What we know and don’t know about declining labor force participation: A review

Source: Eleanor Krause and Isabel V. Sawhill, Brookings Institution, May 2017

From the summary:

For decades, the portion of prime-age men (ages 25 to 54) in the labor force has been in decline. More recently, the labor force participation rate of prime-age women has stagnated and also declined. This paper addresses the consequences of, and reasons for, these declines, especially among men. A subsequent effort will address appropriate policy responses.

Women’s increasing workforce participation through the late 1990s largely masked the precipitous decline in male participation rates. Men’s rates have fallen about 8 percentage points over the past 60 years. On both fronts, the U.S. is also falling behind other advanced economies. U.S. prime-age female participation fell from 6th to 17th of 22 OECD member countries between 1990 and 2010. Over the same period, the decline in the prime-age male participation rate was the second most severe of the OECD countries, and is now the third lowest among the 34 member countries. The U.S. trends are particularly pronounced for non-Hispanic black men and less-skilled adults. There is now an 11 percentage point gap in participation rates between men with a college degree and those with a high school degree or less—whereas 50 years ago, the two rates were very similar.

Explanations for these trends tend to focus either on the demand for workers or the supply of labor. Trade and technology have reduced the demand for certain types of work, particularly less-skilled labor in fields like manufacturing. Of the two, most economists believe that automation has played the larger role. Manufacturing’s share of GDP has remained relatively stable but, thanks in part to productivity improvements, the sector now employs only two-thirds as many people as it did 30 years ago. Technological change has widened the wage gap between skill levels. While a man with a high school degree earned about three-quarters of the wages of his college-educated counterpart in 1980, he now earns about half as much. At the same time that technology has made certain jobs obsolete, new jobs are being created in other areas (both high-wage managerial and technical jobs and low-wage service sector jobs), but these new jobs often require different skills or pay lower wages…..