In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren't working. And in some locations, like Kentucky, the numbers are even higher: fewer than 70 percent of men lacking any college education go to work every day in that state.
The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. The jobless are far more prone to self-destructive behavior than are the working poor. Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won't be solved with a welfare check. The loss of work for so many also reflects the emergence of a modern labor market with little interest in less skilled job seekers. American wages were high in the 1960s and 1970s because of steady demand for unionized labor in Detroit and Allentown. Automation and globalization have destroyed many of those jobs, and the process is likely to continue. Technology gurus like Elon Musk believe that future innovations will make the human contribution to other economic sectors, including services, increasingly obsolete as well.