Many have left the workforce. Why is that?

Greetings from Washington, D.C.

On certain Friday mornings, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announces the monthly rate of unemployment, I turn off the TV and drop the Cone of Silence for I cannot bear to witness the celebration of a meaningless metric.

It’s true that the top-line unemployment numbers are historically low; heading into the eleventh year of a phenomenal economic expansion, the U.S. seems to be employing all who want to work. The President is crowing. Wall Street is giddy. But that top-line unemployment metric, while astoundingly low, fails to express the dark side of our American workforce. And, it is this: fewer Americans are participating in full-time work than had participated before. And, since 2000, workforce erosion has stripped the American economy of $400 billion in earning power.

A Scary Statistic

many have left the workforce36 percent of people in the American workforce has stopped working entirely, and most in that cohort are men in their prime earning years. Simply put, millions of men in the “money demographic” of 25-54 years are not thriving.

I grow frustrated when noted authorities speculate on the reasons why so many of us have become detached from work. Opioid drug abuse certainly is a factor. And so too is an epidemic of poor physical and mental health. But a “check engine light” beaconing trouble for men of prime working age had its trouble-origins in [their] childhood.

Listeners of The Tightrope Podcast know that I often ask our guests an origin question which goes something like this:

“When you were young, settling in to bed after a long day at school or play, what did you dream of doing when you were all grown up?”

The answers our guests provide take us back to a happy place of imagination where their younger selves describe a blissful future.

Many have left the workforce. What is the explanation for that?

I’m no sociologist, nor am I a social worker, but my 20 years in recruitment provided me considerable insight into how people thrive or don’t thrive at work. My job candidates who could visualize themselves as happy and thriving adults often maintained future success, even if they’d been laid off from work one or several times. With that in mind, I wonder what might be different in the [childhood] dream-stories of men of prime earning age who fail to thrive at work.

My Father’s Dashed Work-Dream

Some men don’t live their work-dreams, because the needs or desires of their parents or family or community take precedent. Last year, when I eulogized my late father, I described to the congregation how Arnie Smolen wanted so desperately to fly; during World War II, he dreamed of joining the Army Air Corps and, after active service, pilot commercial aircraft. Unfortunately for him, my grandparents committed him to full-time work in the family’s furniture business. He remained there—bitter and angry—for more than 35 years before finally closing the store and taking to the road as a furniture manufacturer’s representative.

He bought himself a BMW which he “flew” to all of his appointments. My father got hundreds of speeding tickets…but, I digress.

When a High School Diploma and a Union Job Meant Upward Mobility

I wonder as well about men who grew up in factory or mill towns where their path to upward mobility included a high school diploma and a good-paying union job. What were their beautiful childhood-born dreams of grown-up work? Our industrial base has pancaked and men—predominantly men—who were downsized from closed-up mills and factories have failed the most to reconnect with meaningful work, or any work. And, I fear that their beautiful work dreams were also dashed.

Why, by comparison, are women remaining better engaged in the workforce? It is a discussion worth having.

The Participation Rate is About to Worsen

An estimated one-third of active members of the American workforce will, by 2030, be rendered jobless: manual laborers, and most especially, truck drivers will be replaced by robots and AI. Are we preparing these workers for the pivot that they need to make to remain actively employed? I fear that the answer is a resounding NO.

We Need to Get Back to Our Beautiful Dreams of Doing Meaningful Work

To ensure adults who thrive, we must nurture young people to dream and dream big. If they can visualize a beautiful place for themselves, they will increase their odds of success as satisfied members of the active workforce.

And to make it all stick, we need to help children to embrace more choices, that they may find their bliss doing meaningful work as full-time employees, or as entrepreneurs, or doing a blend of employee and contractor (1099) type assignments. The key is to nurture them so that they do great things that they want to do. Along their educational journey, surely, we must do a thorough job of providing them a top-notch STEAM education and also role-play with them ways to thrive when their lives or fortunes suffer. A malleable and resilient workforce is not founded on good education and specialized training alone—we must also fire up the happy places where dreams are dreamt.

But back to the part of our population that seems to be suffering most: those men between 25-54 who should be enjoying their prime working years. We have to find ways of drawing them into the economy doing something that gives them a strong sense of purpose. What that something is I do not know, but I do know is that we must go beyond expressions of hope to show them that they can contribute—that they matter.

2020 presidential candidates must now do their part to help turn positive the fortunes of this long suffering cohort.

Meaningful work happens when we are old enough to work. But meaningful work is born of beautiful dreams that we dreamt as children. When we nurture those dreams for a lifetime of profound purpose, of protecting the planet, of empowering people and communities, then this I know: our best days lie ahead.

Please catch up on our latest episode of The Tightrope Podcast with guest Eva Grodberg of Epic Experiences. We discuss how people can live a life of less stuff and more epic experience.

Find us where you get podcasts by keywording “The Tightrope Podcast.”

DAN SMOLEN is founder of The Dan Smolen Experience, LLC. He is also the executive producer and host of The Tightrope Meaningful Work Podcast.  Please comment here to let us know how we are doing, and, to offer suggestions for future guests and topics.

Photo credit: Disengaged Worker, iStock Photo.