The host tweeted recently to a very interesting AEI piece by Nicholas Eberstadt on the exploding population of prime age men not working or seeking work. It’s long and full of statistics, as is typical of a good economist’s work. Everybody should read and ingest the whole thing. Here’s the highlights I picked up:
Over the past two generations, America has suffered a quiet catastrophe in the collapse of work for men. In the half-century between 1965 and 2015, work rates (the ratio of employment to population) for the American male spiraled relentlessly downward — a seeming flight from work in which ever-greater numbers of working-age men exited the labor force altogether. America is now home to an army of prime-working-age men, some seven million of them ages 25 to 54, who no longer even look for work. Consider a single fact: in 2015, the work-rate of males aged 25 to 54 was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, when the official unemployment rate was 14.6 percent and the United States was just coming out of a decade of depression in which the search for work was usually futile.
This problem demands attention and action. Reasonable, well-informed people may disagree about the factors that have been responsible for the great male flight from work, or their relative importance. There should be no disagreement, however, about its ominous and far-reaching consequences.
Economically, the progressive detachment of ever-larger numbers of adult men from the reality and routines of regular paid labor can only result in slower growth, lower living standards, greater income inequality, higher social-welfare bills and larger budget deficits. Socially, the detachment compromises mobility, trust and cohesion — and much more since the incapacity of grown men to function as breadwinners cannot help but undermine families. Psychologically, it casts those who have been raised to view themselves as the strong gender into the role of dependents — on their wives or girlfriends, on their aging parents, on government handouts.
Note that consequence on families and relationships. That is largely unexplored in this piece. Says Eberstadt earlier in the piece when discussing the effects of conviction and incarceration:
In light of these ghastly numbers, the obvious question concerns the employment profiles for men who have served prison time or have been convicted of felonies but not incarcerated. Try as one might, however, it is impossible today to glean such information from official statistics. The federal government simply does not collect data on their social or economic condition. This scandalous oversight helps explain why policymakers and researchers have paid so little attention to institutional barriers in America’s problem of men without work.
Completely unexamined in the piece, I assume because “The federal government simply does not collect data on their social or economic condition,” is data on family of origin structure of those in the class Eberstadt describes.
For me it is a simple question – did they have fathers actively involved in their lives? What the piece makes plain is that work is not necessarily an economic necessity. Explored in detail is the role of governmental support in this class, but it completely ignores the underground economy which includes not just criminal activity, but also a lot of internet activity. Income can be produced by a variety of means not traditionally considered “work.” Work is a value, not just an activity. Values are taught, and in men that teaching generally comes from fathers.
An interesting statistic, that does not prove causation, but would be indicative, would be to align the increase in out-of-wedlock birthrates with the growth of the class Eberstadt describes. Similar alignment with divorce statistics might also prove interesting.
Traditional American axioms about idle hands and minds are not directly Biblical, but the Bible does make plain that work is a source of much good in life other than simply economic benefit. The crisis that Eberstadt presents in this piece is not just an economic crisis. It is another, and very large, symptom of the values crisis that confronts the nation. The transmission of values from one generation to the next happens in a variety of ways. And while we live in a society that wants to deny the differences between the genders, this is one area where the differences are as obvious as the plumbing differences. Female values are often transmitted in communal settings, but males need other males, in direct and frequent contact, to transmit values. Boys need fathers.
While Eberstadt has some good ideas on fixes to the problem, in my opinion they are insufficient unless accompanied by changes the government simply cannot bring into our culture. There is much the government can do to incentivize intact family structures, but until such is valued on deeper levels than the purely economic, those incentives will prove inadequate. Once again, the church has to rise to the task – and not just the task of evangelism, but the task of formation.
This piece is ostensibly meant to present the government with policy direction. But it is a challenge to the church and to each of us in it.