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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "NINE BILLION NAMES... (TO A. CLARKE)")
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