Skip to main content
A man is reflected in a puddle as he walks with an umbrella in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RC18541FABC0

Men without work

Why are they so unhappy in the US compared to other places?


The global economy is full of progress paradoxes. Progress in technological innovation, reducing poverty, and increasing life expectancy around the world continues to increase. Yet there is also persistent poverty in poor and fragile states and increasing inequality and anomie in some of the wealthiest ones. This latter trend is showing up in a resurgence of nativism and anti-establishment voting across many countries. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S. in 2016 soon after British voters’ decision to leave the European Union were stark markers. Subsequent elections of right-wing populists in several other European countries confirmed a rising backlash against globalization in wealthy countries.


These trends have even starker markers. Despite having one of the wealthiest economies in the world, life expectancy in the U.S. is falling due to deaths driven by suicides and drug and alcohol overdose, primarily—although not only—among less than college-educated whites in their middle-aged years. Our research finds that poor whites report much less hope for the future and more stress than do poor African Americans and Hispanics, even though the latter face higher objective disadvantages, and the trends in optimism (or lack thereof) and other markers of well-being match the patterns in deaths of despair.

Central among the drivers of these trends is the decline in the status and wages of low-skilled labor at the same time that those of high-skilled workers increase. A related feature is the increase in prime-aged males (and to a lesser extent women) simply dropping out of the labor force. In the U.S., for example, 15 percent of prime-aged males are out of the labor force and will likely increase to over 20 percent. Males who are out of the labor force are disproportionately represented among opioid users, on disability rolls, and in the deaths of despair. Such men are also more likely to live in counties that voted for Trump in 2016. While the trends may be most notable in the U.S., there is frustration among this same cohort in Europe that is likely reflected in voting trends there as well as in the U.S.

Unlike the U.S. and Europe, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have a long history of underemployment and unemployment among prime-aged males. At the time of the Arab Spring uprisings, much of the extant research focused on frustration among underemployed and unemployed males as a possible cause of the uprisings. Yet the results are inconclusive. Some authors pointed to a steep decrease in life satisfaction in the years preceding the Arab Spring, especially for those in the middle class. Arampatzi et al., meanwhile, find an association between life satisfaction and some of the commonly highlighted causes for the uprisings—unfavorable labor market conditions and perceptions of widespread corruption, cronyism, and inequality of opportunity. However, in the countries where uprisings took place, there is little evidence of either the middle class or youth being particularly dissatisfied by comparison with other groups in the same countries. Additionally, the research is limited by lack of formal testing for systematic differences between MENA countries where the uprisings did and did not take place.

Earlier research by one of us at the time attempted that comparison and found no systematic differences in life satisfaction trends across the countries in MENA with and without Arab Spring uprisings. The only difference that we found was less optimism about the future in the countries with uprisings compared to those without. However, there were not significant differences across demographic cohorts, such as the employed versus the unemployed. Moreover, despite the public frustration, most of the countries where uprisings took place were experiencing positive levels of economic growth. This is suggestive of the “progress paradox” phenomenon—in which significant segments of the population are left behind—that we have found in other countries and regions around the world, including those referenced above.

In the current study, which focuses on prime-aged males out of the labor force (OLF) across four regions—European Union (EU), Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), MENA, and the U.S.—we find that this group is not the poorest, and is instead likely closer to the low, vulnerable end of the middle-class continuum. While their levels of income are below the average for their countries, they are often slightly higher than those of the unemployed. In the developing regions of LAC and MENA, individuals who report to be out of the labor force likely work in the informal sector and earn reasonable if unpredictable incomes. In the U.S., OLF males are often on disability (as noted above) or other social insurance programs, while in Europe there are widely available and generous social welfare programs.

In this paper, we aim to shed light on the links between political disaffection and unhappiness by focusing on a specific and relatively understudied group: prime-aged males OLF. We compare the well-being and ill-being of this group in the U.S. and EU with those in a much poorer context in MENA. We also compare the same trends in LAC, a region known for relatively high levels of poverty and inequality, as well as large informal economies, but where there has been much positive progress in the past two decades.

Some of our results, described in detail below, are surprising. For example, prime-aged males out of the labor force in MENA are not particularly unhappy or frustrated compared to those employed full-time. Indeed, the unemployed are the worst group in that region.

In contrast, in the U.S., we find that prime-aged males out of the labor force are a particularly troubled group, both in terms of reported well-being and in terms of health and other markers of ill-being, perhaps because of the very strong ethic of hard work and individual effort, and the stigma associated with being out of the labor force. In addition, marriage rates and civic or religious participation have also fallen more for the working class—in part related to labor force dropout—relative to the college educated in the U.S. since the 1970s. Trends in optimism for this same group (less than college-educated males) also began to fall relative to women and African Americans during the same period.

Our aim is to better understand this cohort as part of a broader need to rethink our models of growth and indicators of progress. Despite their differences, all of these regions will continue to face the challenges of technology-driven growth that tend to exclude the less-than-college educated. While beyond the scope of this paper, we need to know much more about the kinds of policies that can encourage the participation of able workers in the new global economy, as well as those that can provide community involvement and other forms of activities that prevent isolation for those who can no longer work.


Get daily updates from Brookings