July 31, 2006, NYT
By LOUIS UCHITELLE and DAVID LEONHARDT
ROCK FALLS, Ill. — Alan Beggerow has stopped looking for work. Laid off as a steelworker at 48, he taught math for a while at a community college. But when that ended, he could not find a job that, in his view, was neither demeaning nor underpaid.
So instead of heading to work, Mr. Beggerow, now 53, fills his days with diversions: playing the piano, reading histories and biographies, writing unpublished Western potboilers in the Louis L’Amour style — all activities once relegated to spare time. He often stays up late and sleeps until 11 a.m.
“I have come to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me,” he said. To make ends meet, he has tapped the equity in his home through a $30,000 second mortgage, and he is drawing down the family’s savings, at the rate of $7,500 a year. About $60,000 is left. His wife’s income helps them scrape by. “If things really get tight,” Mr. Beggerow said, “I might have to take a low-wage job, but I don’t want to do that.”
Millions of men like Mr. Beggerow — men in the prime of their lives, between 30 and 55 — have dropped out of regular work. They are turning down jobs they think beneath them or are unable to find work for which they are qualified, even as an expanding economy offers opportunities to work.
About 13 percent of American men in this age group are not working, up from 5 percent in the late 1960’s. The difference represents 4 million men who would be working today if the employment rate had remained where it was in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Most of these missing men are, like Mr. Beggerow, former blue-collar workers with no more than a high school education. But their ranks are growing at all education and income levels. Refugees of failed Internet businesses have spent years out of work during their 30’s, while former managers in their late 40’s are trying to stretch severance packages and savings all the way to retirement.
Accumulated savings can make dropping out more affordable at the upper end than it is for Mr. Beggerow, but the dynamic is often the same — the loss of a career and of a sense that one’s work is valued.
“These are men forced to compete to get back into the work force, and even then they cannot easily reconstruct what many lost in a former job,” said Thomas A. Kochan, a labor and management expert at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So they stop trying.”
Many of these men could find work if they had to, but with lower pay and fewer benefits than they once earned, and they have decided they prefer the alternative. It is a significant cultural shift from three decades ago, when men almost invariably went back into the work force after losing a job and were more often able to find a new one that met their needs.
“To be honest, I’m kind of looking for the home run,” said Christopher Priga, who is 54 and has not had steady work since he lost a job with a six-figure income as an electrical engineer at Xerox in 2002. “There’s no point in hitting for base hits,” he explained. “I’ve been down the road where I did all the things I was supposed to do, and the end result of that is nil.”
Instead, Mr. Priga supports himself by borrowing against the rising value of his Los Angeles home. Other men fall back on wives or family members.
But the fastest growing source of help is a patchwork system of government support, the main one being federal disability insurance, which is financed by Social Security payroll taxes. The disability stipends range up to $1,000 a month and, after the first two years, Medicare kicks in, giving access to health insurance that for many missing men no longer comes with the low-wage jobs available to them.
No federal entitlement program is growing as quickly, with more than 6.5 million men and women now receiving monthly disability payments, up from 3 million in 1990. About 25 percent of the missing men are collecting this insurance.
The ailments that qualify them are usually real, like back pain, heart trouble or mental illness. But in some cases, the illnesses are not so serious that they would prevent people from working if a well-paying job with benefits were an option.
The disability program, in turn, is an obstacle to working again. Taking a job holds the risk of demonstrating that one can earn a living and is thus no longer entitled to the monthly payments. But staying out of work has consequences. Skills deteriorate, along with the desire for a paying job and the habits that it requires.
“The longer you stay on disability benefits,” said Martin H. Gerry, deputy commissioner for disability and income security at the Social Security Administration, “the longer you’re out of the work force, the less likely you are to go back to work.”
As a rule, out-of-work men are less educated than the population as a whole. Their numbers have grown sharply among black men and men who live in hard-hit industrial areas like Michigan, West Virginia and upstate New York, as well as those who live in rural states like Mississippi and Oklahoma.
The missing men are also more likely to live alone. Nearly 60 percent are divorced, separated, widowed or never married, up from 50 percent a decade earlier, the Census Bureau reports. Sometimes women who are working throw out men who are not, says Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. In any case, without a household to support, there is less pressure to work, and for men who fall behind on support payments, an incentive exists to work off the books — hiding employment — so that wages cannot be garnisheed.
“What happens to a lot of guys who become unmoored from family life, they become unmoored from everything,” Ms. Edin said. “They are just living without attachments and by the time they are 40 or 50 years old, the things that kept these men from falling away — family and community life — are gone.”
Even as more men are dropping out of the work force, more women are entering it. This change has occurred partly because employment has shrunk in industries where men predominated, like manufacturing, while fields where women are far more common, like teaching, health care and retailing, have grown. Today, about 73 percent of women between 30 and 54 have a job, compared with 45 percent in the mid-1960’s, according to an analysis of Census data by researchers at Queens College. Many women without jobs are raising children at home, while men who are out of a job tend to be doing neither family work nor paid work.
Women are also making inroads in fields where they were once excluded — as lawyers and doctors, for example, and on Wall Street. Men still make significantly more money than women, but as women become more educated than men, even more men may end up out of the work force.
At the low end of the spectrum, men emerging from prison with felony records are not easily absorbed into steady employment. Hundreds of thousands of young men were jailed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, in a surge of convictions for drug-related crimes. As prisoners, they were not counted in the employment data; as ex-prisoners they are. They are now being freed in their 30’s and 40’s and are struggling to be hired. Roughly two million men in this group have prison records, according to a calculation by Richard Freeman and Harry J. Holzer, labor economists at Harvard and the Urban Institute, respectively.Many of these men do not find work because of their records.
Despite their great numbers, many of the men not working are missing from the nation’s best-known statistic on unemployment. The jobless rate is now a low 4.6 percent, yet that number excludes most of the missing men, because they have stopped looking for work and are therefore not considered officially unemployed. That makes the unemployment rate a far less useful measure of the country’s well-being than it once was.
Indeed, a larger share of working-age men are not working today than at almost any point in the last half-century, which raises the question of how they will get by as they age. They may be forced back to work after years of absence, they may fall into poverty, or they may be rescued by the government. This same trend is evident in other industrialized countries. In the European Union, 14 percent of men between 25 and 54 were not working last year, up from 7 percent in 1975, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Over the same period in Japan, the proportion of such men rose to 8 percent from 4 percent.
In these countries, too, decently paying blue-collar jobs are disappearing, and as they do men who held them fall back on government benefits for income. But the growth of subsidies through federal and state programs like disability insurance has happened largely without notice in this country while it is a major topic of political debate in Europe.
“We have a de facto welfare system as Europe does,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the University of Notre Dame. “But we are not proud of it, as they are.”
Reading, Sleeping, Scraping By
Alan Beggerow has not worked regularly in the five years since the steel mill that employed him for three decades closed. He and his wife, Cathleen, 47, cannot really afford to live without his paycheck. Yet with her sometimes reluctant blessing, Mr. Beggerow persists in constructing a way of life that he finds as satisfying as the work he did only in the last three years of his 30-year career at the mill. The trappings of this new life surround Mr. Beggerow in the cluttered living room of his one-story bungalow-style home in this half-rural, half-industrial prairie town west of Chicago. A bookcase covers an entire wall, and the books that Mr. Beggerow is reading are stacked on a glass coffee table in front of a comfortable sofa where he reads late into the night — consuming two or three books a week — many more than in his working years.
He also gets more sleep, regularly more than nine hours, a characteristic of men without work. As the months pass, they average almost nine-and-a-half hours a night, about 80 minutes more than working men, according to an analysis of time-use surveys by Harley Frazis and Jay Stewart, economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Very few of the books Mr. Beggerow reads are novels, and certainly not the escapist Westerns that he himself writes (two in the last five years), his hope being that someday he will interest a publisher and earn some money. His own catholic tastes range over history — currently the Bolshevik revolution and a biography of Charlemagne — as well as music and the origins of Christianity.
He often has strong views about what he has just read, which he expresses in reviews that he posts on Amazon.com: 124 so far, he said.
Always on the coffee table is a thick reference work, “Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire” by Maurice Hinson. Mr. Beggerow is a serious pianist now that he has the time to practice, sometimes two or three hours at a stretch. He does so on an old upright in a corner of the living room, a piano he purchased as a young steelworker, when he first took lessons.
His new life began in the spring of 2001 with the closing of Northwestern Wire and Steel in Sterling, Ill., where he had worked since 1971. During the last three of those 30 years, Mr. Beggerow found himself assigned to work he really liked: as a union representative on union-management teams that assessed every aspect of the plant’s operations.
What made him valuable was his dexterity as a writer. No one could put together committee reports as articulately as he did, and he found himself on nearly every team. His salary rose to $50,000. During those years, he taught himself more math, too, to help in the analyses of the issues that the teams tackled: productivity, safety, plant layout and the like.
“I actually loved that job,” he said. “I even looked forward to going to work. The more teams they had, the more they found out what I could do and the more I found out what I could do.”
Mr. Beggerow would take another job in a heartbeat, he says, if it were like the work he did in those last three years at Northwestern. The closest he has gotten has been as an instructor at a community college, teaching plant maintenance and other useful factory skills. His students were from nearby manufacturing companies, which subsidized the courses, including his pay of $45 an hour. But factory operations in the area are shrinking, and Mr. Beggerow has not had a teaching stint since November.
Like Mr. Beggerow, the great majority of the missing men are out of the work force for months or years at a time rather than drifting in and out of jobs. There appears to have been no rise since the 1960’s in the percentage of men out of work for short periods, according to research by Chinhui Juhn, a University of Houston professor, and other economists.
Mr. Beggerow will not take a lesser job, he says, because of his bitter memories of earlier years at Northwestern Wire, particularly the 1980’s, when the industry was in turmoil. A powerful man, over 6 feet and 200 pounds, he worked then as a warehouseman.
What got to him was not the work. It was the frequent furloughs, the uncertainty whether he would be recalled, the mandatory overtime and 50-hour weeks often imposed when he did return, the schedules that forced him to work every holiday except Christmas, and then, as rising seniority finally gave him some protection, a six-month strike in 1983 followed by a wage cut. His pay shrank to $13 an hour from $17, a loss he did not fully recover until those last three years.
“I was always thinking if there was some way I could get out of this, do something else,” Mr. Beggerow said. “What made me so upset was the insecurity of it all and the humiliation. I don’t want to take a job that would put me through that again.”
Shortly after Northwestern closed, Mr. Beggerow married. It was his third marriage, and also Cathleen’s third. He has one adult child by the first wife; Cathleen has no children. For six months they lived on his $12,000 from a shrunken pension and her $28,000 as a factory worker — until severe injuries in an auto accident five months after their wedding forced her out of that job. She eventually qualified for $12,000 a year in disability insurance.
Their two incomes are not enough to cover expenses, which bothers Mrs. Beggerow, although not enough to badger her husband to take a job, any job. She respects him too much for that, she says.
Instead, she finds ways to make money herself, in activities she enjoys. She is taking in work as a seamstress, baking pastries for parties and selling merchandise for others on eBay, collecting a fee. Still, she says, she hopes to land a part-time clerical job. “The comfort of a paycheck every week would take a load off my mind,” she said.
While she is tolerant of her husband’s reluctance to work, respecting his current pursuits, she is not above looking for a job he would consider suitable. “I look at the employment ads every day,’’ she said, “and every so often I find one that I think might be right up his alley.”
Less Concern About the Future
Recently there was an opening for an editor-writer at a small travel magazine published in a nearby town. “I applied,” Mr. Beggerow said, “but the publisher did not seem to want someone my age.”
Meanwhile the Beggerows’ savings are shrinking. This year, for the first time, they have drawn down so much from their 401(k)’s they have been forced to pay early-withdrawal penalties. But Mr. Beggerow resists being stampeded.
“The future is always a concern, but I no longer allow myself to dwell on it,” he said, waving aside, in his new and precarious life, the preparations for retirement and old age that were a feature of his 30 years as a steelworker.
“When you are in the mode of having money coming in,” he explained, “naturally you think about planning and saving. And then when you don’t have the money coming in, you think less about the future, at least money-wise. It is still a concern, but not a concern that keeps me up at night, not in this life that I am now leading.”
Men like Mr. Beggerow, neither working nor looking for a job, also have become more common in the popular culture, making the phenomenon more acceptable. On the television show “Seinfeld,” Cosmo Kramer, who did not work, and George Costanza, who regularly lost jobs, were beloved figures. Personal-finance magazines whose circulations have grown rapidly over the last 25 years also encourage not working — by telling readers how to afford retirement at 50 and by painting not working as the good life, which it apparently is for a small number of wealthy men. About 8 percent of non-working men between 30 and 54 lived in households that had more than $100,000 of income in 2004.
“Men don’t feel a need to be in a career, not as much as they once did,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Nor do men have the incentive they once had to pursue a career, not when employers are no longer committed to them.”
Mr. Priga, the former Xerox engineer who lives in Los Angeles, has been wandering in this latter Diaspora. He is a tall, thin man with a perpetually dour expression. His dress — old jeans and a faded khaki shirt — seemed out of place in the upscale Beverly Hills restaurant where he was interviewed for this article. But his education and skill were not out of place.
Mr. Priga is an electrical engineer skilled in computer technology, and much involved, as he tells the story, in writing early versions of Internet and e-mail software for banks and other companies. A divorce in 1996 left him with custody of his three children. One of them had behavioral problems and to care for the boy he dropped out of steady work for a while, mortgaging his house to raise money and designing Web sites as a freelancer.
He re-entered the work force in 2000, joining Xerox at just over $100,000 a year as a systems designer for a new project, which did not last. In the aftermath of the dot-com bust, Xerox downsized and Mr. Priga was let go in January 2003.
From Prison to Joblessness
“I’ve been through a lot of layoffs over the years, and there is a certain procedure you follow,” he said. “You contact the headhunters. You go looking for other work. You do all of that, and this time around it didn’t work.”
So he went back to designing Web sites as a freelancer, postponing the purchase of health insurance. No work has come his way since March, and even if people had hired him to design Web sites for them, Mr. Priga would not consider that real employment.
His father is his standard. At Mr. Priga’s age, 54, “my father was with Rockwell International designing the fiber optic backbone for U.S. Navy ships,” he said. “He got a regular paycheck. He had retirement benefits, medical benefits, all of that. I’m at that age and I don’t see that as even possible. I’ve kind of written off the idea completely. I’m more like a casual laborer.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics determines who is working through a monthly survey of 65,000 representative households. People are asked if they did any work for pay in the week before the survey, including self-employment. For Mr. Beggerow and Mr. Priga, the answer has been no.
The same goes for Rodney Bly, a 41-year-old Philadelphia man struggling with a prison record, although he has had income — from off-the-books work that he refuses to think of as employment.
Mr. Bly, a lanky, neatly dressed six-footer, was in and out of jail, mostly on drug convictions, from 1996 until 2003, but has been clean since then, he said in an interview last month. He has even been a leader of an Alcoholics Anonymous-style group of former addicts who meet regularly and do their best to stay off drugs and out of jail.
Mr. Bly has been living in a recovery shelter for addicts and shows up occasionally for meals at St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen and health clinic in a poor North Philadelphia neighborhood that tries to help ex-convicts get work and keep it.
He has worked pretty regularly, distributing flyers. But that brings him only $270 a week, most of which goes to the shelter for rent, utilities and food. More to the point, the work is off the books, which makes Mr. Bly invisible in the national statistics as a member of the work force.
Still, he has a girlfriend, reports Karen Pushaw, a staff member at St. Francis, “and that grounds him, keeps him looking for legitimate work.”
Ms. Pushaw tries to help. At her encouragement, he applied for 25 jobs this spring but received no offers, not even an interview. The obstacle is two felony convictions, one for car theft, the other for three instances of drug possession.
“Because of the two felonies, I can’t get a job as a security guard or a sales person or a short-order cook,” Mr. Bly said. “I can be a pot washer or a dish washer, but I can’t get a job that pays more than $8 an hour, not a legitimate one. I’m excluded.”
Amanda Cox contributed reporting for this article from New York.