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The declining labor market prospects of less-educated men

Over the last half century, US wage growth stagnated, wage inequality rose, and the labor-force participation rate of prime-age men steadily declined. In this article, we examine these worrying labor market trends, focusing on outcomes for males without a college education. Though wages and participation have fallen in tandem for this population, we argue that the canonical neoclassical framework, which postulates a labor demand curve shifting inward across a stable labor supply curve, does not reasonably explain the data. Alternatives we discuss include adjustment frictions associated with labor demand shocks and effects of the changing marriage market—that is, the fact that fewer less-educated men are forming their own stable families—on male labor supply incentives. In the synthesis that emerges, the phenomenon of declining prime-age male labor-force participation is not coherently explained by a series of causal factors acting separately. A more reasonable interpretation, we argue, involves complex feedbacks between labor demand, family structure, and other factors that have disproportionately affected less-educated men.