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When Young Men Don’t Work

Young men are gradually abandoning work. Many aren’t even “unemployed,” because they’re not looking for a job. And the problem is slowly creeping onto the national radar.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer with the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming Men Without Work, recently laid out the uncomfortable facts in the Wall Street Journal:

Near-full employment? In 2015 the work rate (the ratio of employment to population) for American males age 25 to 54 was 84.4%. That’s slightly lower than it had been in 1940, 86.4%, at the tail end of the Great Depression. Benchmarked against 1965, when American men were at genuine full employment, the “male jobs deficit” in 2015 would be nearly 10 million, even after taking into account an older population and more adults in college.

… For prime working-age men, the jobless rate jumped to 15% from 6% [over the past 50 years]. Most of the postwar surge involved voluntary departure from the labor force. … This is at least somewhat true throughout the affluent West, but the U.S. has led the pack.

No one knows exactly why this is happening, though declining demand for low-skill work seems to be a factor. But two new pieces of research suggest answers to two important questions: Who, if anyone, is replacing these young men in the workforce? And what is replacing work in these young men’s lives?

The first study comes courtesy of Jason Richwine, via the Center for Immigration Studies. (Yes, Richwine was the Heritage Foundation scholar famously pushed to resign after his Harvard dissertation about immigration and IQ came to light.) He fleshes out a point he made in a TAC piece several months ago: the phenomenon of men opting out of work is limited to the native-born.

Native high-school dropouts of “prime age” (25–54) work only about 35 weeks per year, on average; comparable immigrant dropouts work 49 weeks. Native dropouts are the outliers. Immigrant dropouts work roughly as much as both native and immigrant men with higher levels of education—and they do 60 percent of the work performed by dropouts in America, despite being less than half of the dropout population. “[T]he United States has been a magnet for low-skill immigration even as low-skill natives have worked less and less,” Richwine writes.

As Richwine concedes, this doesn’t prove much about immigration’s effect on natives. It’s consistent with a narrative where immigrants drive natives out of their jobs, but it’s also consistent with a narrative where immigrants come to fill jobs that low-skill Americans won’t take.

What it does show is that immigrants are picking up the slack left by jobless natives, taking the pressure off American society to do something about its problem of idle young men. Businesses looking for low-skill labor, for example, don’t have to attract natives, because they can hire immigrants instead—leaving low-skill natives to do whatever it is they do in their parents’ basements when they don’t have jobs.

Which is what, exactly? This is a question Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago has been digging into. His final report won’t be out for a few weeks, but he’s been drumming up publicity for months already, including ininterviews and in a speech that was posted online recently.

His study is based on “time diaries” collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), where people are asked how they spent their time the previous day. Some of the most scintillating preliminary results he’s teased:

  • Since the early 2000s, young, low-skill men have added about four hours a week to their leisure time, replacing almost one-to-one the working hours they lost.
  • About three of those additional hours are spent on video games.
  • Each day, low-skill young men who aren’t employed spend an average of about two hours apiece (roughly 12 hours a week) playing video games.
  • Each day, a quarter of these nonworking men game for three hours or longer; a tenth game six hours or more. (Note that it’s hard to say whether these are the same people binging day after day. In the time-diary survey, each person is interviewed only once, about what they did on a single day.)

Relative to Richwine, Hurst is much more aggressive in his claims to have found a cause of male labor decline. He doesn’t assert that his results proveit; there is a difference between correlation and causation, and if men left the labor force for reasons unrelated to video games, no one would be surprised if they nonetheless ended up playing more video games in their newfound free time. But he offers an argument that is at least plausible:

Individuals make decisions about whether to work or not. … When making our work decisions, we compare the benefit of work—the wage—against the cost of working. What is the cost of working? We give up leisure. The more attractive our leisure time, the less we’ll want to work, holding wages fixed.

Is it possible that technology has changed the value of leisure? I think the answer is a definite yes, and let me give you an example of how I am experiencing this firsthand. I have a 12-year-old son at home, and we ration video games for him. He is allowed a couple of hours of video-game time on the weekend, when homework is done. However, if it were up to him, I have no doubt he would play video games 23-and-a-half hours per day. He told me so. If we didn’t ration video games, I am not sure he would ever eat. I am positive he wouldn’t shower.

Hurst buttresses his claim by noting that “lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s … despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.”

My biggest objection to Hurst’s narrative, at least as it’s been presented thus far, involves the emphasis on video games specifically. To be fair, he’s also discussed other technologies like social media, but his comments and the data he chooses to present often evoke lazy young men drooling on their controllers all day.

I think this emphasis is misplaced. I’m a gamer myself—full disclosure—but I also have a fair amount of data on my side.  

Hurst declined to provide me more information about his analysis before the paper comes out, but I spent some time poking around in the BLS time-diary survey myself, focusing on men 1829 who had less than a BA and were not enrolled in school. It’s certainly true that gaming is on the rise: on average, it doubled from about 25 minutes a day to 50 minutes a day for these guys over the past 10 years, and the numbers are much higher when you look just at the men who aren’t employed.

But a few points about all that. For one, even in recent years, when these men have gamed 50 minutes a day, they’ve spent three times as long watching TV and movies at home. Even among low-skill men who aren’t employed, only about 40 percent play video games on any given day, while more than 80 percent watch TV or movies.

True, unlike gaming, TV-watching isn’t increasing, so it can’t occupy low-skill men’s four hours of new leisure time—though it’s possible that, had total leisure time not increased, TV-watching would have declined to make room for the rising popularity of games. At any rate, TV is still the Goliath in the realm of home entertainment:

Source: American Time Use Survey.
Source: American Time Use Survey.

Also, I can attest from past experience that a 12-hour-a-week gaming habit—the average for nonworking, low-skill men—need not keep a childless American male away from full-time work, or even full-time work plus some side projects. A week comprises 168 hours. Dock ten hours a day for eating, sleeping, and (yes) showering, plus 50 hours for a full-time job with an hour commute each way, and you still have 48 hours left. This, after all, is how some particularly motivated or desperate people manage to work not one but two full-time jobs, or to work 80 hours a week at one job.

Further, recall that working-age men have been slowly but steadily leaving the labor force for half a century—starting well before video games became popular.

So, as the former Treasury economist Ernie Tedeschi argued last week on Twitter, if there’s anything to the argument that leisure time has become more pleasant, the story should start with TV, not video games. A half-century ago, after all, was about the time that televisions became ubiquitous in American homes, and technology has constantly improved since then. (Even video games have been on the scene for quite a while: home Atari consoles were common in the late 1970s, and 20 years ago I was as obsessed with Super Nintendo as Hurst’s son is with his own games. My parents had to limit my “Nintendo time” and everything.) Modern video games and social media continue a long trend rather than being something new under the sun.

Perhaps one should not dwell too long, however, on the question of what type of leisure low-skill young men are engaging in. The more important fact remains that leisure is slowly replacing work in their lives, as immigrants replace them in the labor force.

Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.

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