A Shift in the Workforce

A Shift in the Workforce: Where Are Men Going?

In the 1950s, 98 percent of men of prime working age—between 25 and 54—had a job or were looking for one. Ever since that number has steadily declined, and today 7.2 million men have dropped out of America’s workforce, leaving a significant void. Economists have not been able to pinpoint one single reason why men are leaving at such high rates and not returning. Instead, they believe it’s centered around changing societal norms and an education gap.

Why are men leaving the workforce?

There are several reasons why prime working-age men are not working or looking for a job.

  • Earnings erosion: The labor force participation decline among middle-aged men has been found to span all racial groups but is concentrated around men who do not have a four-year degree. Since 1980, men without a four-year degree have seen their real earnings decrease by 30 percent. In fact, most males today earn less than men in 1979, especially those with wages in the middle and bottom pay tiers. Many U.S. men leave the labor force when their earnings decline compared to their college-educated peers.
  • Decreased focus on social status: The decline in manufacturing jobs and the rise of the gig economy have also led to a shift away from traditional jobs that provided a stable income and upward mobility. This has made it more difficult for men to achieve the same level of financial security and social status that previous generations may have enjoyed through their careers. The decline in marriage rates has made some men feel less pressure to work, as they may not see a clear connection between their employment status and their social status or prospects for marriage.
  • Increase in female breadwinners: Up until 1974, a woman could not apply for and own a credit card in her name. Now, 54 percent of women out-earn their male partner, and 40 percent of households have a female breadwinner—quadrupling the number a few decades ago. The decline of the nuclear family unit has also diminished the traditional role of men as the household economic provider. In turn, men are dropping out of the workforce to take on greater responsibilities for caring for children or elderly family members.
  • Rise in opioid addiction: In 2021, 75 percent of overdose deaths involved an opioid. And it’s estimated that at least 8 million male workers are missing from the labor force due to opioid use.
  • Lucarativeness of content creation: The widespread availability of smartphones and other digital devices has democratized the content creation landscape, making it easier for people to create and share their work online. Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, and YouTube have given rise to an influencer market valued at $21.1 billion, where individual creators can make a living from their online endeavors. In fact, 21 percent of creators earn an annual net income of $50,000+, providing a lucrative career for men who can build a following and monetize their work effectively through advertising revenue, brand sponsorships, affiliate marketing, merchandise sales, and fan support.
  • Growing passion project economy: The passion project economy refers to the increasing trend of men pursuing projects and businesses that align with their personal interests and passions rather than solely focusing on financial gain. New careers that draw upon a person’s intrinsic curiosity are becoming more common, and 85 percent of the jobs of 2030 don’t even exist today. Several factors, including the growth of the internet, the rise of remote work, and the increasing importance of work-life balance, drive this trend.

What’s the solution?

To get men back into the workforce and fill talent gaps, organizations are taking the following initiatives:

  • Eliminating degree requirements: After the Great Recession, many companies began adding degree requirements to job postings that previously did not have them—even when the actual job duties had not changed. It is reasonably clear that labor force participation is lower for men with less schooling. To attract male job candidates, companies are looking beyond formal university degrees and viewing certificate programs and internships as qualifications for specific positions. Today, 41 percent of job postings require at least a bachelor’s degree—down from 46 percent in 2019.
  • Skills-based hiring: Organizations are taking a more realistic approach to recruitment and shifting their hiring process to widen their talent pool. Skills and experience are beginning to pull more weight. In skills-based hiring, job candidates are evaluated based on their transferable skills—competencies developed throughout their life that can be “transferred” to different positions and across industries. These skills may have been gained from a past job, life experiences, hobbies, or volunteer work.

Related: A Skills-Based Approach to Attracting, Retaining, and Developing Talent

  • Gender desegregation: Women have entered male-dominated jobs—including science, technology, math, engineering, medicine, and law—in record numbers and have shattered gender stereotypes of the past. However, that is not the case in the other direction. Just 26 percent of jobs in traditionally female HEAL fields—health, education, administration, and literacy—are held by men, down from 35 percent in 1980. Only 18 percent of social workers and 24 percent of K-12 teachers are men. As blue-collar jobs are replaced by automation and machine learning, men can look to HEAL fields for opportunities. And just as there was a national push to integrate women into STEM fields, a similar approach should be adopted to attract men into HEAL fields.

Millions of men have dropped out of the workforce, and organizations are struggling to bridge the talent gap during a period of historic unemployment where there are more jobs than workers. Because there is not one prominent force explaining why men are leaving and not returning, companies must implement a multi-faceted approach to attract and retain male workers.

This blog was written by Broadleaf’s Senior Vice President, Client Delivery Suzie Mitchell.