America’s Quiet Catastrophe… the coolapse of work – for men.
Over the past two generations, America has suffered a quiet catastrophe. It is a catastrophe not seen in comparable affluent Western societies. The catastrophe is the collapse of work – for men. In the half century between 1965 and 2015, work rates for the American male spiraled relentlessly downward, and an ominous migration commenced: a “flight from work,” in which ever-greater numbers of working-age men exited the labor force altogether. America is now home to an ever-growing army of jobless men no longer even looking for work – over 7 million between ages 25 and 55, the traditional prime of working life.
How big is our “men without work” problem today? Consider a single fact: In 2015, the work rate (or employment to population ratio) for American males aged 25-54 was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, at the tail end of the Great Depression. And according to the latest official monthly “jobs report” data available at this writing, the work rate for prime-age men in November 2017 was still below the 1940 level.
The general decline of work for grown men, and the dramatic, continuing expansion of a class of nonworking males constitutes a fundamentally new and unfamiliar sort of crisis for America.
The progressive detachment of ever-larger numbers of adult men from the reality and routines of regular paid labor poses a self-evident threat to our nation’s future prosperity. It can only result in lower living standards, greater economic disparities, and slower economic growth than we might otherwise expect.
And the troubles posed by this male flight from work are by no means solely economic. It is also a social crisis – and a moral crisis. The growing incapability of grown men to function as breadwinners cannot help but undermine the American family. It casts those who nature designed to be strongest into the role of dependents – on their wives or girlfriends, on their aging parents, or on government welfare.
America is now home to an ever-growing army of jobless men no longer even looking for work – over 7 million between ages 25 and 55, the traditional prime of working life.
Among those who should be most capable of shouldering the burdens of civic responsibilities, it instead encourages sloth, idleness, and vices perhaps more insidious. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, this feature of the American condition – the new “men without work” normal – is inimical to our tradition; it is subversive of our national ethos, and arguably even of our civilization.
For fifty years the numbers of prime-age men neither working nor looking for work has grown almost four times faster than the number who are working or looking for work.
Between 1965 and 2015, the share of the civilian non-institutional male population working or looking for work spiraled downward almost without stop. The “labor force participation rate” (or “LFPR” – job holders and job seekers) for prime-age men fell from an average of 96.6% in 1965 to just 88.2% in 2015. (According to the latest available “jobs report” figures, it is 88.5% today.)
Expressed another way, the proportion of economically inactive American men of prime working age leapt from 3.4% in 1965 to 11.8% in 2015, and remains at 11.5% today.
At no point in the past two decades – not for a single month – have the unemployed exceeded the economically inactive among America’s cohort of prime-age men. Even in the depths of the Great Recession, America tallied more men who were completely inactive economically than who were unemployed and looking for work.
Why Doesn’t This Seem to Bother Us?
So very new and unfamiliar is this crisis that it has until now very largely gone un-noticed and un-remarked upon. Our news media, our pundits, and our major political parties have somehow managed to overlook this extraordinary dislocation almost altogether.
The collapse of work for America’s men is manifestly a crisis for our nation – but it is a largely invisible crisis. It is almost never discussed in the public square. Somehow, we as a nation have managed to ignore this problem for decades, even as it has steadily worsened.
There is perhaps no other instance in the modern American experience of a problem of such enormous consequence receiving so very little consideration by concerned citizens, intellectuals, business leaders, and policymakers.
One reason the phenomenon has been possible to overlook is because there have been no obvious outward signs of national distress attending the American male’s massive and continuing postwar exodus from paid employment: no national strikes, no great riots, no angry social paroxysms.
And America today is rich: by all indications, getting even richer. So the end of work for a large, and steadily growing, share of working-age American men has been met to date with public complacency, in part because we evidently can afford to do so.
And this is precisely the problem: For the genial indifference with which the rest of society has greeted the ever-greater absence of adult men from the productive economy is in itself powerful testimony that these men have become essentially dispensable.
Another reason for the invisibility of the crisis is the historic postwar transformation in the nature of women’s work.
Before World War II, the exclusive economic activity for the overwhelming majority of American women was unpaid labor at home. Today, the overwhelming majority of American women – including women with relatively young children – engage in at least some remunerated employment outside the family.
Needless to say, that shift has opened up prospects for prosperity in the United States, as well as new horizons of economic independence and autonomy.
The tremendous expansion of economic opportunities for America’s women made for a massive new supply of workers in the postwar economy. This enormous influx of new workers completely compensated for the decline in work rates for prime-age men – and then some.
The progressive incorporation of ever-greater numbers of women into the workforce not only permitted overall work rates to rise even as male work rates were steadily falling, but naturally also changed the complexion of the population not at work. The prime-age population without paid employment has become ever more “male” over the decades since 1948.
Ever-greater numbers of working-age men simply have dropped out from the competition for jobs. These men have established a quintessentially new and alternative lifestyle to the age-old male quest for a paying job: Members of this caste can expect at least to scrape by in an employment-free existence, and membership in the caste is – in an important sense – voluntary.
And this mass retreat from the work economy has been possible to ignore because the men in question are by and large socially invisible and inert: written off or discounted by the rest of society, and perhaps all too often by themselves.
How Do Men Without Work Support Themselves?
The short answer is, apparently, they don’t. Relatives and friends and the U.S. government float these long-term non-participants in the workforce, most of whom are doing little to improve themselves or their chances of employment.
What Has Caused These Men to Be Without Work?
(Hint: It’s not a decline in manufacturing jobs or a shift to a high-tech economy.)
There is a remarkable linearity of the decline in labor-force participation rates for prime-age American men over the past fifty years. This great male flight from work has been almost totally un-influenced by economic fluctuations.
America suffered seven recessions between 1965 and 2015 – but knowing when these recessions occurred gives us no additional information on the trajectory of the prime-male labor-force participation rate. We are just as well off drawing a straight line heading downward.
Recessions have had almost no impact on the pace of this decline – ironically, statistical analysis actually suggests recessions very slightly slow the prime-age male flight from work.
By the same token, knowing whether the U.S. economy was growing rapidly or slowly (or for that matter, contracting) provides almost no help in anticipating the pace at which prime-age men were leaving the labor force.
As Alan Kruger, Princeton economist and onetime chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama, remarked in a speech in 2015, “According to CPS data, the monthly rate for transitioning from out of the labor force to back in the labor force is unrelated to the business cycle.”
Who Are the Men Without Work?
Broad distinctions in the odds of being an un-worker are apparent in accordance with a prime-age man’s educational attainment, marital status and family structure, race or ethnicity, and nativity (i.e., whether native-born or foreign-born).
Educational attainment dramatically affects the odds that a prime male will be holding down a job or living as an un-worker.
A prime-age man with at least some college education is three times more likely to be in the former rather than the latter, by comparison with the “average” American prime-age male.
Conversely, men without high school diplomas are over twice as likely as the national average to be “NILF” (“not in the labor force”). High school dropouts make up 20.5% of the NILFs but only 9.9% of paid workers.
That said: relatively educated men still account for a perhaps surprising share of the NILFs. In 2015 over two fifths (41.8%) of prime-age male un-workers had at least some college education – and a sixth (16.8%) had at least a bachelor’s degree.
In recent decades, America has made great strides toward becoming a better-educated nation. The collapse of work for modern America’s men has happened despite our considerable upgrades in educational attainment.
For the genial indifference with which the rest of society has greeted the ever-greater absence of adult men from the productive economy is in itself powerful testimony that these men have become essentially dispensable.
Marital status and family structure/living arrangements likewise turn out to be powerful predictors of whether a prime-age man will be at work, or, alternatively, an un-worker.
Currently married men account for three-fifths of prime-age jobholders but only about a third of all NILFs (60.5% versus 35.7%).
On the other hand, men who never got married are under-represented among the employed (they make up 28.0% of that total) and over-represented among NILFs (44.6%). A similar pattern is evident for prime men who are divorced, separated, or widowed.
Married prime-age men with children account for over twice as much of the paid workforce as the NILF-force (44.9% vs. 20.2%), while never married men with no children are inversely represented (26.2% of job holders, 43.1% of NILFs).
Living under the same roof with one or more child also seriously shifts the odds of being a worker: Currently, the population of employees is almost evenly divided between prime males with and without children at home, but only about a quarter of the NILFs are in households with a child at home (26.3% vs. 73.7%).
With respect to race and ethnicity, the greatest cleavage is between black men and the rest. Differences among the huge and diverse non-black grouping, to be sure, are also evident: Hispanic men are rather more likely to be in a job, and out of the NILF pool, than the national average for prime-age males, while the reverse is true of men who self-identify as Native American.
According to U.S. race data, black men make up nearly twice as much of the prime-age NILFs as of prime-age job-holders (20.4% vs. 10.6%).
Finally, foreign-born men are more likely to be job-holders and decidedly less likely to be NILFs than the prime male population as a whole.
Foreign-born men nowadays make up more than a fifth of prime-age job-holders in America, but less than a sixth of the un-workers (22.7% vs. 15.5%). By contrast native-born men make up about 78% of the total population of civilian non-institutional prime-age males but account for 84% of the NILFs.
In sum: as of 2015, an American man 25-54 years of age is more likely to be an un-worker if:
1) He has no more than a high school diploma.
2) He is not married, has no children, or does not live with the children he has.
3) He is not an immigrant.
4) He is African-American.
Interestingly enough, America’s changing racial and ethnic composition does not appear to have had much overall effect on long-term trends in work rates and inactivity rates.
This may sound surprising, considering that the U.S. is a decidedly less “Anglo” nation than a couple of generations ago – but relative strong workforce performance by Hispanics and Asians has essentially offset the much weaker performance for African-Americans.
What Do Men Without Work Do All Day?
Free time may be a luxury good in universal demand, but it does not necessarily follow that such luxury will universally be utilized in a constructive fashion by those who obtain it.
There is an important difference between leisure and idleness. Bluntly stated: leisure refines and elevates, while idleness corrupts and degrades.
Free time can be devoted to recreation, to reflection and self-improvement, to pursuit of knowledge, spirituality, and the arts.
Free time can also be completely wasted – or expended in manifold ways that diminish both the individual and his bonds to family and community.
In 2004 (according to one U.S. Census Bureau study), the fraction of men 20 to 64 years of age who reported they were not working because they were taking care of children or others was a mere 2.4% – as against nearly 39% for un-working women those same ages. Those percentages have changed slightly over the past decade, but that “care chasm” persists to this very day.
These stark numbers plainly suggest that un-working men in modern America simply do not prioritize care for children or other family members.
These stark numbers plainly suggest that un-working men in modern America simply do not prioritize care for children or other family members.
Our best aperture into what un-working men do with their time is something called the American Time Use Survey (“ATUS”), a nationwide sample survey managed by the Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, conducted annually since 2003.
In ATUS, respondents report how they have used their time over the course of a 24-hour day – not just work time, but the amount of sleep, meal time, and many other activities.
We get a surprisingly comprehensive picture of the differences in the daily routines for prime-age men who are employed, those who are unemployed, and those neither with jobs nor seeking work.
Also we see reported time use patterns for prime-age women with jobs. Working prime-age women offer a particularly instructive comparison with un-working men because these women tend to be especially pressed by “time poverty.”
In addition to their work obligations, most of these women are also raising children at home. Nearly two-thirds (66%) of employed women ages 25-54 live in a household with at least one child under the age of 18. This compares with just 37% of prime-age NILF men.
Given the manifold commitments they shoulder, prime-age working women tend to be the major demographic group with the least discretionary time at their disposal – and thus an especially informative counterpoint to NILF men, who have more discretionary time at their disposal than any other major demographic group of working age adults.
The differences are stunning.
Not surprisingly, the two greatest differences in reported time use between these four groups are in “work and work-related activities” on the one hand, and “socializing, relaxing and leisure” on the other.
Employed prime-age men spend about six hours a day (a daily average including weekends and holidays) on work and work-related activities. Employed women spent about five hours a day. Unemployed prime-age men devoted an average of over an hour a day to these activities (mainly job search). Prime-age men who were neither working not looking for work spent an average of seven minutes a day.
With neither workplace nor job search to attend to, these non-workforce men gain an additional 2150 hours of free time each year in comparison to a man with a job, over 1800 hours a year as against a woman with a job, and over 350 hours a year over even a man who is unemployed but looking for work.
What is striking, however, is how little of this enormous dividend of extra free time is devoted to activities that would be of help to others in the family – to or others in the community.
For example: NILF men put in no more time for household care than employed women – and less than unemployed men.
By the same token: NILF men spend appreciably less time caring for other household members than either employed women or unemployed men, and no more than men who had paid work as well to do.
NILF men spend less time in religious and volunteer activities than any of the three other groups.
NILF men spend more time on “personal care” – sleeping, grooming and the like – than any of the other three groups: nearly 200 hours more each year than unemployed men, over 250 hours a year more than working women, and over 450 hours a year more than men with jobs.
The greatest difference in the daily routine of un-working men concerns “socializing, relaxing and leisure.”
Un-working men devote nearly eight hours a day to these assorted pastimes – two hours a day more than unemployed men.
“Socializing, relaxing and leisure” are akin to a full-time job for the un-working American male.
And just what sorts of diversions do un-working men engage in during their roughly eight hours a day of “socializing, relaxing and leisure”?
Men who neither work nor look for work commit more time to “attending gambling establishments,” “tobacco and drug use,” and “listening to the radio” than either working men and women or unemployed men.
Conversely, un-working men spent less time in the following activities than any other group: “attending museums,” “attending performing arts,” and “attending movies/films.”
In the ATUS category “television and movies (not religious)”: the contrast is so enormous as to suggest a fundamental difference in culture. For un-working men, this category consumes an average of five and a half hours a day – nearly 800 hours a year more for NILF men than unemployed men, 1200-plus hours more than men with jobs, and nearly 1400 hours more than working women.
And what else are the un-working men doing during their many hours of free time? ATUS does determine this exactly. But it is a reasonable inference that the Internet may play a big role.
Another take on the lifestyles of men without work can be gleaned from the General Social Survey (“GSS”), a large-scale and ongoing sociological study administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
GSS allows us to examine self-reported patterns of social engagement, social participation, and asocial behavior for prime-age American men according to employment status.
By every indicator, NILF men look to be less socially engaged than men with work.
With respect to participation in civil society, there is a longstanding pattern of lower religious attendance for un-working men than for working ones. And un-working men are much less likely to have volunteered over the previous month than working men.
Daily newspaper reading is appreciably lower for the un-working than the working.
Working men are consistently more likely to vote than un-working men.
Finally, with respect to self-reported illegal drug use for the population of prime working age, GSS reveals a sharp divide between working men and others.
In 2004 (the most recent figures available) 8% of men with work said they used some illegal drugs over the past year. 22% of unemployed men reported illegal drug use. And nearly 31% of un-workers admitted to illegal drug use.
To a distressing degree, these men appear to have relinquished what we ordinarily think of as adult responsibilities: not only as breadwinners, but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens.
Having freed themselves in some large measure of such obligations, they have filled their days instead with the full-bore pursuit of more immediate sources of gratification (not all of them admirable, or even gratifying).
The data may be read to suggest that something akin to infantilization besets all too many un-working men.
The death of work has ushered in a host of additional costs at the personal and the social level that may be difficult to quantify but are easy to describe.
The costs include the corrosive effects of prolonged idleness on personality and behavior, the loss of self-esteem and respect from others that may attend a man’s voluntary loss of economic independence (and ability to provide for others), and the loss of meaning and fulfillment that work demonstrably brings to so many (though admittedly not all) people who engage in it.
The great male flight from work may thus have increased the burden of misery in an incalculable but nonetheless immediate manner. We should not be surprised by any such effect – rather, the surprise would be if a social emasculation on this scale increased the happiness of those concerned.
It is imperative for the future health of our nation that we make a determined and sustained commitment to bringing these detached men back: into the workplace, into their families, and into civil society.
I do not propose to offer here a comprehensive program to accomplish this great goal. This is not a “how to” manual. America’s “men without work” problem is immense and complex, and has been gathering for fully two generations. Redressing it will surely require action on many different fronts – and most certainly not just governmental action.
Tackling it will also require suggestions and strategies from varied voices representing the whole political spectrum and maintaining the necessary consensus for turning the tide.
I would propose for a start that we focus public attention in three general directions:
1) Revitalizing American business and its job-generating capacities.
2) Reducing the immense and perverse disincentives against male work embedded in our social-welfare programs.
3) A subject that needs a dissertation of its own and which there is not space enough here to address – a coming to terms with the enormous challenge of bringing convicts and felons back into our economy. These convicts and felons are overwhelmingly male and majority non-white. A single variable – having a criminal record – is a key missing piece in explaining why labor force participation rates have collapsed much more dramatically in America than in other affluent Western societies.
Nicholas Eberstadt, who earned his AB, MPA, and PhD at Harvard University, is America’s leading expert on demographics and its role in economic development. He holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and in 2012 was awarded the Bradley Prize for innovative thinking devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it.
The above is excerpted and condensed from his book Men Without Work published by Templeton Press.