David Pierce was never someone who sat around watching life go by. He worked as a chef and had a catering business on the side. He sang in his church choir and did community theater, where he met his wife.
Then, in his mid-50s, doctors removed part of Pierce's foot, a complication of diabetes.
"My health just went, kind of really downhill. It really took a turn for the worse," says Pierce, sitting at his dining room table in his tidy home in Apalachin, N.Y. "I couldn't maintain even a part-time schedule."
A year ago, he went on disability, joining the large army of men who have left the workforce for good.
While the job market has rebounded nicely since the Great Recession, one segment of the population hasn't shared in the recovery. Men between the ages of 25 and 54 are still less likely to be working than they once were, says Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland.
In 1968, about 95% of men in their prime working years held jobs. The number has fallen to just 86%, even though today's job market is ultra-tight.
Kearney says the recovery and employment growth in the past five years are very encouraging. But, she says, "I still see a lot of data that suggests we have structural challenges, and we need to be doing more to try and draw more prime-age workers back into the workforce."
The decline in male workers is concentrated almost entirely among men with high school diplomas or less, or even a bit of college, she says. At one time, men of all educational levels were equally likely to be working; today, a huge gap has opened up, with many more college graduates holding jobs.
Simply put, there's much less demand for the labor of less-educated men, Kearney says.
"They're competing now with low-wage workers around the globe, and that's depressed domestic demand for their skills in the workforce," she says.
Jonathan DeMarco lost his job at a metal fabricating plant in upstate New York in 2006. He does odd jobs when he finds them, but he hasn't had full-time work ever since.
DeMarco still looks for work, but with his dyslexia, he doesn't read or write well and has trouble persuading employers to hire him, he says.
"It's just hard out there for people like myself to get a job," he says.
He refuses to accept any government assistance, and, like many men in his situation, survives largely because his wife works, at a local factory. But her health isn't good, he says.
"She was out of work ... for four or five months. That put us way behind in the bills," he says.
In rural Schoharie County, where DeMarco lives, the unemployment rate is a very low 3.8%. But a lot of men don't show up in the government's numbers because they aren't looking for work anymore, says Gail Breen, executive director of the local workforce development board.
"There are a lot of hidden people in those numbers that don't have jobs," she says. They are "people who have pretty much just given up."
Some suffer from health problems or drug abuse, or just lack the skills needed for today's workforce, she says.
In rural areas, where public transportation is rare, simply finding a way to get to work can be a challenge.
Frank Altieri, who lives in the upstate New York town of Owego, served time in prison on an assault charge and hasn't worked full time since getting out four years ago. At 40, he has come close to finding work sometimes, but without a car his options are limited, he says.
Altieri points out that if he works full time, he and his wife risk losing their disability check and food stamps, so if he takes a job that doesn't pay well, he won't come out ahead.
"I am looking for work, but with my SSI they can actually cut me off, under a certain amount," he says.
At one time, men like Altieri could find work by moving to cities, where they'd make more money. But these days, a high school graduate in New York City or Boston doesn't make much more than someone in a rural area, and costs in the city are a lot higher, says Kearney, the economics professor.
"The wage premium for cities that everyone used to get, even that's disappeared for the non-college-educated," she says.
Since quitting his job, money has been tight for Pierce. His wife, Lonna, a retired school librarian, went back to work temporarily this year.
The Pierces are selling a rental property because they need the money and because Pierce no longer has the energy for upkeep. He and his wife don't travel or go out as much as they once did.
"He's changed a lot," Lonna Pierce says. "We can't do what we did together. That's the thing that makes it harder. And of course it's wearing on a marriage when you're not doing things together. And that's sad. Obviously, that's why you get married. You want to have a partner."
Being without work has taken another toll on Pierce: He has trouble sleeping.
"My career was my identity, who I am," he says. "And to lose that really affected me and created an added layer of depression. I no longer could identify as the guy that was a wonder with food.
"I could whip up all sorts of meals and stuff, and today, if I do one I'm lucky. Just making lunch or breakfast can zap me for the day. That was a real hardship for me."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
These days, there is this paradox in the job market. The unemployment rate is as low as it's been in a half-century. But men in their prime working years are much more likely to be unemployed than they once were. Ten years after the Great Recession, many men have fallen through the cracks of the labor force, especially in rural areas.
Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: It's mid-afternoon on a sunny autumn day. But David Pierce is doing what he often does, sitting inside at his dining room table. He lives in the sleepy New York town of Apalachin. Until a few years ago, Pierce was busy and active. He worked as a chef and caterer. He did community theater. Then, in his mid-50s, he was sidelined by diabetes. He had to have part of a foot removed.
DAVID PIERCE: My health just went - got really downhill. It really took a turn for the worse. I was just - I couldn't maintain even a part-time schedule.
ZARROLI: Now he spends his days listening to classical music and surfing the net.
LONNA: Yeah. He's changed a lot. Well, we can't do what we did together, that's the thing that makes it the harder. And of course, it's wearing on, you know, on a marriage when you're not doing things together. And that's sad, you know. I mean, obviously, that's why you get married, you want to have a partner.
ZARROLI: And with David not working, money's tight. Lonna is a retired school librarian, but she's gone back to work temporarily. They're having to sell a rental house they own. A year ago, Pierce went on disability, officially leaving the workforce for good.
He's got plenty of company. The job market has rebounded sharply from a decade ago. But economist Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland says men ages 25 to 54 are still less likely to be employed than they once were.
MELISSA KEARNEY: The employment rate among these prime age men is still far below what it was in the '80s and '70s.
ZARROLI: In 1968, about 95% of men in their prime years were working. Today, even in a tight labor market, it's just 86%. Kearney says this decline has been almost entirely among those with a high school diploma or less or maybe a bit of college. These men once worked at the same rate as college graduates. Jonathan DeMarco hasn't had full-time work since 2006, when he was let go from a metal fabricating plant. He still looks for a regular job.
JONATHAN DEMARCO: Last one, Lowe's down in Oneonta, I told them right out. I was honest, said I have problems reading and writing. And they - I think that's the reason why they didn't hire me.
ZARROLI: DeMarco has leathery skin and thick gray hair that stands up like a rooster's coxcomb. He concedes he's not well-suited to today's workplace. He doesn't like email. He can't understand why they won't let you smoke at work anymore. So he picks up odd jobs whenever he can find them. Like a lot of men in his situation, he depends on his wife to get by. She works in a factory.
DEMARCO: Her health is not the greatest. She was out of work the end of last year, the beginning of this year for four or five months. That put us way behind in the bills. You know, it's really hard.
ZARROLI: DeMarco lives in Schoharie County in the hilly farm country of upstate New York. The county's unemployment rate is a very low 3.8%. But Gail Breen, executive director of a local employment office, says the numbers mask a larger problem. Factories have closed over the years. Many men stopped looking for work a long time ago, which means the government doesn't even count them as part of the workforce anymore.
GAIL BREEN: There are a lot of hidden people in those numbers that don't have jobs.
ZARROLI: Like a lot of rural places, this part of New York state doesn't have much public transportation. So even if you find a job, it can be tough to get to work. Forty-year-old Frank Altieri lives in Owego, a quaint, Victorian town along the Susquehanna River. He hasn't worked full-time since he got out of prison four years ago.
FRANK ALTIERI: Well, today, it's pretty much dead around here. There's no - hardly no work around here. One restaurant that's sitting up here on North Ave., he told me if I can get a car, I can do deliveries for him, and I'd get, like, 20% of that.
ZARROLI: But he has no car, and he's not likely to get one anytime soon. Altieri points out that if he works, he and his wife could lose their food stamps and monthly disability check. So unless the pay is decent, it doesn't make much sense to get a job. In the past, men like Altieri could move to big cities to find work. They'd make more money there. But economist Melissa Kearney says that's not true anymore.
KEARNEY: The wage premium for cities that everyone used to get, even that's disappeared for the non-college-educated.
ZARROLI: Kearney says a high school graduate in New York City or Boston doesn't earn much more than someone in a rural area. And the city's a lot more expensive, so it doesn't make sense to move. On the other hand, having a job is not just about making money.
Back in his dining room, David Pierce says that, as a chef, he used to spend all day on his feet cooking. Now he barely has the energy to make breakfast. And he's not really trained for office work. He's struggled with depression. He doesn't sleep well.
PIERCE: I think, you know, for a man, it was disabling in the fact that my career is my identity, who I am. And to lose that really affected me. I no longer could identify as, you know, the guy that was a wonder with food.
ZARROLI: The job market may be booming in much of the country right now, but a growing number of men in the prime of their lives have stopped working, and that can take a psychic toll.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
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