As George Will noted, Nicholas Eberstadt has written an extraordinary new monograph, Men without Work.
Among the questions he asks are:
Why do “overwhelming majorities continue to tell public opinion pollsters, year after year, that our ever-richer America is still stuck in a recession”?
All the happy news about unemployment falling misses something big, says Eberstadt: “the deterioration of work rates for American men.”
Almost one out of four men of prime working age (25–54) are not working. Since 1948, the percentage of men aged 20 to 64 who aren’t working has doubled. Fewer working-age men are working today than in 1930, in the heart of the Great Depression.
Most of this decline, however, has taken place since 1965. Between 1965 and 2015, the share of working-age men who are jobless more than doubled, from 10 percent to 22 percent. Among “prime age” men, the percentage without jobs shot from 6 percent to nearly 16 percent. Some of these men are in training or education programs. But the vast majority of men in this age range who are receiving training or are in school are job holders, working part-time or working full-time and going to school part-time. (This category includes both my sons and perhaps yours as well: My son has had a job working for a 7–11 while in college, while my older son is holding down an executive position and getting his MBA.)
Eberstadt estimates that if you deduct men who are going to school instead of working, the number of working-age men without work is still almost 10 million, or about 10 percent of the working-age male population. This is what the Romans called “decimation.”
Could this be one reason the economy isn’t growing as fast as it should be?
As Eberstadt writes, “This mass retreat from the workforce has been possible to ignore because these men are largely socially invisible and inert.”
How did the missing men in the workplace go mostly unnoticed for so long? Eberstadt points to “the historic postwar transformation in the nature of women’s work.” Between 1948 and 2015, the proportion of women between 25 and 64 in the workforce doubled from 34 percent to 70 percent, masking the continuing retreat of men from work. By the late 1990s, women’s workforce participation stopped rising. “Only then did the overall work rate for U.S. adults begin to register a decline,” he writes. “For two full generations, the upsurge of employment for women disguised the steady decline in work for men.” Almost 40 percent of all Americans without work are now male.
The second structural change, though, is: “Ever-greater numbers of working-age men simply have dropped out — some for a while and some forever — from the competition for jobs. These men have established a new and alternative lifestyle to the age-old male quest for a paying job.” And Eberstadt points out that this situation is largely voluntary: Not only are these men not looking for work, “only a minority report that they’ve left the labor force because they cannot find a job.”
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Eberstadt here perhaps underestimates men’s reluctance to admit to pollsters a failure or a weakness, but still, this reflects an enormous change in masculine norms. In the past, men would rather have it be known they aren’t working because they can’t find a job than that they chose financial dependence on others.
As Eberstadt writes, “This mass retreat from the workforce has been possible to ignore because these men are largely socially invisible and inert.” No Male Lives Matter rallies or riots, no union or political organizing on their behalf. The complaints of men are invisible in public discourse in part because we have defined our social goal as getting more women to work.
The Atlantic on July 25 published an essay by Derek Thompson, “What Are Young Non-Working Men Doing?” Since 2000, “the participation rate of 16-to-24-year-olds with just a high-school degree has fallen 10 points to about 70 percent,” he observed. Where are they? Living in Mom’s basement, as Hillary Clinton derided Bernie Sanders supporters for supposedly doing. Thirty-five percent of 18-to-34-year-olds live with parents, more than the 28 percent who live with a spouse — this is part of the fruits of the divorce and unwed-childbearing “revolution.” Many of these parents are likely to be single mothers, as few working fathers are willing to support idle sons indefinitely.
What are these young men doing? University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst’s preliminary research, cited by Thompson, suggests: “The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games.” And, so far, they like it pretty well this way: “Happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers,” Hurst said in an interview published on the university’s site.
Thompson wrote another essay in 2014 on the mystery of declining male work in which he described both the push and the pull disconnecting men from the workplace — the structural loss of jobs and the increase in the safety net. But then he put his finger on what I think is the most important piece of the puzzle: male identity:
Looking to the future, one aspect of the decline of work that might not receive enough attention is identity. If the future of work isn’t quite biased against men, it certainly seemed biased against the traditional idea of manliness. Construction and manufacturing, two male-dominated industries, are down 3 million jobs since 2008. Most of those jobs are dead, forever. Meanwhile, the only occupations expected to add more than 100,000 jobs in the next decade are personal care aides, home health aides, medical secretaries, and marketing specialists, all of which are currently majority female.
It might seem sentimental to talk about pride and identity in the face of vast, empirical trends, like falling wages for non-high-school-educated men and the slow creep of automation into low-income work. But some economists think identity plays a starring role in the economy. “Some of the decline in work among young men is a mismatch between aspirations and identity,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University. “Taking a job as a health technician has the connotation as a feminized job. The growth has been in jobs that have been considered women’s jobs — education, health, government.”
The economy is not simply leaving men behind. It is leaving manliness behind.
We no longer valorize male work as manly because manliness itself has fallen out of favor. The problem is not working women, the problem is genderphobia, the half-century growth of the pervasive ideology that acknowledging the basic realities of gender and gender difference is somehow a crime against women (and more lately, against the LGBT community).
Work became redefined, not only as genderless, but male work became redefined as a source of unfair privilege. For the Donald Trumps or the Bill Gateses or the Lloyd Blankfeins of the world, this makes some sense: The pinnacle of power and money is still majority male.
But for most of human history, men worked in really nasty jobs that damaged their health for three reasons: to support themselves, to support their families, and because that was what manliness required. Financial dependence, either on a woman, on the government, or on the charity of their neighbors, was anathema to masculine identity.
The fancy term for this kind of identity formation is “symbolic capital.” In a lot of different ways, we have simply failed to replenish what we inherited from the Greatest Generation of these sources of identity for the Americans who cannot pat themselves on the back because they’ve made it to Harvard as part of the privileged class: religion, patriotism, community, and yes, pro-social masculinity. I notice part of Trump’s appeal is that he always tells voters success is not necessarily being like him: Being a happy teacher or police officer is just as much a success as being a Manhattan real-estate tycoon.
If you want good men, you need to admire, idealize, and reward masculine goodness.
For most of humanity’s history, masculinity was something achieved, not given, and it pointed men in directions that their society defined as pro-social. Above all, in modern times, to work and marriage. The connections between work, marriage, fatherhood, and manhood unleashed enormous social energy. Being a husband and a father was a socially and sexually reinforced masculine identity. It wasn’t just being a parent or a caretaker. A good husband and father worked. The guy who didn’t was not just a deadbeat, not just a social menace, but a failure as a man. Both men and women knew this.
The redefinition of masculinity into personhood has not produced a generation of men who act like women. The deep sources of motivation are not the same for both genders.
Today we’ve defined men as the enemy unless they pretend to conform to the idea that gender doesn’t matter. Adult men are now retreating to the world of video games where their aggressive impulses are valorized, not despised — without risk and without real reward.
Hence the fury of “GamerGate” — the rage of men whose fantasy refuges of masculinity were threatened by feminism.
The way forward is not the way back. The first step is not to reject working women, of course. But it is to reject genderlessness and genderphobia, to recover and respect the male need to achieve a masculine identity, one that does not hurt their children or their wives. Or their moms. Or the economy.
If we want more good men, we need to appreciate them more.
— Maggie Gallagher is the author of four books on marriage and a longtime contributor to National Review.