There’s been no shortage of discussion over the past several years with regard to the labor force participation rate. I’m absolutely not interested in getting into a high level debate about that on Tuesday and I’ll bet you aren’t either (suffice to say the obvious “answer” to the “question” is: demographics).
But what I am interested in talking about is this chart or actually, why this chart looks like it does:
So it’s not “news” that men have not returned to the labor force and there have been all manner of belabored (get it?) attempts to explain why. Well, BofAML has identified some possible explanations and those explanations stem from the bank’s observation that “weakness among men is particularly acute among 25-34 years old where the rate has continued to slip lower.”
Ok, so you can explain that by resorting to the same old boring excuses like stagnant wages (damn those Chinese!), but that’s not very creative and neither is it fun to read about. So instead, BofAML has come up with three alternative explanations for Millennial men being MIA when it comes to punching the clock and those explanations are:
Note: 1 and 3 are not mutually exclusive and 1 and 2 are probably correlated.
“Recent work from Alan Krueger found that the rise in opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2015 could account for about 20% of the decline in the male labor force participation rate during that same period,” the bank writes, in a note dated Friday.
According to a 2013 American Time Use Survey – Well-being Supplement (ATUS-WB), some 43% of NLF prime age men said they were in fair or poor health, compared to just 12% for men who had a job. Apparently, that same cohort is in a tremendous amount of pain because 44% of them said they had taken pain killers on one of the reference days.
BofAML does note that it’s “hard to prove causality” here, primarily because it isn’t clear whether these guys were in pain and scored some scripts which they then became addicted to thus reducing their motivation and ability to work or whether, frustrated at the lack of job opportunities, they decided to pursue careers in snorting Oxy. It’s like the old adage: “Which came first: the pain, the percs or the lack of participation?”
The prison factor is a little more straightforward. Here’s BofAML:
The rising number of incarcerations imposes another issue. Although prisoners are not counted toward the total civilian non-institutional population when calculating the LFPR, the problem associated with the labor market goes beyond prisons. The growing number of incarcerations has left more people with criminal records, making it difficult for them to reenter the workplace. Indeed, the share of male adult population of former prisoners has increased from 1.8% in 1980 to 5.8% in 2010.
One way we, as a society, could go about addressing that is to reform the draconian criminal justice system and when it comes to that effort, we need an Attorney General like Jeff Sessions about like we need a hole in the head.
As far as the Xbox goes, this is just down to laziness and stupidity or I guess “escapism” if you want to be really – really – generous about it. “Why work when you can play video games?,” BofAML asks, before noting that “according to the ATUS (time use survey), between 2004-07 and 2012-15, the average amount of time men aged 21-30 worked declined by 3.13 hours while the number of hours playing games increased by 1.67 and the hours using computers rose by 0.6.” Here’s the chart on that:
The bank acknowledges a similar chicken-egg problem there. That is, are people playing more “Call Of Duty” because “duty” isn’t “calling” in the jobs market or is it simply more fun to mow down enemy combatants on the virtual beaches of Normandy than it is to punch a clock?
The upshot here from where BofAML is sitting is that this is creating labor shortages which should eventually translate into upward pressure on wages, but the far more important question is whether any of the three explanations posited above have any merit. Because if they do, we are in deep shit as a society.
While our spin on these numbers is obviously dripping with cynicism, we would note that the opioid epidemic is something that is far more serious than anyone gave it credit for up until recently. This is not a new phenomenon. Far from it. The fact that it’s taken as long as it has for America to wake up to what’s going on is a testament to … I don’t know … to something. And whatever that something is, it isn’t good.
On that note, we’ll reprint a reader leader sent in earlier this year…
America is finally waking up to the opioid epidemic.
Now if only everyone (including the government) weren’t two decades late.
I can’t speak for the whole of Appalachia, but I what I can tell you is that in the late 90s and early 2000s there was already an epidemic in some parts of the region.
All of those things everyone is suddenly talking about – you know, Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin, fentanyl, etc. – yeah, that’s old news in some parts of Appalachia. And, I’d wager, it’s old news to a lot people in other parts of the country that have been dealing with this for going on two decades.
Vicodin, seriously? You want us to think you know something about this and you’re calling it Vicodin? Come on, man. They were “tabs” and then later they were “hydros.” Oxycodone, seriously? They’re “percs.” OxyContin has always been “oxy” – plain and simple on that one.
High schoolers were stealing these from family-owned drug stores back in 1999 and handing them out at parties in Appalachia. Let that sink in. They were so readily available and easy to get ahold of that people were literally giving them away in makeshift baggies made from the bottom of cigarette pack cellophanes. You’d throw five or six in there and seal the top by melting the plastic with a lighter.
Again, these little gift packs were free. This was before anyone even figured out there was enough demand to warrant slapping a price on them. And indeed, by giving them away, demand was created out of thin air as an entire class of high school kids suddenly realized that class was a lot more fun if you’d just eaten a couple of tabs.
Oh, and as for all those stories about fentanyl you’re reading, well, guess what America? Kids in Appalachia were riding around licking fentanyl suckers back when Nelly was still at the top of the Billboard.
And it wasn’t just opioids. There was plenty of Xanax and any other benzodiazepine you wanted. In fact, “benzos” were so easy to get that no one even bothered with anything but “totem poles” – that would be the strongest Xanax they made. In other words, you didn’t have to “settle” – as it were. The strongest version was just as readily available as anything else.
And don’t forget about tramadol. You didn’t know about tramadol did you? Yeah, turns out Ultram is highly addictive and do you know what else? You can eat a lot of more of those without dying than you can opioids and the street value at the time was only $0.50 each versus $1 a milligram for tabs, percs, and oxys.
The problem with all of this is that those high school students eventually grew up (well, the ones who didn’t die and there were more than a few who did).
And around the same time they all graduated, a thriving black market developed for all the drugs listed above. Prices went up. Suddenly it wasn’t kids stealing from their parents’ pharmacies anymore. It was young adults getting to know older people with legitimate prescriptions. And those people quickly figured out just how lucrative a business this could be.
It got shadier and shadier from there.
The medical community tried to curb addiction with something called Suboxone – you’ve probably heard of it.
Well guess what? People got hooked on it too and before you knew it, the orange Suboxone wafers that dissolved under your tongue were going for $30 each on the street. Worse, an entire racket grew up around the clinics that gave out the Suboxone prescriptions. It was just legalized drug dealing. Walk in, pay at the counter, say you’re an addict, and boom, you’ve got a Suboxone prescription. The only choice you had to make then was whether to become a Suboxone dealer or a Suboxone addict. You can probably guess what most people chose.
This, friends, describes the experience of an entire demographic that was unlucky enough to be in high school in Appalachia from 1998 to 2002.
So please, America, do that group of people a favor, will you? Spare them the stories about how you know what’s going on and how much you really care. Because so far you haven’t done shit and it’s been damn near 20 years.
Oh, and please stop explaining how you’re doing a bang up job arresting Mexican cartel leaders. Because putting “El Chapo” behind bars isn’t going to do a single goddamn thing to keep prescription pills out of people’s mouths.