As a first step, this article compares general labor market patterns across the two cohorts over the same ages. Weekly employment histories available for each sample member are used to calculate the percentage of 25-to-30-year-old men from both cohorts who were employed, unemployed (out of work, but actively seeking employment), and out of the labor force (not working and not actively seeking employment).8 Chart 1 displays the percentage of men employed from ages 25 through 30. The percentage of men employed in the NLSY79 remained well above the percentage of men employed in the NLSY97 over these ages. At age 25, about 88 percent of men in the NLSY79 were working compared with 82 percent in the NLSY97. By age 30, the lines drew a little closer together, with nearly 84 percent of men in the NLSY97 working.

View Chart Data

Chart 1. Percentage of men employed ages 25 through 30, NLSY79 and NLSY97 cohorts
Age NLSY79 NLSY97

25

88.33318 82.21723

25

88.13962 82.15163

25

88.29198 82.48982

25

88.22979 81.96218

25

88.61571 82.02021

25

88.41656 82.14355

25

88.34644 82.24489

25

88.43246 82.33471

25

87.87052 82.14378

25

87.74636 82.0275

25

87.69663 82.10679

25

87.63577 82.62396

25

87.3662 82.59022

25

86.93794 82.66457

25

87.05928 82.26084

25

87.03667 82.44272

25

87.42342 82.48191

25

86.99474 82.45851

25

87.09848 82.48681

25

87.24711 82.69544

25

87.70486 82.60977

25

87.95098 82.60526

25

88.28533 82.43449

25

88.24834 82.13067

25

88.29847 82.29379

25

87.85742 82.10106

25

87.80587 82.19039

25

87.76896 81.81862

25

87.94646 81.93327

25

87.89797 81.78759

25

88.00379 82.09799

25

87.71003 81.80371

25

87.79791 81.5012

25

87.99782 81.65626

25

87.77884 81.67699

25

87.81095 81.86046

25

87.73795 81.95364

25

88.01998 82.00143

25

87.92168 82.07559

25

87.74979 82.15304

25

87.52425 81.95914

25

87.49755 81.65072

25

87.53145 81.52945

25

87.71268 81.86559

25

88.12039 81.92532

25

87.75774 81.98295

25

88.05013 82.0498

25

87.87554 81.80228

25

87.95543 82.24455

25

87.9323 82.15527

25

88.04031 82.66499

25

88.22342 82.70616

26

88.4201 82.3422

26

88.20592 82.29742

26

88.131 82.35101

26

88.54505 82.08864

26

88.45241 82.01669

26

88.21165 81.86477

26

88.11033 81.79443

26

87.8842 81.93145

26

87.89377 81.76458

26

87.77444 81.6822

26

87.84667 81.83354

26

87.7645 82.12537

26

87.76188 81.9955

26

87.66778 82.11306

26

87.76391 81.93738

26

87.90374 82.14012

26

87.28774 82.74821

26

87.5725 82.1665

26

87.65176 81.96576

26

87.748 81.81335

26

87.82701 81.88883

26

87.4964 81.73026

26

87.66148 81.6507

26

87.76198 81.56742

26

87.21353 81.63054

26

87.52197 81.54302

26

87.43252 81.78873

26

87.72136 81.87994

26

87.52342 81.67702

26

87.80639 81.78708

26

87.75343 81.85859

26

87.81273 82.17407

26

87.59046 81.79061

26

87.78943 82.17126

26

88.05635 81.9532

26

88.46842 82.24759

26

88.09951 82.00995

26

88.34152 81.85123

26

88.4244 81.97086

26

88.5633 81.84148

26

88.67003 81.58866

26

88.63451 81.7277

26

88.88702 81.90614

26

88.98743 81.88772

26

88.92805 82.35033

26

88.77344 81.93499

26

88.67879 82.69259

26

89.23552 82.30886

26

89.34534 82.46742

26

89.01503 82.25949

26

88.84989 82.44791

26

88.37651 82.49183

27

88.73432 82.40579

27

88.59629 82.19403

27

88.27816 82.11664

27

88.3696 82.78367

27

88.41506 82.62626

27

88.96845 82.73025

27

89.11094 82.40171

27

88.98715 82.81887

27

88.91654 82.86465

27

89.20897 82.9906

27

89.03932 82.8231

27

89.11498 82.93564

27

88.79142 83.12488

27

88.87912 83.32716

27

88.4285 83.02137

27

88.49937 83.08877

27

88.39669 83.28203

27

88.8389 83.28776

27

89.18435 83.50484

27

88.69586 83.04873

27

88.51827 83.50664

27

88.2212 83.36908

27

88.23013 83.34439

27

88.06002 83.23514

27

88.0217 83.44609

27

88.39866 83.15461

27

88.12666 83.1571

27

87.99369 83.53918

27

88.02607 83.39447

27

87.71424 83.16553

27

88.36388 83.13838

27

88.4502 83.17686

27

88.18129 82.60745

27

88.2463 82.96937

27

88.21967 82.65196

27

88.0056 82.80346

27

87.75597 82.68332

27

88.07015 82.60641

27

88.43657 82.75906

27

88.32451 82.73527

27

88.19094 82.62629

27

88.20475 82.65017

27

87.64222 83.0425

27

87.43971 82.82378

27

87.61056 83.09539

27

87.42933 83.11833

27

88.00669 83.07953

27

87.85772 83.05053

27

88.13953 82.80188

27

88.05145 82.53502

27

88.16818 82.72061

27

88.1539 82.60912

28

87.75589 82.57191

28

87.59491 82.60954

28

87.99435 82.10088

28

87.73953 82.14446

28

87.66743 82.38289

28

87.4021 82.52031

28

87.41319 82.11564

28

87.60488 82.54929

28

87.72832 82.47993

28

87.76952 82.2346

28

87.64735 82.31953

28

87.78637 82.30312

28

88.0131 82.6853

28

88.07722 82.70779

28

88.07315 82.59371

28

88.07364 82.95072

28

88.18891 83.13137

28

87.92196 82.89136

28

88.18212 82.82575

28

87.82984 82.71492

28

87.95933 82.96777

28

87.42538 82.7471

28

87.4777 82.49833

28

87.30833 82.8364

28

87.17238 82.86776

28

87.37665 82.96621

28

87.21009 83.11895

28

86.99905 83.07448

28

87.23586 82.86132

28

87.38127 82.85419

28

87.17239 82.91563

28

87.4743 82.9902

28

87.36293 82.58724

28

87.69646 82.82262

28

87.69093 82.94462

28

87.99667 82.81603

28

87.94581 82.71854

28

87.75392 82.85389

28

87.51778 82.98266

28

87.95422 82.9929

28

88.09291 82.97565

28

87.96828 82.86101

28

87.72218 83.26058

28

87.89452 83.05813

28

87.83334 83.14946

28

87.84405 82.75928

28

87.80628 83.01636

28

87.59834 82.90243

28

87.75616 82.94791

28

87.59911 83.10433

28

87.71535 83.11388

28

87.67326 83.39913

29

87.67932 83.3091

29

87.91966 83.26817

29

87.5694 83.52714

29

87.09483 83.57799

29

87.36711 83.3767

29

87.59426 82.94617

29

87.23711 83.11385

29

87.27136 82.90782

29

86.99935 82.86792

29

87.22891 82.77798

29

87.44829 82.82885

29

87.28071 82.81841

29

87.64215 82.60881

29

87.51904 82.52565

29

87.39699 82.52704

29

86.98945 82.17239

29

87.2793 82.32832

29

87.00055 82.31496

29

87.41492 82.53816

29

87.39637 82.48231

29

87.28814 82.10936

29

87.03754 82.57488

29

87.12369 82.46616

29

87.25609 82.31427

29

86.92731 82.49282

29

87.00892 82.73701

29

86.46225 82.51291

29

86.59712 82.72623

29

86.44829 82.74985

29

86.20631 83.02244

29

86.48486 82.72972

29

86.96944 82.65338

29

86.88963 82.73348

29

86.77444 82.86661

29

86.71193 82.75014

29

86.76495 82.73977

29

86.50114 82.63456

29

86.76473 82.44183

29

87.40368 82.6304

29

87.41068 82.71405

29

87.37894 82.82588

29

87.41615 82.81882

29

87.36178 83.02359

29

87.47905 82.72622

29

87.7266 83.03538

29

87.15527 83.17901

29

87.13235 83.33077

29

87.13323 83.25088

29

87.00763 83.28662

29

87.32216 83.26383

29

87.38921 83.45841

29

87.51843 83.52861

30

87.27362 83.52654

30

87.61634 83.49211

30

87.53326 83.36363

30

87.94269 83.66624

30

88.21364 83.68398

30

88.62874 83.87194

30

88.7497 83.75634

30

88.58192 83.85861

30

88.11038 83.75669

30

88.31301 83.79513

30

88.08579 84.00194

30

88.21011 83.56336

30

87.87679 83.86982

30

88.00437 83.38297

30

88.16382 83.62392

30

88.3498 83.44735

30

88.17007 83.94042

30

88.18144 83.78423

30

87.89778 83.69441

30

87.77596 83.58344

30

87.6786 83.57989

30

87.56527 83.64685

30

87.18526 83.80152

30

87.69074 83.65162

30

88.02738 83.23231

30

87.76989 83.74025

30

87.77852 83.65708

30

87.85955 83.47477

30

87.68599 83.68368

30

87.3633 83.80561

30

87.51448 83.5962

30

87.63007 83.48482

30

87.38174 83.6193

30

87.66921 83.4625

30

87.70753 83.44734

30

87.73746 83.22037

30

87.67465 83.75463

30

87.05428 83.54427

30

86.9682 83.47013

30

87.3242 83.0893

30

87.63905 83.6036

30

87.36349 83.45058

30

87.16404 83.59977

30

86.98092 83.68129

30

87.19014 83.84547

30

86.96883 83.75275

30

87.08548 83.72003

30

87.04612 83.5101

30

87.50221 83.71196

30

87.71905 83.63502

30

87.27181 83.44778

30

87.0262 83.35517

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

 

Chart 2 shows the percentage of unemployed men (out of work, but actively seeking employment) from ages 25 through 30. In this chart, men in the NLSY97 were consistently more likely to be unemployed than men in the NLSY79. 

View Chart Data

Chart 2. Percentage of unemployed men ages 25 through 30, NLSY79 and NLSY97 cohorts
Age NLSY79 NLSY97

25

4.50993 6.29829

25

4.43348 6.47793

25

4.25162 6.28898

25

4.45175 6.42421

25

4.25295 6.20213

25

4.48036 6.04042

25

4.68067 6.31723

25

4.5662 6.40489

25

4.57777 6.26098

25

4.47706 6.17653

25

4.75942 6.02812

25

4.73583 5.82977

25

5.07369 5.65852

25

5.24346 5.8492

25

5.31523 5.82166

25

5.31089 5.52231

25

4.94405 5.61815

25

5.02915 5.71896

25

5.09899 5.63164

25

4.8367 5.5891

25

4.49953 5.69126

25

4.44437 5.92158

25

4.36725 5.86749

25

4.18002 6.11988

25

4.42809 6.0344

25

4.78525 6.03845

25

4.85506 6.18564

25

4.89092 6.61894

25

4.79937 6.72764

25

4.90744 7.02483

25

4.66097 6.78849

25

4.89768 6.76437

25

5.20094 6.76239

25

4.83725 6.7162

25

4.698 6.70212

25

4.56204 6.57525

25

4.56841 6.58981

25

4.35087 6.60993

25

4.29148 6.31733

25

4.54076 6.51124

25

4.67157 6.49443

25

4.66891 6.57848

25

4.6215 6.70536

25

4.70358 6.7676

25

4.95744 6.48979

25

4.7916 6.55394

25

4.63816 6.78096

25

4.64793 6.90436

25

4.74753 6.92735

25

4.72565 6.92374

25

4.42905 6.74568

25

4.35514 6.71146

26

4.28073 7.00693

26

4.49099 6.90457

26

4.49798 6.82265

26

4.31606 7.00582

26

4.3097 6.88574

26

4.3279 6.86746

26

4.17811 6.80806

26

4.30215 6.8758

26

4.45288 6.95177

26

4.53361 7.17737

26

4.63955 6.98971

26

4.69632 7.02708

26

4.83458 7.09861

26

4.66685 6.9384

26

4.85844 7.06835

26

4.94579 6.88687

26

5.00435 6.75735

26

4.88822 7.20981

26

4.90389 7.29467

26

4.73891 7.60611

26

4.80869 7.55159

26

4.84909 7.75676

26

4.77309 7.70251

26

4.76576 7.75808

26

5.22625 7.90619

26

4.98415 7.61155

26

5.02214 7.32999

26

4.68486 7.58488

26

4.83929 7.72614

26

4.66546 7.48721

26

4.72667 7.57484

26

4.44879 7.58086

26

4.65397 7.34072

26

4.66317 7.39485

26

4.71389 7.36562

26

4.516 7.21345

26

4.67004 7.40915

26

4.51556 7.59653

26

4.38393 7.34337

26

4.34348 7.71063

26

4.33841 7.69685

26

4.2804 7.76719

26

4.13908 7.52069

26

3.99147 7.42496

26

3.99926 7.47548

26

3.99002 7.51076

26

3.86284 7.11178

26

3.41298 6.99491

26

3.50243 7.26298

26

3.53554 7.39708

26

3.71147 7.30082

26

4.05264 7.26149

27

3.8304 7.17404

27

3.80378 7.13698

27

3.83011 6.97881

27

3.83284 6.92889

27

3.73688 6.99023

27

3.6673 6.88113

27

3.43608 7.04311

27

3.68755 6.87666

27

3.68326 6.80415

27

3.84673 6.6287

27

4.15133 6.84707

27

4.03875 6.64006

27

4.1909 6.762

27

4.10981 6.72929

27

4.01679 6.59484

27

4.33643 6.72212

27

4.32659 6.66339

27

4.13513 6.65533

27

3.87588 6.68394

27

3.93928 6.59054

27

4.06739 6.51867

27

4.24678 6.60932

27

4.32207 6.39573

27

4.45761 6.58893

27

4.45865 6.54603

27

4.41149 6.611

27

4.58008 6.87384

27

4.60041 6.63878

27

4.52237 6.82876

27

4.72148 7.01913

27

4.41846 6.91007

27

4.22237 6.82783

27

4.34042 7.1279

27

4.56743 6.93196

27

4.60728 7.06141

27

4.59184 7.01059

27

4.77409 7.00866

27

4.62197 7.13331

27

4.45277 7.2688

27

4.4276 7.16174

27

4.61192 7.3844

27

4.88181 7.47207

27

5.0805 7.13922

27

5.36312 7.28999

27

5.34695 7.15765

27

5.69253 7.11854

27

5.27335 7.2196

27

5.31956 7.37021

27

4.8079 7.29984

27

5.01236 7.64848

27

4.8645 7.50597

27

4.89732 7.5453

28

5.30895 7.64809

28

5.10577 7.64753

28

4.81325 7.98886

28

5.04025 7.96819

28

4.94445 7.75648

28

5.28609 7.76755

28

5.36656 7.96511

28

5.47353 7.64245

28

5.0756 7.57305

28

4.90183 7.78348

28

4.85485 7.59601

28

4.78497 7.44305

28

4.43913 7.0814

28

4.30053 7.48167

28

4.55923 7.43304

28

4.39175 7.48709

28

4.41734 7.34903

28

4.46649 7.45042

28

4.29836 7.74726

28

4.43828 7.88819

28

4.6326 7.68908

28

4.924 7.59441

28

5.05823 7.41962

28

5.29015 7.29824

28

5.31362 7.49216

28

5.07031 7.5195

28

5.04537 7.4033

28

5.19294 7.47204

28

4.81087 7.38374

28

5.03069 7.46262

28

5.11587 7.31073

28

5.15772 7.22692

28

5.24993 7.46061

28

5.38877 7.18897

28

5.35497 7.0761

28

5.141 7.17817

28

5.28864 7.06692

28

5.28896 6.92788

28

5.34127 7.04271

28

5.10145 6.93423

28

5.05885 6.67817

28

5.05323 6.74334

28

5.0998 6.83484

28

4.75684 6.94749

28

4.81788 6.84256

28

4.74385 7.03892

28

5.07318 7.04592

28

5.07751 6.78193

28

5.1159 6.56692

28

4.98821 6.46198

28

4.76918 6.40999

28

4.81172 6.23839

29

4.83319 6.31152

29

4.66105 6.22451

29

4.69707 6.10125

29

5.07365 6.17871

29

4.69452 6.08281

29

4.41528 6.53893

29

4.72233 6.65062

29

4.61735 6.6509

29

4.94945 6.76262

29

4.74653 6.63796

29

4.77222 6.54271

29

4.74506 6.56821

29

4.55379 6.67173

29

4.57178 6.79026

29

4.82369 6.74093

29

4.87352 6.91151

29

4.91684 6.8089

29

4.9222 6.93114

29

4.63062 6.88331

29

4.78945 7.04288

29

4.81933 6.86138

29

4.62402 6.5591

29

4.56789 6.60402

29

4.55574 6.80156

29

4.4993 6.68753

29

4.30396 6.39954

29

4.82507 6.7472

29

4.79149 6.74747

29

5.00018 6.84155

29

5.10852 6.80694

29

4.84153 6.85524

29

4.74011 6.75742

29

4.84479 6.74101

29

4.86993 6.4902

29

5.18636 6.61779

29

5.16037 6.66665

29

5.24201 6.66155

29

5.21025 6.79712

29

4.73297 6.7902

29

4.56379 6.74179

29

4.49383 6.53605

29

4.77954 6.4299

29

4.68213 6.20839

29

4.57832 6.50134

29

4.50509 6.50498

29

4.68781 6.56979

29

4.65814 6.14362

29

4.72411 6.28501

29

4.74694 6.33128

29

4.51 6.30619

29

4.58357 6.2253

29

4.37528 6.01075

30

4.28201 6.07831

30

4.25714 5.96361

30

4.03511 6.19183

30

3.73311 6.23514

30

3.66102 6.13676

30

3.49136 6.03691

30

3.40932 5.96787

30

3.65978 5.97041

30

3.75525 6.01198

30

3.61409 6.00729

30

3.82725 5.91393

30

3.82107 5.98905

30

3.98689 6.01622

30

3.91335 6.14334

30

3.80669 6.15109

30

3.78167 5.92639

30

4.01294 5.61287

30

3.85037 5.82591

30

3.91877 5.85639

30

4.00874 5.84236

30

3.91999 5.82506

30

4.08285 5.85335

30

4.31693 5.89764

30

4.08251 5.89444

30

3.96046 5.93734

30

3.93345 5.82096

30

4.04771 5.88377

30

3.89616 5.90324

30

3.94288 5.77567

30

3.95627 5.83647

30

3.97665 5.89651

30

3.52314 5.84339

30

3.76986 5.92883

30

3.7742 6.01917

30

3.72608 6.10937

30

3.86812 6.28555

30

3.68105 6.01267

30

4.02919 5.83962

30

3.97733 5.78281

30

3.74911 5.89056

30

3.65688 5.59336

30

3.89275 5.56341

30

3.9238 5.61152

30

4.12308 5.64782

30

4.06703 5.51989

30

4.05821 5.33168

30

3.98423 5.52162

30

4.08465 5.59134

30

3.56277 5.83054

30

3.62381 5.91733

30

3.8153 5.75269

30

3.98627 5.71252

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

Chart 3 displays the percentage of men out of the labor force (not working and not actively seeking employment) from ages 25 through 30. Over these ages, men in the NLSY97 were more likely to be out of the labor force than men in the NLSY79. At age 25, about 7 percent of men in the NLSY79 were out of the labor force compared with over 11 percent of men in the NLSY97. By age 30, about 8 percent of men in the NLSY79 were out of the labor force compared with about 10 percent of men in the NLSY97.

View Chart Data

Chart 3. Percentage of men out of the labor force ages 25 through 30, NLSY79 and NLSY97 cohorts
Age NLSY79 NLSY97

25

7.15689 11.48448

25

7.42691 11.37045

25

7.45641 11.22121

25

7.31846 11.61361

25

7.13134 11.77766

25

7.10308 11.81603

25

6.9729 11.43788

25

7.00134 11.26039

25

7.55171 11.59524

25

7.77658 11.79597

25

7.54395 11.86509

25

7.6284 11.54627

25

7.56011 11.75126

25

7.8186 11.48623

25

7.62549 11.91751

25

7.65244 12.03497

25

7.63253 11.89994

25

7.9761 11.82254

25

7.80253 11.88154

25

7.91619 11.71546

25

7.7956 11.69897

25

7.60465 11.47315

25

7.34742 11.69802

25

7.57164 11.74946

25

7.27344 11.67181

25

7.35734 11.86049

25

7.33907 11.62397

25

7.34013 11.56243

25

7.25418 11.33909

25

7.19459 11.18758

25

7.33524 11.11352

25

7.39229 11.43192

25

7.00115 11.73642

25

7.16493 11.62754

25

7.52316 11.62088

25

7.62702 11.56429

25

7.69364 11.45655

25

7.62915 11.38864

25

7.78684 11.60709

25

7.70945 11.33572

25

7.80418 11.54643

25

7.83353 11.7708

25

7.84704 11.76519

25

7.58374 11.36681

25

6.92217 11.58489

25

7.45067 11.46312

25

7.31171 11.16924

25

7.47653 11.29336

25

7.29704 10.8281

25

7.34205 10.92099

25

7.53064 10.58932

25

7.42145 10.58238

26

7.29917 10.65087

26

7.3031 10.79801

26

7.37102 10.82634

26

7.13888 10.90555

26

7.23789 11.09757

26

7.46045 11.26776

26

7.71156 11.39751

26

7.81366 11.19275

26

7.65335 11.28366

26

7.69195 11.14043

26

7.51378 11.17675

26

7.53918 10.84754

26

7.40354 10.9059

26

7.66536 10.94853

26

7.37765 10.99427

26

7.15047 10.97301

26

7.70791 10.49444

26

7.53928 10.62369

26

7.44435 10.73958

26

7.51309 10.58054

26

7.36429 10.55958

26

7.65451 10.51297

26

7.56542 10.64679

26

7.47225 10.67449

26

7.56021 10.46327

26

7.49388 10.84544

26

7.54534 10.88128

26

7.59378 10.53518

26

7.63729 10.59684

26

7.52814 10.7257

26

7.5199 10.56657

26

7.73848 10.24508

26

7.75557 10.86867

26

7.5474 10.43389

26

7.22976 10.68118

26

7.01558 10.53897

26

7.23045 10.5809

26

7.14292 10.55224

26

7.19167 10.68578

26

7.09323 10.44788

26

6.99156 10.71449

26

7.0851 10.50511

26

6.9739 10.57317

26

7.0211 10.68732

26

7.07268 10.17419

26

7.23653 10.55425

26

7.45838 10.19563

26

7.3515 10.69623

26

7.15223 10.2696

26

7.44943 10.34343

26

7.43864 10.25127

26

7.57085 10.24668

27

7.43528 10.42017

27

7.59993 10.66899

27

7.89174 10.90455

27

7.79756 10.28743

27

7.84806 10.38351

27

7.36425 10.38863

27

7.45298 10.55518

27

7.3253 10.30446

27

7.4002 10.3312

27

6.9443 10.38071

27

6.80935 10.32983

27

6.84628 10.4243

27

7.01768 10.11312

27

7.01108 9.94355

27

7.55471 10.38379

27

7.1642 10.18911

27

7.27672 10.05458

27

7.02597 10.05691

27

6.93977 9.81122

27

7.36486 10.36073

27

7.41434 9.97469

27

7.53202 10.0216

27

7.4478 10.25988

27

7.48236 10.17593

27

7.51965 10.00789

27

7.18986 10.23439

27

7.29326 9.96906

27

7.4059 9.82204

27

7.45156 9.77677

27

7.56429 9.81534

27

7.21766 9.95156

27

7.32742 9.99531

27

7.47829 10.26465

27

7.18627 10.09867

27

7.17306 10.28663

27

7.40256 10.18595

27

7.46994 10.30801

27

7.30788 10.26028

27

7.11066 9.97214

27

7.24789 10.10299

27

7.19713 9.98931

27

6.91344 9.87776

27

7.27728 9.81828

27

7.19717 9.88623

27

7.04249 9.74696

27

6.87814 9.76313

27

6.71996 9.70087

27

6.82272 9.57926

27

7.05257 9.89828

27

6.93619 9.8165

27

6.96732 9.77341

27

6.94878 9.84558

28

6.93516 9.77999

28

7.29932 9.74294

28

7.1924 9.91026

28

7.22022 9.88734

28

7.38812 9.86063

28

7.31181 9.71214

28

7.22024 9.91925

28

6.92159 9.80825

28

7.19608 9.94702

28

7.32864 9.98192

28

7.4978 10.08446

28

7.42866 10.25383

28

7.54777 10.2333

28

7.62225 9.81054

28

7.36762 9.97324

28

7.53461 9.56219

28

7.39376 9.5196

28

7.61155 9.65823

28

7.51952 9.42699

28

7.73188 9.39689

28

7.40808 9.34314

28

7.65062 9.65848

28

7.46407 10.08205

28

7.40152 9.86536

28

7.51401 9.64008

28

7.55304 9.51429

28

7.74453 9.47776

28

7.80801 9.45349

28

7.95327 9.75494

28

7.58804 9.68319

28

7.71174 9.77364

28

7.36797 9.78289

28

7.38714 9.95215

28

6.91477 9.98841

28

6.9541 9.97928

28

6.86233 10.0058

28

6.76555 10.21454

28

6.95712 10.21824

28

7.14095 9.97463

28

6.94434 10.07287

28

6.84824 10.34618

28

6.97849 10.39564

28

7.17802 9.90458

28

7.34864 9.99439

28

7.34878 10.00798

28

7.4121 10.20181

28

7.12055 9.93773

28

7.32415 10.31564

28

7.12794 10.48517

28

7.41268 10.43369

28

7.51546 10.47613

28

7.51502 10.36248

29

7.48749 10.37938

29

7.41929 10.50733

29

7.73353 10.37162

29

7.83151 10.2433

29

7.93837 10.54049

29

7.99046 10.5149

29

8.04056 10.23552

29

8.11129 10.44127

29

8.05119 10.36946

29

8.02456 10.58406

29

7.77949 10.62844

29

7.97424 10.61338

29

7.80406 10.71946

29

7.90918 10.68409

29

7.77932 10.73203

29

8.13704 10.9161

29

7.80386 10.86278

29

8.07725 10.7539

29

7.95445 10.57853

29

7.81419 10.47481

29

7.89253 11.02926

29

8.33845 10.86602

29

8.30842 10.92982

29

8.18817 10.88417

29

8.5734 10.81965

29

8.68712 10.86344

29

8.71268 10.73989

29

8.6114 10.52631

29

8.55153 10.4086

29

8.68517 10.17062

29

8.67361 10.41504

29

8.29045 10.5892

29

8.26559 10.52551

29

8.35563 10.64319

29

8.10171 10.63208

29

8.07468 10.59358

29

8.25685 10.7039

29

8.02502 10.76105

29

7.86335 10.5794

29

8.02553 10.54416

29

8.12724 10.63807

29

7.8043 10.75128

29

7.95609 10.76802

29

7.94262 10.77244

29

7.76831 10.45965

29

8.15691 10.2512

29

8.20952 10.52561

29

8.14265 10.46412

29

8.24543 10.3821

29

8.16784 10.42998

29

8.02722 10.31629

29

8.10629 10.46064

30

8.44437 10.39515

30

8.12651 10.54428

30

8.43163 10.44454

30

8.32419 10.09862

30

8.12534 10.17925

30

7.8799 10.09115

30

7.84098 10.27579

30

7.75831 10.17098

30

8.13437 10.23133

30

8.0729 10.19758

30

8.08696 10.08412

30

7.96882 10.44759

30

8.13632 10.11396

30

8.08227 10.47369

30

8.02949 10.22498

30

7.86854 10.62627

30

7.81699 10.44671

30

7.96819 10.38985

30

8.18345 10.4492

30

8.21529 10.5742

30

8.40142 10.59505

30

8.35188 10.4998

30

8.49781 10.30084

30

8.22675 10.45394

30

8.01216 10.83034

30

8.29665 10.43878

30

8.17377 10.45915

30

8.2443 10.62199

30

8.37113 10.54066

30

8.68042 10.35792

30

8.50887 10.50729

30

8.84679 10.67179

30

8.8484 10.45188

30

8.55659 10.51833

30

8.56639 10.44329

30

8.39442 10.49408

30

8.64431 10.2327

30

8.91654 10.61611

30

9.05447 10.74706

30

8.92668 11.02015

30

8.70406 10.80303

30

8.74376 10.98601

30

8.91216 10.78871

30

8.896 10.67089

30

8.74283 10.63464

30

8.97295 10.91558

30

8.93029 10.75835

30

8.86923 10.89856

30

8.93502 10.4575

30

8.65714 10.44765

30

8.91289 10.79952

30

8.98753 10.93231

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

Periods of nonwork

Next, I focus on continuous periods of nonwork. Chart 4 shows the percentage of all men not working in the years leading up to the 1996 (NLSY79) and 2015–16 (NLSY97) interviews, when respondents were ages 30 to 36. About 4.9 percent of the NLSY79 sample and 8.5 percent of the NLSY97 sample did not work in the year prior to the 1996 or 2015–16 interview.9 These are the men who are defined as nonworkers in the article, whereas the rest of the men worked at least some weeks prior to the 1996 or 2015–16 interview, and are referred to as workers.

View Chart Data

Chart 4. Percentage of men who did not work during the years prior to the 1996 NLSY79 and 2015–16 NLSY97 interviews
Years before interview NLSY79 NLSY97

First year

4.9 8.5

Second year

5.3 9.6

Third year

5.5 9.6

First and second

3.5 6.7

First, second, and third

2.8 5.4

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

In the second year before the interview, 5.3 percent of men in the NLSY79 and 9.6 percent of men in the NLSY97 did not work, with similar percentages for the third year before the interview (chart 4). Within the NLSY97, 6.7 percent of men did not work either the first or second year before the 2015–16 interview, and 5.4 percent did not work any of the first, second, or third years prior to it. These percentages are nearly twice as large as those for the NLSY79 cohort, again reflecting the increase in nonwork for the NLSY97 cohort.

Table 1 shows employment history for the two cohorts, by whether they worked in the year prior to the 1996 or 2015–16 interview (that is, grouped by nonworker or worker status).  Recall the men were ages 30 to 36 at the interview. The majority of men who did not work in the year prior to the 1996 or 2015–16 interview, also did not work much in the two earlier years. For example, in the NLSY97, 79.3 percent of men who did not work in the year prior to the 2015–16 interview also did not work in the second year prior to the interview. Only 4.2 percent who did not work in the year prior to the 2015–16 interview worked 75 percent or more weeks in the second year prior to the interview. In contrast, the majority of the men categorized as workers worked 75 percent of weeks or more in the years prior to the 1996 or 2015–16 interview. Additional data available in the NLSY79 also show that nonworkers were likely to remain not working the year after the interview. 

Table 1. Men's employment history in the years prior to the 1996 NLSY79 and 2015–16 NLSY97 interviews
Percentage of weeks employed NLSY79 NLSY97
Did work in prior year Did not work in prior year Did work in prior year Did not work in prior year

Year before interview

Worked no weeks

0 100 0 100

Worked more than 0 but less than 25 percent of weeks

2.3 0 2.3 0

Worked 25 to less than 75 percent of weeks

7 0 7.6 0

Worked 75 percent or more weeks

90.7 0 90.1 0

Second year before interview

Worked no weeks

1.9 71.5 3.1 79.3

Worked more than 0 but less than 25 percent of weeks

1.4 5.9 2.2 7

Worked 25 to less than 75 percent of weeks

5.7 13.1 5.7 9.5

Worked 75 percent or more weeks

91 9.5 89 4.2

Third year before interview

Worked no weeks

2.6 62.3 4.5 64.7

Worked more than 0 but less than 25 percent of weeks

1.5 5 2.3 7.5

Worked 25 to less than 75 percent of weeks

6.6 11.4 7.3 10.3

Worked 75 percent or more weeks

89.3 21.3 85.8 17.6

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

Characteristics of workers and nonworkers

In both cohorts, worker and nonworker characteristics differed substantially. For example, chart 5 shows lower levels of educational attainment for nonworkers, compared with workers. Nonworkers were less likely to have a bachelor’s degree (about 6 percent in the NLSY79 have one and 9 percent in the NLSY97 do), compared with workers (about 26 percent in the NLSY79 have one and 35 percent in the NLSY97). Nonworkers were more likely to have less than a high school education or GED than workers.

View Chart Data

Chart 5. Men's education, by work status in year prior to the 1996 NLSY79 and 2015–16 NLSY97 interviews
Cohort Less than high school GED High school diploma Some college Bachelor's degree or higher

NLSY79 workers

10.5 8.2 35.6 19.9 25.8

NLSY79 nonworkers

26.7 27.2 24.1 15.7 6.4

NLSY97 workers

6.7 10.5 23.1 24.8 35

NLSY97 nonworkers

18.6 20.8 29.4 22.2 9

Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979 and 1997, (NLSY79 and NLSY97), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chart 6 shows Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) percentile scores for the two cohorts by nonworker status.10 In both cohorts, workers were fairly evenly distributed across the four quarters of AFQT percentile scores. In comparison, nonworkers were less likely to have AFQT scores in the 75th percentile or higher (about 4 percent in the NLSY79 and 7 percent in the NLSY97) and more likely to have scores that were less than the 25th percentile (64 percent in the NLSY79 and 53 percent in the NLSY97).

View Chart Data

Chart 6. Men's Armed Forces Qualification Test percentile scores, by work status in year prior to the 1996 NLSY79 and 2015–16 NLSY97 interviews
cohort Less than 25th percentile 25th to less than 50th percentile 50th to less than 75th percentile 75th percentile and higher

NLSY79 workers

26 22.2 25.4 26.4

NLSY79 nonworkers

63.7 16.4 15.6 4.3

NLSY97 workers

23.8 24.1 23.5 28.6

NLSY97 nonworkers

53.4 20.5 18.8 7.3

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

Table 2 shows men’s characteristics by work status at the 1996 and 2015–16 interview dates. The differences between workers and nonworkers are striking and show similar patterns across the NLSY79 and NLSY97. About 51 percent of men who did not work the year prior to their interview in the NLSY79 stated that health issues limited their ability to work, compared with about 5 percent of the sample who did at least some work in the prior year and also said health issues were limiting. Similarly, 41 percent of nonworkers in the NLSY97 reported that health issues limited their ability to work, compared with 4 percent of workers who reported the same.

Men who did not work in the prior year were more likely to have been interviewed in prison (24 percent in the NLSY79 and 16 percent in the NLSY97) than men who had worked at any point in the prior year (less than 1 percent for both the NLSY79 and the NLSY97). In the NLSY79, nonworkers were more likely to be Black (41 percent) compared with their working peers (13 percent). In the NLSY97, 34 percent of nonworkers were Black, compared with 14 percent of their working peers.

Nonworkers in the NLSY79 were more likely to have never been married (52 percent) compared with their working peers (25 percent of whom did not marry).  And, 70 percent of nonworkers in the NLSY97 never married compared with 44 percent of workers who never married. Nonworkers in the NLSY79 were more likely to live in a household with a parent (30 percent) than their working peers (10 percent). Thirty-one percent of nonworkers in the NLSY97 lived with a parent, compared with 14 percent of workers in the NLSY97 who also lived with a parent. Men who did not work in the prior year were also less likely to have their own children in the household, compared with men who did at least some work in the prior year.

Nonworkers in the NLSY79 were more likely to report unemployment in the prior year (18 percent) than their peers who had worked at any point in the prior year (11 percent) and 33 percent of nonworkers in the NLSY97 reported unemployment, compared with 11 percent of their working peers. But only a small percentage of nonworkers collected unemployment insurance during that time.

Table 2. Men's characteristics at interview date, by work status in year prior to the 1996 NLSY79 and 2015–16 NLSY97 interviews
Characteristics NLSY79 NLSY97
Did work in prior year Did not work in prior year Did work in prior year Did not work in prior year

Health limit work

4.6 50.6 4.3 40.9

Interviewed in prison

0.7 24 0.4 16.3

Enrolled in school at interview date

3.2 6.6 5.7 7.3

Military/veteran

14.8 13.2 11 8.6

Any weeks unemployed prior year

11.1 17.8 11.3 32.7

Collected UI prior year

5.8 1.2 3.8 3

Race/ethnicity

non-Black, non-Hispanic

80.9 48.5 71.6 52.4

Black, non-Hispanic

12.7 40.7 13.6 33.5

Hispanic or Latino

6.4 10.7 13.4 13.1

Mixed race (in NLSY97 only)

1.4 1

Marital status

Never married

24.5 51.6 43.6 70

Married

60.5 22.6 47.8 18.1

Separated

2.8 6.4 1 2.7

Divorced/widowed

12.2 19.4 7.6 9.2

Cohabiting (sample not married)

21.4 12.5 35.7 15.9

Live in household with parent

9.8 30.2 13.6 30.6

Own children under age 6 in household

36.8 20 36.5 10.8

Age 30 to 32

30 36.8 40.2 38.3

Age 33 to 36

70 63.2 59.8 61.7

Note: Dash indicates data not available.

Source:  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

Summary

Men in the two NLSY cohorts, born 20 years apart, have different labor market patterns. Charts of weekly employment, unemployment, and out of the labor force percentages show that men in the NLSY97 cohort (at ages 25 through 30) are consistently less likely to be employed and more likely to be both unemployed and out of the labor force at these ages. After establishing the differences in trends across cohorts in labor market experiences, the article focused on nonwork over a fixed period of time. About 5 percent of men ages 30 to 36 in the NLSY79 and 9 percent in the NLSY97 did not work in the year prior to their 1996 and 2015–16 interviews.  A majority had also not worked much in earlier years. Two possible reasons for nonwork status relate to health limitations that affect the ability to work (51 percent in the NLSY79 and 41 percent in the NLSY97) and current incarceration (24 percent in the NLSY79 and 16 percent in the NLSY97). Men who did not work in the prior year were more likely to have less than a high school education and to score lower on the AFQT test given to respondents after an early-round interview, compared with men who had worked in the prior year. Nonworkers were also less likely to be married and more likely to live in a household with a parent.

This Beyond the Numbers article was prepared by Donna Rothstein, a research economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics (OEUS), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. E-mail: NLS_INFO@bls.gov; telephone: 202-691-7410; E-mail: rothstein.donna@bls.gov; telephone: 202-691-7529.

Notes

1 See Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey (CPS) data series LNS1130061, Seasonally adjusted, Labor Force Participation Rate 25-54 years, Men, Civilian labor force participation rate.  More recently (late 2018/early 2019), the rate has been ticking up to 89 percent or a little over.

2 The Long-term Decline in Prime-age Male Labor Force Participation, (Council of Economic Advisors, June 2016).

3 Nonworker is a term sometimes used in economic research to refer to people who are not working due to being unemployed or out of the labor force. See Jay Stewart, “Male Nonworkers: Who Are They and Who Supports Them?” Demography Vol. 43 (3): 537-552. doi: https://link.springer.com/journal/volumesAndIssues/13524

4 Krueger, Alan B. “Where Have All of the Workers Gone? An Inquiry into the Decline of the Labor Force Participation Rate,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (2017): 1–59. doi: 10.1353/eca.2017.0012

5 Coglianese, John. “The Rise of Ins-and-Outs: Declining Labor Force Participation of Prime-age Men,” Harvard University, working paper (November 2017).

6 Katharine Abraham and Melissa Kearney (2018) extensively reviewed the literature on the decline in the employment to population ratio over time and they evaluated which factors they believed are most important for the decline from 1996–2016. They suggested that factors associated with labor demand, primarily related to trade and automation, were the most responsible for the decline over this period. Labor supply factors, such as increased participation in disability insurance programs, the real value of the minimum wage, and the rise in incarceration rates and the increase in people with prison records also had an impact. Abraham, Katharine G.; Kearney, Melissa S. “Explaining the Decline in the U.S. Employment-to-Population Ratio: A Review of the Evidence.” NBER Working paper no. 24333 (2018).

7 Jay Stewart (2006) provided descriptive statistics of male nonworkers and their sources of financial support. He used the NLSY79 to look at work history from 1987–1997 and found that a small fraction of men account for the majority of years that were spent not working. And, using data from the Current Population Survey, he found that a substantial proportion of nonworkers lived with family members and received financial support from them. 

8 Ages 25 to 30 were chosen to show trends in labor market experience across the two cohorts because individuals in the NLSY97 are ages 30 to 36 at their 2015-16 interview, and 30 is the highest age that would allow these first three charts to use the sample of all birth years for all ages.

9 Descriptive statistics in the charts and tables use 1996 survey weights (NLSY79) and 2015-16 interview survey weights (NLSY97).

10 The Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) covers four sections of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and measures math and verbal aptitude. This test was given to NLSY79 respondents in 1980 and NLSY97 respondents in 1997–1998.

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Publish Date: Monday, August 12, 2019

Suggested citation:

Donna Rothstein,   “Men who do not work during their prime years: What do the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth data reveal?” Beyond the Numbers, vol. 8, no. 11 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aug 2019), https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-8/male-nonworkers-nlsy.htm (visited October 16, 2021).

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