Why Are Middle-Aged Men Missing From the Labor Market?

Why Are Middle-Aged Men Missing From the Labor Market?

Some economists speculate that the disproportionate decline could be because the age group has been buffeted by repeated crises, making their labor market footing fragile. They lost work early in their careers in 2008, faced a slow recovery after and found their jobs at risk again amid 2020 layoffs and an ongoing shift toward automation.

“This group has been hit by automation, by globalization,” said David Dorn, a Swiss economist who studies labor markets.

That fragility theory makes sense to Mr. Rizzo.

He had seen the Navy as his ticket out of poverty in Louisiana and had expected to have a career in the service until he broke his back during basic training. He retired from the military after a few years. Then he pivoted, earning a two-year degree in Georgia and beginning a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University — with dreams of one day working to cure cancer.

Then the Great Recession hit. Mr. Rizzo had been working nights in a laboratory to afford rent and tuition, but the job ended abruptly in 2009. Phoenix was ground zero for the financial implosion’s fallout.

Frantic job applications yielded nothing, and Mr. Rizzo had to drop out of school. Worse, he found himself staring down imminent homelessness. His tax refund saved him by allowing him and his wife to move back to Louisiana, where jobs were more plentiful. But after they divorced, he hit a low point.

“I had nothing to show for my life after my 20s,” he explained.

Mr. Rizzo spent the next decade rebuilding. He worked his way through various corporate positions where he taught himself skills in Excel and Microsoft SharePoint, married again, had two sons and bought a house.

Yet he was regularly at risk of losing work to downsizing or technology — including late last year. The company he worked for wanted him to move into a new role, perhaps as a traveling salesperson, when his desk job disappeared. But his sons have special needs and that was not an option.

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