One-sixth of all men of prime working age in America are not just unemployed, but have stopped looking for jobs altogether. Why?…

The US stock market continues to set new records. Unemployment continues to go down. The United States is now at or near “full employment.” According to a Bloomberg headline last year, “The Jobless Numbers Aren’t Just Good, They’re Great.”

But a closer look at economic data by demographer Nicholas Eberstadt reveals something else entirely. While “unemployment” has gone down, the work participation rate, and especially the male work rate, has been relentlessly declining for most of the post-War era and is now reaching a crisis with Depression-era levels.

In his new book, Men Without Work, Dr. Eberstadt describes this as a deep moral and social crisis, which is passing almost unnoticed by politicians, pundits, business leaders and economists.

One-sixth of all men of prime working age in America—men aged between twenty-five and fifty-four—are not just unemployed, but have stopped looking for jobs altogether. This is a time bomb with far reaching economic, social, and political consequences. “Unlike the dead soldiers in Roman antiquity,” he writes, “our decimated men still live and walk among us, though in an existence without productive economic purpose. We might say those many millions of men without work constitute a sort of invisible army, ghost soldiers lost in an overlooked, modern-day depression.”

In many ways, this is a disturbing book. Never before in American history have so many men done absolutely nothing. Millions are becoming dependent, infantilized, and sick. According to a recent paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, nearly half of the men who are not looking for work are on painkillers and many are disabled. They “experience notably low levels of emotional well-being throughout their days and…. They derive relatively little meaning from their daily activities,” Dr. Krueger found. And there are seven million of them.

Consider these staggering statistics. Prime-age American men in employment spend 2,200 hours a year in work and work-related activity; employed women spend 1,850 hours; unemployed men spend 400 hours, mostly looking for jobs. But seven million American men between twenty-five and fifty-four spent forty-three hours a year working. That averages out to about seven minutes a day.

And what did they do with their time? Learn French? Paint watercolors? Help at a local nursing home? Vacuuming? None of the above. They spent less time in volunteer and religious activities than the other three groups. They don’t read newspapers much. They don’t vote much. A third of them have used illegal drugs in the past year.

Basically, they did nothing much. Time-use studies show that:

When it came to ‘television and movies (not religious),’ the contrast between NILF men and all the rest was so enormous that it suggests a fundamental difference in mentality. For un-working men watching TV and movies ate up an average of five and a half hours a day. That’s four hours a day more than for working women, nearly three and a half hours more than working men, and a striking two hours a day more than unemployed men.…

To a distressing degree, these men appear to have relinquished what we think of ordinarily as adult responsibilities not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens. Having largely freed themselves of such obligations, they fill their days in the pursuit of more immediate sources of gratification.

No wonder pornography is flourishing on the internet.

How do they support themselves? Dr. Eberstadt is scathing: “The short answer is, apparently they don’t.” They are supported by parents, wives, girlfriends, and government handouts. “Whatever the reasons or the motivations,” he says, “they are essentially living off the rest of us. Social cohesion is a direct casualty of this development, and social trust could scarcely help but be degraded by it as well.”

If there is a Year Zero for Male Infantilization it is 1965, the year President Johnson launched the American welfare state by rolling out the “Great Society.” Dr. Eberstadt also identifies it as the year when the Great Incarceration began. A crime wave started which was handled by jailing more and more criminals. Nowadays, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world. Even after release many of these men enter the legions of prime-age men who are not looking for work. “The circumstances of this ex-prisoner and at-large felon population are, it seems, a matter of almost complete indifference to the rest of us,” says Dr. Eberstadt. “These people only show up in our national statistics if and when they again run afoul of the criminal justice system.”

What can be done?

Dr. Eberstadt admits that he does not have the answers. He sees his job as alerting the United States to the existence of this army of men which has been shelved by politicians and policy-makers as “essentially dispensable.”

However, he says that solutions have to be sought in three broad areas: revitalizing American business to create new jobs; reducing the perverse incentives in welfare programs to stay out of the workforce; and allowing men who have spent time in jail to get jobs.

Dr. Eberstadt points out that this is a serious moral issue for the United States which must not be ignored. It is bizarre that the hardest-working country in the world should harbor a huge pool of able men whose lives are slowly being destroyed through idleness.

The death of work has ushered in additional costs at the personal and social levels that may be difficult to quantify but are easy to describe. These include the corrosive effects of prolonged idleness on personality and behavior, the loss of self-esteem and the respect of others that may attend a man’s voluntary loss of economic independence, and the loss of meaning and fulfillment that work demonstrably brings to so many (though admittedly not all) people. Thus, the great male flight from work may well have increased our nation’s burden of misery in an incalculable but nonetheless immediate manner. Should this come as a surprise? Hardly. The surprise would be if a social emasculation on this scale had increased the happiness of those concerned.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout (October 2016). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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Published: Aug 22, 2017
Michael Cook
Dr. Michael Cook is the Editor of BioEdge and of MercatorNet. A graduate of Harvard possessing a Ph.D. in American literature, Dr. Cook is the author of the bioethics section in Australian Science and a frequent contributor to journals in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.
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4 replies to this post
  1. Would anyone be surprised to find a large number of the cville protesters, on either left or right, were “unworkers”.

    Solutions should include the enticement of rosie riveter back home to nurture her children, leaving her job available…

  2. This is more critique of statistics, but it’s worth pointing out that young men in their prime working years are now looking towards models like Tim Ferris as the answer to survival in a changing economy. I wonder if Ferris and other newly minted entrepreneurs count as “unemployed.” In any case, a decline in the virtue of diligence among men is troubling.

  3. I think there is much to say here…

    I think the untold story (I CANNOT emphasize more that this is the key to the mystery and the answer to the titel question, but I don’t want to turn off a potential reader with angry Caps) here is the economy no longer offers a way for men to use their talents to make a living and support a family, while keeping their dignity. That’s the biggest reason why they don’t do it. There are other reasons also, of course.

    There are several ways in which this manifests.

    Men desire independence, it seems, more so than women, who (it seems) take more easily to supportive work. One of my favorite essays is titled “I Fear No Peevish Master”, which title captures what I’m saying. Thus for many men (not all), having a job, rather than being your own master (self-employed, business owner, or part of an employee-owned business, is of itself against their nature, and cuts against their happiness, leading men to avoid a “job” and withdraw to video games.

    The jobs that pay decently don’t require much testosterone (dentist, actuary, accountant, college dean/VP…) while the jobs that do (craftsman, construction worker, machine shop worker, ironworker, mechanic, etc.) don’t pay well. They are also not esteemed by the culture; they are mocked by the culture.

    Also there is a lack of jobs with dignity. A man is to be self-possesed, wise, and, uh, manly (I’m running out of adjectives here), and serving coffee at Starbucks doesn’t quite cut it. If you don’t bend over backwards to your customers, if you show the slightest bit of backbone, you big business boss will cut you down.

    If you allow an ounce of testosterone in the office – one glance at a pretty woman – you may be traveling down the road to a harassment charge, and job loss. Better to deny nature, and withdraw, and go home and play video games.

    Then, entrepreneurship is increasingly risky because of the high levels of market share captured by big business.

    I could go on, and might, later.

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