Man reading job listings © Tetra Images, Getty Images

Mark Riley was 53 years old when he lost a job as a grant writer for an Arkansas community college. "I was stunned," he said. "It happened on my daughter's 11th birthday." His boss blamed state budget cuts.

That was almost three years ago and he still hasn't found steady work. Riley, whose unemployment benefits ran out 14 months ago, says his long and fruitless search is proof employers won't hire men out of work too long.

"We're poor, but we're not broke," Riley said. "We still have property. We have cars. We have some assets, we just can't liquidate them."

Riley's frustration is widely shared. More than one in six men ages 25 to 54, prime working years, don't have jobs—a total of 10.4 million. Some are looking for jobs; many aren't. Some had jobs that went overseas or were lost to technology. Some refuse to uproot for work because they are tied down by family needs or tethered to homes worth less than the mortgage. Some rely on government benefits. Others depend on working spouses.

Having so many men out of work is partly a symptom of a U.S. economy slow to recover from the worst recession in 75 years. It is also a chronic condition that shows how technology and globalization are transforming jobs faster than many workers can adapt, economists say.

The trend has been building for decades, according to government data. In the early 1970s, just 6 percent of American men ages 25 to 54 were without jobs. By late 2007, it was 13 percent. In 2009, during the worst of the recession, nearly 20 percent didn't have jobs.

Although the economy is improving and the unemployment rate is falling, 17 percent of working-age men weren't working in December. More than two-thirds said they weren't looking for work, so the government doesn't label them unemployed. The January snapshot of the job market is due Friday.

For women, the story is different. In the 1950s, only about a third of women ages 25 to 54 had jobs. That rose steadily until the 1990s, and then leveled off for reasons that aren't clear. At last tally, about 70 percent were working; 30 percent weren't.

Men without jobs stand apart in a society that has long celebrated work and hailed the breadwinners who support their families. "Our culture is one that venerates work, that views work as good for its own sake," said David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist.

The bleak prospects for the long-term unemployed—40 percent of men looking for jobs say they have been out of work six months or more—alarms policy makers and economists. The longer a person is unemployed, according to historic data, the harder it is to find a job.

Surveys find that most of the jobless spend their days in the same way working men spend weekends—watching TV, working out, sleeping. Economists say part of the problem is that men with few marketable skills and little education can't find work that pays enough to get them off the couch.

Since the early 1970s, the average inflation-adjusted wage for high-school dropouts has fallen about 25 percent; for high-school graduates with no college degree, it is down about 15 percent. Simply put, many of the available jobs don't pay enough to get men to take them, particularly if securing a job requires moving, long commutes or surrendering government benefits.

Economists who had expected the fraction of men working or at least looking for work to be approaching prerecession levels by now are dumbfounded. "It's looking worse and worse," said Johns Hopkins University's Robert Moffitt, who has researched the subject. "It's unexpected."

Although 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, these unemployed men are too young for conventional retirement. Many are closer to the start of their working lives.

Kenneth Gilkes Jr., 29 years old, thought he was on his way to a career in government affairs after earning a master's degree in public administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2008.

But he was laid off from his first job at Chicago public schools. His most recent position, working in community outreach for former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. , ended in April with Jackson's resignation over the misuse of campaign funds. Gilkes collected $500 a week in unemployment benefits until December, when Congress failed to extend the program. He has spent his savings and now relies on family and friends.

Gilkes applies for at least two jobs a day, he said, but gets little response, especially when applying online, a common complaint by job seekers. He watches documentaries on successful people for inspiration, he said. Gilkes shares custody of his 2-year-old daughter with this ex-wife and said the responsibility of fatherhood pushes him to keep looking.

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"Sometimes I get discouraged, but, honestly, I can't stop applying," Gilkes said. "Everyone tells me there's light at the end of the tunnel."

For some men, the job market has passed them by. After high school, Joseph Maloney, 51 years old, followed the men in his family to work on Chicago's trading floors. For nearly three decades, he worked in back-office operations for commodity firms. As trading moved from open pits to computer screens, jobs disappeared. Maloney, to his regret, said for years he didn't keep pace with the changing technology.

Maloney's son, Joseph Jr., grew up watching his dad leave the house before sunrise. "Work is an ingrained value for him," said the 25-year-old college graduate who works for Teach for America. "Not being able to have that, and satisfy that, has been really tough."

The older Maloney was laid off in 2009 and turned to temporary jobs. In 2011, he had a heart transplant.

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