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At 4.9 percent, the nation's unemployment rate is half of what it was at the height of the Great Recession. But that number hides a big problem. Millions of men in their prime working years have dropped out of the workforce, meaning they aren't working or even looking for a job. This is actually a trend that's held true for a long time. It still has economists puzzled. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: In the 1960s, nearly 100 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. That's fallen over the decades. In a recent report, President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers put male labor force participation at 83 percent, an enormous decline. So essentially, 10 million men are missing from the workforce.
NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: One in 6 prime-age guys has no job. It's kind of worse than it was in the Depression in 1940.
NOGUCHI: Nicholas Eberstadt is an economic and demographic researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who wrote the book "Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis." He says these men aren't even counted among the jobless because they aren't seeking work.
Eberstadt says little is known about the missing men. There are factors that make men less likely to be in the labor force - a lack of college degree, being single or black. So why are men leaving? And what are they doing instead?
They might be like Romeo Barnes. He lives in District Heights, Md. And his last job as a Wal-Mart greeter ended 11 years ago. He's 30, black, single and has cerebral palsy.
ROMEO BARNES: I have able-bodied friends who can't find work. So it's not just me.
NOGUCHI: Barnes says he's sought administrative jobs but says his disability and not having a college degree hold him back.
BARNES: Men are traditionally known for labor work. The lower-educated guys have to do stuff like that. And that's being taken away because we have machines.
NOGUCHI: Indeed, economists say technology and overseas competition is displacing many jobs. The number of people collecting disability insurance like Barnes has also increased. AEI's Eberstadt says criminal records may also play a factor.
Some 20 million Americans have criminal records, the vast majority of whom are men. But, he says, it's hard to know how big a factor that is because the government doesn't keep data on their employment status.
EBERSTADT: Something on the order of 1 out of every 8 adult men has got a felony conviction. And we don't have the slightest clue as to their employment patterns.
NOGUCHI: What the missing men aren't doing in large numbers is staying home to take care of family. Forty percent of non-working women are primary caregivers. That's true of only 5 percent of men out of the workforce. But they do exist. Virginia Beach dad Jory Rekkedal quit his IT job a year ago to take care of his two girls, a gig he has loved.
JORY REKKEDAL: It's still in the back of your brain. You're like, well, what is everybody else going to think? And what about my career? What if I have to go back to work?
NOGUCHI: And if he does, he worries about the prospects.
REKKEDAL: Things move really, really, really quick. And I'm worried that, you know, if we can't make it work - that I'm going to go looking for a job. And they're going to say, two years out of it - sorry, brother, you know, you don't have what it takes to work here anymore.
NOGUCHI: Tara Sinclair is chief economist for job search site indeed.com. She says brawny jobs are being replaced by brainy ones. And that trend doesn't favor men.
TARA SINCLAIR: The question is is this the new normal? Or with the right economic conditions - the right opportunities - will those people come back into the labor market?
NOGUCHI: Sinclair says if men keep exiting the workforce, that could strain the social safety net and hold back economic growth. Some, like Richard Hintzke, say they hope to go back to work. He shuttered his Detroit home-appraisal business in 2009 after the housing market crashed and considered his options.
RICHARD HINTZKE: You know, it looked like the sky was falling. So it was like, if there was ever a good time to disengage, I said this is a good time.
NOGUCHI: Hintzke, who is 53 and doesn't have children, relocated to Austin and has lived off income from investment properties. He says he misses the camaraderie he felt while working and the feeling of contributing something. These days, he's mulling a new career in holistic healing. But once you're out of work for a while, he admits, it's easy to lose momentum. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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