A heavily concerning trend has been vexing economists for the last 50 years. The percent of men in prime working ages between 25 and 54 who are not employed and not looking for work has been creeping up. In the early 1950s, less than 3% of men in that age range weren't in the labor force. Today, that number reaches 11.4%.

Princeton economist Alan Krueger started a new study in 2007 to find out more about this population. Surveys taken between 2010 and 2016 revealed that 44% of these prime working-age men not in the workforce take daily painkillers, and two-thirds of those taking daily painkillers were on prescription medications.

The connection between chronic joblessness and painkiller dependency is hard to quantify. Mr. Krueger and other experts cannot say which came first: the men’s health problems or their absence from the labor force. Some experts suspect that frequent use of painkillers is a result of being out of work, because people who have no job prospects are more likely to be depressed, become addicted to drugs and alcohol and have other mental health problems. Only about 2 percent of the men say they receive workers’ compensation benefits for job-related injuries. Some 25 percent are on Social Security disability; 31 percent of those receiving benefits have mental disorders and the rest have other ailments, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

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