With an eclectic range of research interests including demography, Korea and the welfare state, Nicholas Eberstadt is one of America’s most brilliant political economists.
In 2016, he published ‘Men Without Work,’ thus shining a light on diminishing labour force participation by America’s working-age males.
In the wake of the damage which Covid-19 caused, Eberstadt has now updated his research and published a new post-pandemic edition.
As the author explains, the situation remains dire, and in spite of the existence of a peacetime labour shortage, large numbers of able-bodied males remain out of work.
“It seems that in just six years, America has gone from ‘men without work’ to ‘work without men’ (and now, work without women as well). As of this writing, more than 11 million job openings are unfilled. For every unemployed person, two positions stand vacant,” he writes, before adding ominously that the trend towards economic inactivity appears to be spreading to societal groups where this problem was not previously evident.
The scale of the problem is remarkable, as is the relative death of public discussion about it.
When the Great Depression still raged in 1940, that year’s census showed that 13.6% of American men between the age of 25-54 had no paid work.
In the two decades after the Second World War – now seen as a golden age of American prosperity – on average, only 6% of men in this age cohort had no paid employment. Yet beginning in the Sixties, the numbers of men outside the labour force climbed upwards.
“In the 2010s, a monthly average of 16% – nearly one in six prime-age men – were earning no wages. Given the disruption wrought by Covid-19, average rates of worklessness for prime-age men are even higher thus far for the 2020s – the highest yet for the post-war era,” Eberstadt explains.
The numbers are stark indeed, and one does not have to look to the mid-20th century for a practical demonstration of what this sea change means.
Eberstadt writes that if the adult work rates had remained at the levels recorded in the early 2000s – still far above those earlier figures – there would be 10 million more Americans in paid employment today.
That 10 million figure almost matches the 11 million unfilled job openings in the US economy. Considered in human rather than numerical terms, it represents men in every community in the nation who could be working, but who are not.
Worse still, most of them are not even looking. This is an important distinction. Rather than being unemployed, these men are NILFs: not in the labour force.
Economic shocks like the Great Recession and Covid form part of the story, but only a small part, as the process unfolded for the most part in times of widespread affluence and economic growth.
Eberstadt addresses some of the explanations which have been put forward by those on the Left who view unemployment as being primarily a skills problem, or as something caused by low demand for labour.
The author even devotes part of the book to counter-arguments by two other experts in this field. Eberstadt acknowledges that the relatively slow economic growth in recent times has added to the problem, and notes that the mass incarceration which exists in the States plays a major role in creating a vast pool of ex-prisoners who find it harder to gain a foothold in the workforce.
At the same time, though, he points to statistics showing that more than 40% of prime-age men who are not working have some college education, and almost 20% have a degree.
“In any case,” he goes on to add, in response to suggestions that this is a skills-based problem, “millions of open positions do not require daunting educational credentials. Major sectors of the economy – retail, leisure, hospitality, construction and transport – are open to applicants without extensive skills, apart from the ‘skills’ of showing up to work, regularly and on time, drug free.” This, alas, appears to be a skill that millions of men now lack.
What the author calls a “mass retreat from the workforce” could not have come about without a significant shift in cultural mores.
This relates in part to the decline of religion, and Eberstadt aptly notes the traditional aversion to sloth expressed by both Catholic and Protestant figures: voices which carry far less weight in a rapidly secularising America.
Yet such sentiments were by no means limited to the religious; Lord Beveridge, who laid the foundations of the modern British welfare state, identified idleness as one of the five ‘Giant Evils’ which must be combated.
The American Enterprise Institute scholar’s careful examination of what the ‘men without work’ do in their spare time lends weight to his argument that this is a moral crisis.
Instead of dedicating the time not spent working to productive if unremunerated activity, Department of Labor statistics for self-reported time use paint an exceptionally grim picture.
NILF men spend less time caring for household members than employed men. They spend less time on religious or voluntary activities. The areas where they do focus on include socialising, relaxing and leisure.
“Un-working men reportedly devoted nearly eight hours a day to these activities,” Eberstadt writes, adding perceptively that they represent the equivalent of a full-time job for millions of men.
Unsurprisingly, such men are a financial burden on their families, which tend to be poorer as a result. Not only are they checked out of the workforce, the data which Eberstadt cites suggests they have checked out of society more generally, while being more likely to engage in harmful activities which have led to the rise of ‘Deaths of Despair.’
As with Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s compelling book, the situation which Eberstadt describes clearly exists outside the United States.
When concluding his argument, Eberstadt points to some key challenges which he believes need to be addressed, including the perverse incentives within the social welfare system which encourage people to avoid work.
This is certainly a problem in Europe, but one which even ostensibly conservative political parties are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone address with policy measures making welfare benefits temporary, and strictly limiting them to those who cannot work due to physical and mental disabilities.
Though he did not address it, the nature of the education system is surely another part of the problem.
Men are consistently outperformed by their female peers at university level, and the myopic focus on an economic model which has encouraged almost all young people to pursue college degrees (while indirectly stigmatising those without them) has prevented policymakers from considering whether vocational education would be a better option for many
Vocational education is more directly tied to the workplace, and would serve as a bridge to full-time employment at an early age in a way that increasingly devalued academic courses simply do not.
But policymakers are not primarily responsible for the choices of individuals, including the millions of American men who are stubbornly refusing to be responsible, to work, to earn and to contribute to the society around them. That is, as Eberstadt argues, a civilisational problem, and one which will not be solved until the central civilisational ailments are diagnosed and cured.