The ‘quiet catas­tro­phe’ of men choos­ing to not seek work

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - George Will

— The “quiet catas­tro­phe” is par­tic­u­larly dis­may­ing be­cause it is so quiet, with­out so­cial tur­moil or even de­bate. It is this: Af­ter 88 con­sec­u­tive months of the eco­nomic ex­pan­sion that be­gan in June 2009, a smaller per­cent­age of Amer­i­can males in the prime work­ing years (ages 25 to 54) are work­ing than were work­ing near the end of the Great De­pres­sion in 1940, when the un­em­ploy­ment rate was above 14 per­cent. If the la­bor force par­tic­i­pa­tion rate were as high to­day as it was as re­cently as 2000, nearly 10 mil­lion more Amer­i­cans would have jobs.

The work rate for adult men has plunged 13 per­cent­age points in a half-cen­tury.

WASH­ING­TON

This “work deficit” of “Great De­pres­sion-scale un­der­uti­liza­tion” of male po­ten­tial work­ers is the sub­ject of Ni­cholas Eber­stadt’s new mono­graph “Men With­out Work: Amer­ica’s In­vis­i­ble Cri­sis,” which ex­plores the eco­nomic and mo­ral causes and con­se­quences of this:

Since 1948, the pro­por­tion of men 20 and older with­out paid work has more than dou­bled, to al­most 32 per­cent. This “eerie and rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion” — men cre­at­ing an “al­ter­na­tive life­style to the age-old male quest for a pay­ing job” — is largely vol­un­tary. Men who have cho­sen to not seek work are two and a half times more nu­mer­ous than men that gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics count as un­em­ployed be­cause they are seek­ing jobs.

What Eber­stadt calls a “nor­ma­tive sea change” has made it a “vi­able op­tion” for “sturdy men,” who are nei­ther work­ing nor look­ing for work, to choose “to sit on the eco­nomic side­lines, liv­ing off the toil or bounty of oth­ers.” Only about 15 per­cent of men 25 to 54 who worked not at all in 2014 said they were un­em­ployed be­cause they could not find work.

For 50 years, the num­ber of men in that age co­hort who are nei­ther work­ing nor look­ing for work has grown nearly four times faster than the num­ber who are work­ing or seek­ing work. And the pace of this has been “al­most to­tally un­in­flu­enced by the busi­ness cy­cle.” The “eco­nom­i­cally in­ac­tive” have eclipsed the un­em­ployed, as gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics mea­sure them, as “the main cat­e­gory of men with­out jobs.” Those sta­tis­tics were cre­ated be­fore gov­ern­ment pol­icy and so­cial at­ti­tudes made it pos­si­ble to be eco­nom­i­cally in­ac­tive.

Eber­stadt does not say that gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance causes this, but ob­vi­ously it fi­nances it. To some ex­tent, how­ever, this is a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence. In a 2012 mono­graph, Eber­stadt noted that in 1960 there were 134 work­ers for ev­ery one of­fi­cially cer­ti­fied as dis­abled; by 2010 there were just over 16. Be­tween Jan­uary 2010 and De­cem­ber 2011, while the econ­omy pro­duced 1.73 mil­lion non­farm jobs, al­most half as many work­ers be­came dis­abil­ity re­cip­i­ents. This, even though work is less stress­ful and the work­place is safer than ever.

Largely be­cause of gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits and sup­port by other fam­ily mem­bers, non­work­ing men 25 to 54 have house­hold ex­pen­di­tures a third higher than the av­er­age of those in the bot­tom in­come quin­tile. Hence, Eber­stadt says, they “ap­pear to be bet­ter off than tens of mil­lions of other Amer­i­cans to­day, in­clud­ing the mil­lions of sin­gle moth­ers who are ei­ther work­ing or seek­ing work.”

Amer­ica’s econ­omy is not less ro­bust, and its wel­fare pro­vi­sions not more gen­er­ous, than those of the 22 other af­flu­ent na­tions of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD). Yet Amer­ica ranks 22nd, ahead of only Italy, in 25 to 54 male la­bor force par­tic­i­pa­tion. Eber­stadt calls this “un­wel­come ‘Amer­i­can Ex­cep­tion­al­ism.’”

In 1965, even high school dropouts were more likely to be in the work­force than is the 25 to 54 male to­day. And, Eber­stadt notes, “the col­lapse of work for modern Amer­ica’s men hap­pened de­spite con­sid­er­able up­grades in ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment.” The col­lapse has co­in­cided with a re­treat from mar­riage (“the pro­por­tion of never-mar­ried men was over three times higher in 2015 than 1965”), which sug­gests a broader in­fan­tiliza­tion. As does the use to which the vol­un­tar­ily idle put their time — for ex­am­ple, watch­ing TV and movies 5.5 hours daily, two hours more than men who are counted as un­em­ployed be­cause they are seek­ing work.

Eber­stadt, not­ing that the 1996 wel­fare re­form “brought mil­lions of sin­gle moth­ers off wel­fare and into the work­force,” sug­gests that pol­icy in­no­va­tions that al­ter in­cen­tives can re­verse the “so­cial emas­cu­la­tion” of mil­lions of idle men. Per­haps. Re­vers­ing so­cial re­gres­sion is more dif­fi­cult than caus­ing it. One man­i­fes­ta­tion of re­gres­sion, Don­ald Trump, is per­haps per­verse ev­i­dence that some of his army of an­gry men are at least healthily un­happy about the loss of mean­ing, self-es­teem and mas­culin­ity that is a con­se­quence of cho­sen and pro­tracted idle­ness.

George Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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