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Delving into the Reasons Why Some Prime-Age Men are Out of Work

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) January 2024 jobs report showed a red-hot labor market, with 353,000 jobs added to the U.S. economy and the unemployment rate unchanged at 3.7%. Yet this strength masks a concerning long-term trend dating back to the 1950s— declining men’s labor force participation. For men aged 25-54 in particular, BLS data shows that the participation rate has declined from a high of 98% in September 1954 to 89% in January 2024.[i]

A recent BPC-Artemis survey of non-working, prime-age adults (defined in the survey as ages 20-54) sheds light on the factors preventing today’s prime-age men from entering the workforce. The survey considers both those who are not looking for work (out of the labor force) and those who are seeking work (unemployed). For prime-age men not seeking work, health-related barriers are the most prominent reason, raising the importance of policies such as sick leave, health insurance, and flexible work arrangements that could encourage some to enter the labor force.

Finding 1: Men out of the labor force are significantly more likely to cite a health-related barrier than unemployed men looking for work.

Fifty-seven percent of prime-age men not in the labor force said their main reason was their physical or mental health, with 55% citing a disability, serious illness, and/or receiving disability benefits, and 2% citing a mental, emotional, or behavioral health reason.

This was significantly different from men who are looking for work, of whom only 16% said their physical or mental health was the main reason they were out of work.

Finding 2: Men out of the labor force indicate that paid sick leave, health insurance benefits, and mental health benefits are important when considering entering the workforce.

Fifty-two percent of prime-age men out of the labor force indicated health insurance benefits as a very important consideration when deciding whether to enter or return to the workforce. Workplace benefits were close behind, including paid sick leave, accommodations for disability, flexible work arrangements, and paid personal medical leave.

Otherwise, 40% of men out of the labor force considered the provision of mental health benefits as very important for starting to work. Meanwhile, 28% of prime-age men out of the workforce due to physical or mental illness specifically said they would have been more likely to have stayed in their past job if they had access to paid personal medical leave.

Finding 3: Men are less likely than women to raise caregiving challenges as impediments to seeking work.


While women bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, just over 30% of non-working prime-age men also cited caring for others—including a seriously ill, special needs, disabled, or aging family member—as a reason for not working. This figure did not differ significantly between men who were looking for work and those who weren’t.

Access to paid leave to care for a family member is not as important a factor for men when deciding to start or return to work as it is for women. When asked if such leave could increase their likelihood of working, a slight majority (52%) of prime-age men not looking for work said this was not a significant factor, compared to only 43% of women in the same situation.

This indicates that, while paid family caregiving leave is cited as an important tool to help women balance caregiving needs with the decision to enter the workforce, it does not fully explain declining prime-age male participation.

Finding 4: Nearly half of respondents cite a lack of necessary skills as preventing them from working.


Nearly half (47%) of prime-age men not in the workforce cite obsolete skills, lack of education, or poor work history as barriers to employment. An even greater proportion of unemployed prime-age men (67%) cited this, suggesting policies focused on reskilling displaced workers through improved workforce development systems will be important in increasing workforce participation. Areas BPC has explored include expanding workforce Pell Grant eligibility and targeted efforts to upskill the workforce in vital emerging technologies.


Supporting prime-age labor force participation will be vital amidst a changing U.S. demographic and economic outlook. The recent BPC-Artemis survey shows that prime-age men who are out of the labor force face different obstacles from peer women as well as unemployed men. In particular, prime-age men who are out of the labor force encounter several long-term barriers to work, with health and disability issues being the most common. The survey suggests that the provision of sick leave, health insurance benefits, flexible working arrangements, and paid personal medical leave are some important tools to encourage those, who are able, to enter the workforce.


Artemis Strategy Group surveyed a national sample of 2,165 non-working U.S. adults, ages 20-54 (excluding full-time students ages 20-24) to understand the potential barriers to entering the workforce. The national sample included 539 non-working adults who are looking for work (often labeled as unemployed) and 1,626 non-working adults who are not looking for work (often labeled as not in the labor force). The latter category represents 85% of prime-age non-working Americans. This subtle distinction enabled BPC and Artemis to evaluate and compare two very different populations. The 539 adults who were unemployed and looking for work included an oversample of 252 individuals (relative to their proportion of the non-working prime-age population). The survey was conducted from July 14-26, 2023. In a few instances, figures may not add to reported sums due to rounding.

Notably, this blog reviews the results specifically for those ages 25-54, mirroring the traditional economic definition of “prime-age” adults. For this survey, BPC and Artemis also included non-working adults ages 20-24 who are not full-time students. While not reported in this blog, this population accounts for 10% of the sample in this survey and is often made up of parents with very young children. For a rundown of the full survey results, including those ages 20-24, please see our initial report.

[i] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, 1948-2024. Accessed on February 28, 2024 at

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