On Wall Street and in some parts of Washington these days, one hears that America has gotten back to “near full employment.” ... It is true that the oft-cited “civilian unemployment rate” looked pretty good by the end of the Obama era—in December 2016, it was down to 4.7 percent, about the same as it had been back in 1965, at a time of genuine full employment. The problem here is that the unemployment rate only tracks joblessness for those still in the labor force; it takes no account of workforce dropouts. Alas, the exodus out of the workforce has been the big labor-market story for America’s new century. (At this writing, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.) ...
If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs. ...
But the anxiety, dissatisfaction, anger, and despair that range within our borders today are not wholly a reaction to the way our economy is misfiring. On the nonmaterial front, it is likewise clear that many things in our society are going wrong and yet seem beyond our powers to correct. ...

The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. ... In Dreamland, his... account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes... that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.
In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the... opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.

We already knew from other sources... that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.
- NICHOLAS N. EBERSTADT, Our Miserable 21st Century:From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States, Commentary, FEB. 15, 2017

How is it possible to have a surplus of workers? Long ago, when unpopulated fertile land was essentially free for the taking, as for homesteaders on the American frontier, if there were extra workers, more than could be put to work working local land, they could move on to a virgin territory and plant that fertile soil. In such times, there basically cannot be surplus workers, because so long as there is free land to farm, would-be workers can always find a way to work, as it were landing a job working the land. But now there is a dearth of virgin land, and it seems a dearth of jobs, a scarcity of economic opportunities suited to those wanting work.

There is a worldwide glut that includes oil wells, steel plants and eager would-be workers, and it will take more than a United States presidential election and a few months of solid global growth to fix it.

That, in a sentence, is the reality that haunts the world economy a third of the way through 2017. ...
There appears to be more worldwide capacity for major commodities like steel and aluminum than there is demand, in part because of China’s sheltering of state-run enterprises from the vicissitudes of the marketplace. The integration of highly populous countries like China and India into the world economy continues apace, creating what may be a glut of workers.
- Neil Irwin, The Low-Inflation World May Be Sticking Around Longer Than Expected, NYT, APRIL 26, 2017

The problem is not that there are no jobs; it is more that the unemployed are incapable of doing available jobs requiring skills they lack.

The vocational schools themselves are no silver bullet to the country’s economic and social ills. It has proved difficult for the centers to keep up with the needs of increasingly high-tech employers....
- ALISSA J. RUBIN, To Understand Macron’s Economic Vision, Look to France’s ‘Last Chance’ Students, NYT, MAY 5, 2017

Part of the technology’s appeal is that it is less reliant on highly skilled workers.
- Stefanos Chen, Real Estate Technology: Try, Try Again, NYT, Nov. 16, 2018

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