‘Men Without Work’: America’s ‘Quiet Catastrophe’ of Unemployment

America is in the midst of an ongoing crisis that predates the war in Iraq, with devastating, far-reaching consequences exceeding those of the 2016 presidential election. Some 10 million able-bodied men between the ages of 20 and 64 are missing from the workforce today.

Work rates for prime-aged adult men in this country have been falling for most of the post-World War II era. In his newly released book, “Men Without Work” from Templeton Press, AEI political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt explains the economic, historic, and cultural precedents for this modern tragedy.

“Romans used the word ‘decimation’ to describe the loss of a tenth of a given unit of men,” Eberstadt writes. “The United States has suffered something akin to a decimation of its male workforce over the past 50 years.”

He adds, however, that “unlike the dead soldiers in Roman antiquity, our decimated men still live and walk among us, though in an existence without productive economic purpose.”

Hiding in plain sight

Politicians, economists, and the mainstream media have failed to detect this aggressive cancer and diagnose its symptoms, and so the problem has remained largely untreated, metastasizing within our borders for the last half century.

In “Men Without Work,” listed are recent examples of when the mainstream media failed to capture this problem “hiding in plain sight”:

The Jobless Numbers Aren’t Just Good, They’re Great (Bloomberg, August 2015)

The Jobs Report is Even Better Than It Looks (FiveThirtyEight, November 2015)

Healthy Job Market at Odds with Global Gloom” (The Wall Street Journal, March 2016)

June’s Super Jobs Report (Atlantic Monthly, July 2016).

Further, it points out that U.S. economists and policymakers seem to have formed a bipartisan consensus that the nation’s economy is either at or near “full employment,” when “we are, in reality, living through a period of extraordinary, Great Depression-scale underutilization of male manpower.”

But if circumstances are so dire, why haven’t we noticed the effects? Eberstadt offers two explanations for why this “quiet postwar collapse of male work” did not lead to political outcry/crises or chronic issues of worker shortage in various industries. The first is the progressive and exponential growth of women in the workforce after World War II. The second factor is the voluntary exodus of men from the workforce.

The Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR), the common statistical tool used to gauge economic health and growth, only accounts for the number of people who are either employed or actively seeking employment. What it doesn’t account for, however, are the individuals who are unemployed and not actively looking for work. Because this drop in male employment is caused by a “willing outmigration,” it flies under the radar (as far as official government statistics are concerned).

Invisible men

Who are these invisible “men without work”? Based on a variety of demographical factors, Nicholas Eberstadt concludes that they are most likely to be 1. less educated; 2. never married and without children; 3. native born; and 4. African-American. But, he clarifies, the task of predicting who is more likely to become a not-in-the-labor-force (NILF) male isn’t that simple:

“No matter their race or educational status, married men raising a family work more, and never-married men without children or children in their home work less. No matter their ethnicity or race, prime-age men who come to this country work more than those here by birth.”

He notes that while that wedding rings and green cards don’t ensure “innate advantage in the competition for jobs,” decisions to marry or migrate “point to motivations, aspirations, priorities, values, and other intangibles that do so much to explain real-world human achievements.”

Free from the time commitments of family, work, work travel, and job searching, NILFs have more spare time than any other category of Americans (Eberstadt estimates this to be an additional 2,150 hours a year compared to employed men). What’s shocking, however, is how little of this extra free time is spent “helping others in their family or community.”

Based on data from 2014, these men spent less time engaged in religious and volunteer activities. By contrast, the amount of time this group spent on socializing, relaxing, and leisure — e.g. gambling, tobacco and drug use, listening to the radio, and arts and crafts “as a hobby” — amounted to a full-time job.

Quiet catastrophe

“Americans may be the hardest working people of any affluent society in the world today, yet no other developed nation simultaneously floats such a large proportion of its prime-age men entirely outside the labor force … ,” AEI’s Eberstadt observes.

One possible reason for this, he suggests, could be greater social toleration for unemployed able-bodied men who subsist on the produce of others, be they family, wives or partners, or the government. And though well-informed people are bound to disagree about the causes of this uniquely American problem, the consequences are manifold.

In addition to the economic consequences of an underutilized male work force, there are social repercussions of this modern catastrophe — such as family breakdown, increased dependency on government-funded programs like welfare and disability, and increased economic dependency of able-bodied men on women. Political consequences include male withdrawal from civic engagement, community participation, and voluntary association.

Finally, the additional costs associated with the human need for purpose, as opposed to mere “work,” are noted. Foremost, it is the loss of self-purpose and accomplishment, and the inevitable loss of self-esteem and respect of others that emanate from perpetually idle hands.

“Men Without Work” admits that as of now, there is no clear or simple solution to this “grave social ill,” but there are at least three areas of focus that can help to propel the country in the right direction:

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. “coming to terms with the enormous challenge of bringing convicts and felons back into our economy and society.”

Nicholas Eberstadt calls for collaborative problem solving, and stresses that a bipartisan effort is needed to eradicate this modern “social emasculation” and bring these men “back into the workplace, back into their families, and back into civil society.” (For more from the author of “‘Men Without Work’: America’s ‘Quiet Catastrophe’ of Unemployment” please click HERE)

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