Economy & Business

The New Unworking Class

(Dreamstime photo: Rafael Ben-ari)
Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work shows how the erosion of family roles contributes to men’s trend away from employment.

“He that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled). For the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers.” – John Smith, 1609

One out of six prime-working-age adult males in the United States is not temporarily unemployed, or “between jobs,” or “looking for work.” No, a huge cohort of men in America is now neither employed nor looking for work. They are just skating by on a combination of girlfriends, wives, mothers, and government benefits. Their status, argues Nicholas Eberstadt in Men Without Work, is a “quiet catastrophe.”

Until relatively recently, choosing not to work was a luxury only the wealthy could afford. Everyone else had to keep the wolf from the door (though the temptation to try to live off others has always been with us — see John Smith above). In the 1950s, 98 percent of prime-age males were working or looking for work (i.e. in the labor force). Today it is 88 percent. Recessions have affected labor-force participation, but the downward trend line has been consistent for decades. Only 15 percent of non-working men cite inability to find work as the reason for their idleness.

Eberstadt examines the usual explanations. The retirement of Baby Boomers? It doesn’t account for the decline in work by those aged 25-54 (traditionally, the group most likely to be employed). The participation of prime-age men in the labor force fell from 94.1 percent in 1948 to 84.3 percent in 2015.

Aren’t more men in college? If the work patterns of 1965 obtained today, even accounting for the extra students enrolled in education programs, an additional 10 percent of America’s young men would be employed. “The overwhelming majority of adult male job trainees,” Eberstadt writes, “appear to be job holders already. . . . Most men enrolled in formal schooling are also in the workforce.”

Is it the decline in manufacturing jobs? Eberstadt acknowledges the possibility, but thinks it’s been overstated. Other industrialized nations like Australia and Sweden experienced an identical decline in manufacturing employment without the steep withdrawal from work recorded among American men.

Who are these new non-workers? Most are low-skilled, never married, native-born, and many are African American. High-school dropouts are the most likely to be out of the labor force, but 40 percent have some college under their belts, and one-sixth are college graduates. A significant number have felony convictions and/or prison time in their pasts.

How do they spend their time? The non-employed consistently spend more time on personal care (including sleep) than unemployed men. They spend the same amount of time on caring for household members as employed men (about 28 minutes per day), and much more time on “socializing, relaxing, and leisure” than employed men, unemployed men, or employed women. Watching TV and movies consumed an average of five-and-a-half hours of each day for the non-employed.

How do they make ends meet? Many live with family members who earn income — and then there are government benefits. The average working man received $500 in benefits from the government in 2014. The average nonworking man got $5,700.00. Disability payments seem to account for a large share of the benefits the non-employed receive and it’s an open secret that most are not truly disabled. Households with non-working prime-age men are not as well off as those with working men, but they aren’t at the bottom either (that distinction belongs to single mothers).

Race and ethnicity take you only so far in understanding the flight from work. Labor-force-participation rates (LFPR) are higher for Latinos than for non-Hispanic whites. And married black men are more likely to be in the workforce than unmarried white men of the same age. Similarly, the LFPR for married whites with only a high-school degree exceeds that of unmarried whites with some college or associate degrees.

The factors contributing to non-work are clearly complex, but the role of social mores is highly significant. When men feel that their traditional role as father and husband is no longer valued, they have less incentive to become the sort of people who can hold down a job. Our family roles give life meaning and purpose. Marriage is a far better predictor than race or ethnicity of whether a man will be employed, contributing to his community, and caring for others. The causality goes both ways, too. A man raised by a single mother is less likely to be mature and responsible (i.e. marriageable) than a man from an intact family.

Non-marriage and non-work are locked in a downward spiral. Eberstadt’s book is a fire bell.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Copyright © 2016

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