The grim news about the opioid crisis keeps rolling in. An analysis out this week showed that the percentage of people on prescription opioids who are long-term users has doubled since 1999, possibly contributing to the 2 million people in America who have a pain pill substance use disorder. Now a new report suggests opioids may be part of the reason why so many younger people have slipped out of the American workforce.

Writing for the Brookings Institution, Princeton economist Alan Kreuger uses data on pain medication, opioid prescription rates and labor force participation to argue that the increase in painkiller prescriptions since 1999 may account for 25 percent of the drop in “prime age” (between 25 and 54 years old) workforce participation among women, and 20 percent of the decline among men in the same age group. He found that the labor force participation—or what percentage of people who can work are actually doing so—fell more in counties with more opiate scripts.

“The opioid epidemic and labor-force participation are now intertwined,” Krueger tells the Wall Street Journal. “If we are to bring a large number of people back into the labor force who have left the labor force, I think it’s important that we take serious steps to address the opioid crisis.” Krueger had previously unearthed the flabbergasting statistic that half of unemployed men in the U.S. are on some sort of opioid pain pill.

This throws new light on an economic mystery: As Derek Thompson has noted at the Atlantic, a full one-in-six prime-age American men are out of the workforce, or about 10 million men. Other research suggests that video games are another reason why so many men are without jobs, with a 45 percent increase in recreational computer time for young men from 2004 to 2015. What do pain pills and video games have in common? They’re so absorbing that they take you out of whatever difficulties are happening in your life.

Opioids are the “ultimate escape drugs,” says Judith Feinberg, a drug addiction researcher at the University of West Virginia. It’s only human to want to withdraw from the world when you’re feeling useless or inadequate. “On heroin, you curl up in a corner and blank out the world,” she says. “It’s an extremely seductive drug for dead-end towns, because it makes the world’s problems go away.” And now it’s taking people out of the workforce


  • DRAKE BAER is a deputy editor at Business Insider, where he leads a team of 20+ journalists in covering the shifting nature of organizations, wealth, and demographics in the United States. He has been a senior writer at New York Magazine, a contributing writer at Fast Company, and the director of content for a human resources consultancy. A speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival and other conferences, he circumnavigated the globe before turning 25. Perception is his second book.