Once upon a time, nearly every man in America worked. In 1948, the labor-force participation rate was a staggering 96.7 percent among men in their prime working years.
That statistic has been steadily declining ever since. Today, about 11.5 percent of men between the ages of 24-54 are neither employed nor looking for a job. Economists say that these people are "out of the labor force" — and they don't figure into statistics like the unemployment rate.
This demographic trend has been the subject of much noise and consternation lately. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, calls the development a "quiet catastrophe: the collapse, over two generations, of work for American men."
Eberstadt concedes that he can't pinpoint the precise causes, but he implies that the problem, at its root, emanates from some kind of moral or societal dysfunction.
"Time-use surveys suggest [these men] are almost entirely idle," Eberstadt wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed a few weeks ago. "Unlike in the past, the U.S. is now evidently rich enough to carry them, after a fashion," he added.
Princeton professor Alan Krueger, a former chief economist at the Department of Labor and former chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, has taken a look at the same data — but he came away with a different conclusion.
What stood out to him is that a lot of these men say they are in considerable pain.
In a recently released draft of his paper, which he will present at a Federal Reserve conference in Boston on Friday, Krueger finds that 44 percent of male, prime-age labor force dropouts say they took pain medication the day prior — which is more than twice the rate reported by employed men.