According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , 60 years ago close to 97 percent of men aged 25 to 54 — the prime working years — were working or looking for work. The rate has declined steadily since then.
In October 2022 the number was 88.5 percent, a slight dip from the previous two months. Here’s another way to look at it: Six decades ago, only one in 30 prime-age people identifying as male was not working or looking for work. Today, it’s nearly one in nine.
Why has this happened and what are the implications for the economy and workplaces here in the Lehigh Valley and across the United States?
One of the big reasons has been a steady decline in American manufacturing jobs, which traditionally have been male-dominated. In June 1979, manufacturing employment reached an all-time peak of 19.6 million.
In June 2019, it was at 12.8 million, down 6.7 million or 35 percent according to the BLS. Certainly, we experienced the historical decline here in the Lehigh Valley with Bethlehem Steel and other industrial manufacturers shutting down.
In fact, much of the increase in labor force exit among prime-age males in the past 40 years has been among men without a four-year college degree, often manufacturing or hourly service jobs, according to a recent paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
The second big reason has been increasing opportunities for individuals identifying as female in the workforce. Since the 1960s, more women have been continuing their education beyond high school. Many women are choosing to marry later and start families later. Child-care options have expanded, allowing both parents or single parents to work full-time and year-round. And many professions that were once nearly exclusively male have become more balanced. More gender equity in the workplace has meant more competition for positions that males have typically sought.
Conversely, men have not been seeking jobs that have been traditionally held by women. As of 2020, 87.4 percent of registered nurses and 79.6 percent of elementary and middle school teachers were female, according to the BLS.
At the same time, as women baby boomers continue to move into retirement, we are seeing a critical shortage of teachers, nurses, caregivers, child-care workers and other professions. These “HEAL” jobs — health, education, administration and literacy — are growing three times faster than STEM jobs according to Brookings Institution scholar Richard V. Reeves, which is compounding shortages now and into the future.
There are entrenched social forces at work here. Men have been either unprepared or unwilling to look at customarily female-dominated jobs such as education and health care. Self-image and perceived social stature for men are often deeply intertwined with their professions and income. Plus many of the above-mentioned professions have historically paid less than manufacturing jobs or professional positions.
Finally, we wouldn’t have a workplace column without mentioning the effects of the pandemic. Many people have been evaluating their careers in the past three years. One consequence has been an increase of men being stay-at-home parents, enabled by their partners’ ability to earn a family-sustaining income. With the possibility of gig-work, part-time and remote positions, there’s even the possibility to find a career or income stream that is more compatible with a renewed focus on family life.
So what does all this mean?
The trends we are seeing will be sustained. We might see fluctuations from year to year, but we’re not going to see women’s participation in the workforce constrict over time. In fact, there’s additional room for growth and equity, especially with earnings. Manufacturing has made a bit of a rebound both locally and nationally, but it is unlikely to get close to the 1970s peak.
The big opportunity — and need — is for more males to seek professions in the HEAL categories. We will continue to see the income potential for HEAL jobs rise as demand outstrips supply. We need parents, counselors, mentors and men themselves to reconsider their preconceived notions of professions being associated with one gender or another.
If you are one of those one in nine prime-aged males thinking about reentering the workforce, look to where there is long-term demand. Research educational and retraining options to qualify yourself for open positions.
Our society needs to continue to view work as a gender-neutral activity. A job is a job. A profession is a profession. A career is a career. We’ve made steady progress in the past decades, but further improvement is necessary.
Tina Hamilton is president and CEO of myHR Partner Inc., a Lehigh Valley human resources outsourcing firm that manages HR for clients in 34 states. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.