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02 Nov

The U.S. workforce participation rate (those employed or unemployed and seeking work) is declining – which could mean major economic and social issues for the country in the coming years – and pain has been cited as a major contributing factor. That’s according to as new paper by Princeton University labor economist Alan Krueger, which was released this week in advance of its presentation at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conference this weekend. This paper, titled “Where Have All the Workers Gone?,”[1] paints a distressing picture of the future of the American workforce – one in which pain plays a prominent part.

The Workforce Problem

As is well-known to both economists and the general population alike, in the near future the country is going to see a major shift in the workforce population (those who are employed or unemployed and looking for a job), mainly due to the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. This shift is in addition to a larger number of young adults delaying their entry into the workforce (due to more entering higher education), a declining number of women entering the workforce (many  still choosing to stay at home) and, most importantly, an increasing number of “prime age” men (ages 25-64) who aren’t in the workforce at all (unemployed and not seeking employment).

All of these changes have led to a significant decline in workforce participation, one that’s been worsening since 2007. And it’s a trend that, according to Krueger, isn’t going to abate without major societal changes. So the question remains: Why aren’t many of these prime age men, who were once considered the main breadwinners of the family, able to participate in the workforce?

The Prime Age Problem

The U.S. is not alone in seeing a decline of this valuable group of workers. In fact, “the participation rate of prime age men has trended down in the U.S. and other economically advanced countries for many decades.” But, compared to other advanced countries, the U.S. has seen one of the worst declines – surpassed only by Italy. The main reason, Krueger concludes, is health-related problems – especially pain.

Of those prime age men who are out of the labor force, 43% report their health as fair or poor, with 34% of them reporting at least one disability (like difficulty walking or climbing stairs). “As a group,” the paper states, “workers who are out of the labor force report feeling pain during about half of their time.” These men experience both a greater prevalence and greater intensity of pain in their day-to-day lives than employed and unemployed men. Because of that, somewhere between 44%-47% are on pain medication (including OTC), with 2/3 of those men utilizing prescription painkillers.

This pain is a clear factor keeping them from work. In fact, 40% of these prime age men responded “yes” when asked directly if pain prevented them from working a full-time job for which they were qualified.

The Mental Health Problem

This inability to join the workforce takes its toll on prime age men. By looking at various studies, Krueger found that men outside the workforce were less happy, sadder and more stressed than even unemployed men were.

In comparison, women outside the workforce report more happiness and less stress, meaning that – unlike their male counterparts – they’re deriving considerable meaning from their activities. This points to an urge amount the prime age men to return to the workforce; but with high levels of pain, that’s a difficult feat.

The Solution

Krueger concludes that stemming this tide of prime men leaving the workforce should be an issue of national priority. But how can this be done? Krueger takes a stab at answering that, as well. “The finding that nearly half of [these] prime age men take pain medication on a daily basis and that 40% report that pain prevents them from accepting a job suggests that pain interventions could potentially be helpful,” he says.

Intervening to both wean these men off of medications that could be dangerous to their health and future ability to work and reducing their pain levels to the point where they can return to the workforce would go a long way toward reversing this dangerous trend. Many pain management organizations, like Advanced Pain Management, are working toward these ends, utilizing the latest interventional technologies.

This advancement, along with other cultural and national shifts – like increased access to healthcare and equal pay and advancement for women – may help stem the tide of workforce decline, ensuring this country doesn’t face further inequality and division in the coming years.

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[1] Krueger, Alan. “Where Have All the Workers Gone?” October 04, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2016.

Additional information: Coy, Peter. “Why Are so Many Men Not Working? They’re in Pain.” Bloomberg Businessweek. October 7, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-07/why-are-so-many-men-not-working-they-re-in-pain.

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