Nicholas Eberstadt has become one of our highest-impact socioeconomic and demographic analysts, rivaling his American Enterprise Institute colleague Charles Murray. In Men without Work, he alerts us to a new “invisible national crisis.” This is the flight of some 10 million American men in their prime ages (between 25 and 54) from the work force, and indeed from all the commitments and responsibilities of civilized society. He documents an “immense army” of rootless “idlers,” tending toward obesity, popping pills (mainly prescription painkillers, but also, in alarming numbers, harder drugs), immersed in TV for an average of 21.7 hours a week and video games for 6.7 hours, and stickily keyboarding on an oily surf of terabytes of porn, all while their baby-boom elders retire, often on disability, and, as of this August, 337,000 manufacturing jobs go unfilled.
Like most of our social-policy establishment, Eberstadt finds this phenomenon baffling in the face of a rise in measured national wealth from nearly $40 trillion in 2000 to close to $90 trillion in 2016, and the multiplication of total jobs from 120 million in 1990 to 150 million now. Exacerbating the enigma is the absence of any comparable male flight in such countries as France, Sweden, Australia, and other lands also afflicted with “deindustrialization” and globalization. He concludes: “No other developed nation simultaneously floats such a large proportion of its prime-age men entirely outside the labor force — neither working, nor looking for work, nor doing much of anything else.” According to Eberstadt, this is a “silent catastrophe” that “our news media, our pundits, and our major political parties have somehow managed to overlook.”
The book concludes with two rebuttals. There is nothing going on here, say Henry Olsen, a venerable figure on the think-tank scene, and Jared Bernstein from President Obama’s economic team, but evidence of the continuing “deindustrialization of America.” It is caused by shortfalls in aggregate demand and the impact of automation, globalization, and “secular stagnation.”
All that is needed, says Bernstein, is much more of the same: an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers, higher minimum wages, paid leave, and child-care assistance, together with lowering the trade deficit and increasing infrastructure spending. In other words, he endorses Hillary’s agenda, which would make the male role in poor families even more trivial and otiose than it currently is and actually reduce the incentives for childbearing or breadwinning in families. Although Bernstein does not mention it, a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment would nicely cap off this ambitious scheme of “Back to the Future.”
But surely Eberstadt is much closer to the right idea, even though he fails to get all the way there. What Eberstadt describes as a “silent catastrophe,” an “extraordinary dislocation,” a “great male flight from work” increasing “our nation’s burden of misery,” as might be expected from “a social emasculation on this scale,” is in fact nothing less than the supreme triumph of 20th-century Democratic liberalism. This “strange withdrawal of men” merely reflects a massive campaign waged on every American campus, where women now account for some 60 percent of students; in every government department where gender-rights enforcers lurk litigiously; in every civil-rights crusade twisted into a unisex jamboree; in every judicial process from family court to the Supreme Court; and stretching from every local fire department on into the military, from Abu Ghraib to Camp Pendleton, from West Point to Annapolis, where women are pushed ahead at every opportunity in defiance of differences in physical prowess and mechanical aptitude. The prevailing idea is that male success is somehow illegitimate, a product of bias and conspiracy, and that in a gender-neutral environment, women would equal men in all elevated or conventionally male roles.
Every mainstream TV channel and magazine from Fortune to Wired joins the fray in a siege of affirmative-action journalism, pretending that the leading young inventors and entrepreneurs in America and the world are mostly female and that even Silicon Valley is somehow defective in gender diversity. Wired says the new Steve Jobs is a twelve-year-old girl in Mexico. Ellen Pao becomes a luminous cover attraction with absurd claims of discrimination against women at Kleiner Perkins, long the world’s most successful venture-capital firm (twelve out of 50 Kleiner partners are women). The explicit purpose of all this agitprop is to overthrow the “privileges of the patriarchy,” to break the grip of the “nuclear family,” to unseat the presumption of male breadwinners, to relieve women of their responsibility to bear and raise children, to liberate wives from bondage in bad marriages, and to shatter “glass ceilings” galore in a world where childbearing is mostly a “choice” rather than necessary for survival.
The campaign has succeeded. Many boys no longer find male affirmation in school or in the labor force. While liberals take their bows and demand more feminism, Eberstadt points to the obvious and predictable effects on male employment.
Bernstein and Olsen want to explain away the problem as “deindustrialization.” But surely this is just the harvest of the other supreme achievement of Democratic liberalism: the triumphant regulatory revolution that endows federal bureaucrats with the power to suppress any fundamental innovations and entrepreneurial disruptions that incidentally might disproportionately employ men. Better to expand the epicene bureaucracies and docile nonprofits with jobs allocated by quota. Better to teach new generations how to stop nuclear plants, carbon nanotubes, weapons, pipelines, and factories than how to use or build them. Spearheaded by the far-reaching pidgin-science crusade against “climate change,” the green revolution converges with the feminist campaign to “deindustrialize,” i.e. emasculate, the economy. An emasculated economy will obviously employ more women than men.
Enforced by the nomenklatura of the media and the universities, this campaign for a feminist economy suppresses new technology that cannot be reduced to a software app: nearly all real innovations in energy, mechanics, chemistry, pharmacology, genetically engineered crops, and nanotech materials science (and all of these fields are overwhelmingly male). In the masculine-led economy, initial public offerings have dropped some 90 percent, and the stock market has shrunk by roughly half — in number of companies and in shares outstanding — since the 1990s; entrepreneurial small businesses shed jobs, while closing faster than new ones open; and leading academics espouse an alibi theory of permanently declining returns to technological advance.
The other way to look at this withdrawal of men from work is the withdrawal of women from marriage and motherhood and the movement of men into increasingly short-term and feral sexual behavior. In the books Sexual Suicide and Men and Marriage (both excerpted in these pages), I argued in the 1970s and 1980s that the breakdown of marriage and child care fostered by feminism would require a welfare state to take care of the women and children and a police state to take care of the boys. The chief motive for male work effort is the approval of women and children and a successful role as father and breadwinner. Men most enjoy jobs that are distinctly male and affirm them as men. Take those away, and you have Eberstadt’s invisible catastrophe.
When fathers abandon (or are kicked out of) families, fewer boys will succeed in becoming effective, competent workers or loving and disciplined husbands and fathers. Women alone have a much harder time raising boys to be good men. The problem is compounded when schools view male achievement as a problem to be solved, not something to be celebrated, and when so few teachers are men. In their frustration, women often attempt to turn boys into girls — to “feminize” them, as sociologist Patricia Cayo Sexton pointed out decades ago. This result is heavily manifest in the statistics in this book and in American society. What we experienced in the U.S. was a massive plague of affirmative action that drastically upset the balance of power between men and women both in the home and on the job.
There was no evidence of systemic discrimination against women in the work force. Women as early as the 1970s earned as much men of comparable skill and experience, and black women as early as the 1960s, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, were already earning 106 percent of black-male earnings. Single women have long made as much as single men. New affirmative-action rules, combined with the preferential availability to single mothers of welfare under Aid to Families with Dependent Children, effectively destroyed the black family by driving out fathers and disabling boys by depriving them of fatherly discipline and example. Economists obtusely denied the family-eating effects of the welfare state by failing to measure the value of leisure time, which made welfare benefits far more attractive than male earnings. This effect spread to lower-class white families as well and produced the social catastrophe that Eberstadt documents so well in this book.
If you want a feminist culture that abolishes the “patriarchy” and denies all canonical male roles; that banishes carbon fuels, new chemicals, and the manufacturing they enable; that represses disruptive entrepreneurial behavior; and that enforces preferential representation of women throughout the commanding heights of the economy, you cannot at the same time have most men eagerly supporting the plan. Without most men on board, the nation will not be able to defend itself or produce new technology and enterprise. Without women bearing children and raising them in families, the nation will not be able to reproduce itself.
Eberstadt is thus pointing to a fatal flaw — a sexual suicide in an American polity where women outvote men and prefer socialism and stasis over progress and prosperity, where they choose dependency on government over collaboration with husbands and family. But this “choice” is so unnatural and ultimately self-defeating that it may well be reaching its morbid pinnacle today in a feminist bubble. Watch for an explosive reversal in coming years.
– Mr. Gilder is a co-founder of the Discovery Institute. He is also the author, most recently, of The Scandal of Money: Why Wall Street Recovers but the Economy Never Does.