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10 Million U.S. Men Are Unemployed and Why You Should Care

BY NICK | 5 min read

Who exactly are the guys in safety vests, on the side of the road? The ones dodging traffic as they widen a lane, or build a new sidewalk, that is. You've passed them on your way to work, but do you ever ask yourself what forces draw someone to work there, as opposed to the desk next to yours? Building roads and bridges, the operation or maintenance of heavy machinery aren't just busy work. We all depend on the work they do. The health and ease in which we operate our cities, neighborhoods, and daily lives depend on infrastructure, and the people who make it possible. 

According to US government, a“prime-aged male” for the labor force is an able-bodied male age 25 to age 54. Inside of  this group, currently one out of six are unemployed. That's 10 million individuals. That's ten times our active duty military. 

Understanding how we arrived at this unemployment situation is critical to addressing just one of the multitude of problems facing US infrastructure.

So first, the obvious question: where have they gone?
Your first guesses might include college, or onto disability, pulled into a caregiving role for family or loved one, and sadly -- prison. Derek Thompson
 debunks these theories, however, as the American Time Use Survey reports that these men, overwhelmingly, are spending six to eight hours a day watching television and socializing. Strange, right? Why on earth would 16% percent of men, from 25 to 54, simply opt out of the economy?

We have our suspicions, so let's tackle some of the societal causes that may be at work here.


In the postwar prosperity that followed the conclusion of World War Two, America had a mass migration from farms to to cities. Some have called it the “Suburbanization of the American Dream." The GI Bill and a manufacturing boom, for better or worse, had families abandoning farms at a rate exceeding 160,000 per year.

White-collar office life and gold-watch retirements reshaped the ideals of working in America. As a result, a well-intentioned education system began to shift away from teaching what were previously considered indispensable vocational skills. Through the 60's and 70's,  largely because of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation, American education became increasingly devoted to the intention of College Prep. The idea of equal opportunity now meant that college should be attainable by anyone, and the push was to make that a reality.  Simultaneously, the offshoring of manufacturing began to chip away at the old standby of the factory job in America.  College and the promise of high-paying intellectual labor jobs became the definitive goal of the US education system and many nonprofit organizations.

While we can all agree the concept of college for all is a noble aspiration, public education’s focus on test prep and college admissions has left shop class mothballed and vocational tracks ignored. The result has been a majority of young adults with “some college” and those with full degrees finding themselves in a job market nearly saturated with Bachelor's degrees.  All the while, our infrastructure is crumbling, and skilled labor positions remain unfilled because schools neglected to tell their students the importance of trade work.

How many of our 10 million men are staying home, embarrassed by their unfinished degree, but too proud to get a trade certificate? Do these men even have an awareness of this need?


As Chrystia Freeland describes in her book Plutocrats, the technology of the 21st Century has made the formation of a new class of wealth possible. From Bill Gates to David Karp, 0.1 percent of the population now represents more than 8% of America’s income.

 “Globalization and the technology revolution, the twin economic transformations which are changing our lives and transforming the global economy, are also powering the rise of the super-rich. Just think about it. For the first time in history, if you are an energetic entrepreneur with a brilliant new idea or a fantastic new product, you have almost instant, almost frictionless access to a global market of more than a billion people.”

With a global economy supporting a number of high-profile "super wealthy" entrepreneurs, how many of our 10 million men are able to subsist on the fringe, employed by their ultra-wealthy peers (think Entourage)? Moreover, how many of these 10 million men have opted out of employment in the fervent pursuit of actualizing an idea that they've been led to believe will take them from being poor and unemployed to "passive income" overnight?

United States Politics

Education, globalization, technology, and cultural changes are shaped by and continue to shape American politics. While policy flocks to support college initiatives, skilled labor training falls between the cracks. Additionally, while the needs of infrastructure are universally understood, the means of funding and execution are universally disputed. After twenty years of intermittent government shutdowns, even the most powerful builders and trades people have experienced slow-downs and unemployment, resulting in mass layoffs. When a skilled laborer goes too long without work, they can lose their certifications, their permits, and sometimes find themselves forced to sell essential equipment. Offshoring, paired with political logjams has been a one-two punch to the working class. While manufacturers compete globally and skilled laborers face perennial instability it’s understandable the 10 million who lack the college degree necessary for white collar work have given up on blue collar work altogether.

International Politics

China has a world-class manufacturing system. Despite the rise of the Chinese middle-class and an increase in their factory labor costs, China has had nearly 50 years of manufacturing experience, which makes them tough competition. Despite some pressure from robotics and American reshoring, the Chinese means of production is nearly a monopoly. Because of this, American workers find themselves in the impossible position of being asked by American manufacturers to compete with Chinese workers wages. Many American workers are not willing to accept this, so, not surprisingly, while American job openings are at record highs, American workers continue to exit the workforce.  China is just one of the BRIC nations cementing its position as a first-rate competitor on the global stage.

What Can We Do?

So, as our infrastructure crumbles around us, more than 16% of “prime aged” men sit at home and watch TV. Great.

Where can we place the blame for this situation?

  • Was it the education system, by creating a false binary of choice: go to college OR become a perpetual "burger flipper"?
  • Is it the technological revolution that has them working outside of the system and hoping for a billion dollar IPO someday?
  • Is it the polarization of politics that has caused government shutdowns, unstable contracts, and mismanaged funds?
  • Or, is it that the 25 to 54 year-olds unwilling to participate in the downward mobility taking place as American companies try to compete in an equalizing global market?

There is no single answer, and surely Americans have been grappling with a slippery labor market and politically volatile unemployment rates for decades. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. The solutions might be, though. Because while technology alone can't build a skyscraper -- yet -- we CAN harness the location-independence and tremendous reach the internet provides to "employ" solutions from people with answers to questions that otherwise may have never been asked.  Before we can cry foul about a shortage of workers to implement our infrastructure plans -- we need to have an actual plan. That's exactly where the Association of Equipment Manufacturers comes in, with the Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge.  IV2050 entered the Build Phase last week, marking the beginning of its third and longest phase of the challenge. What're they looking for? Well, quite frankly, some real direction for US Infrastructure of 2050 and beyond. Take a look at the challenge page to see what it's all about, and check out the winners of the previous two phases.  


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