America's Disappearing Workforce

This chart shows the percentage point change in U.S. labor force participation rates from 1997 to 2017, by age & gender.

In his September 2017 paper entitled 'Where Have All the Workers Gone? An Inquiry into the Decline of the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate', Alan B. Krueger of Princeton University explores the dramatic fall in labor force participation in the U.S. from 1997 to 2017. As our infographic shows, over the last twenty years, the rate has fallen the most for the under 20's, with the share of 16 to 17 year olds in work dropping by 18.4 and 16.2 percentage points for men and women, respectively. 

As Krueger reports, last year, Italy was the only OECD country which had a lower participation rate of prime age men than the United States. One of the reasons posited by the research is the opioid crisis currently ravaging the country. Labor force participation rates have fallen more in areas where more opioid pain medication is prescribed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the amount of opioids prescribed in 2015 was three times higher than it was in 1999. 

As noted in the paper, while the direction of causality is not clear, a 2017 report by David Mericle entitled 'The Opioid Epidemic and the U.S. Economy' states that “the opioid epidemic is intertwined with the story of declining prime-age participation, especially for men, and this reinforces our doubts about a rebound in the participation rate.”

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