America’s Ghost Legions of Idle Men

Michael Cook | October 18, 2016

America’s Ghost Legions of Idle Men

The US stock market continues to set new records. Unemployment continues to go down. The United States is now at or near “full employment”. According to a Bloomberg headline last year, “The Jobless Numbers Aren’t Just Good, They’re Great”.

But a closer look at economic data by demographer Nicholas Eberstadt reveals something else entirely. While “unemployment” has gone down, the work participation rate, and especially the male work rate, has been relentlessly declining for most of the post-War era and is now reaching a crisis with Depression-era levels.

In his new book, Men Without Work, Eberstadt describes this as a deep moral and social crisis which is passing almost unnoticed by politicians, pundits, business leaders and economists.

One-sixth of all men of prime working age in America – men aged between 25 and 54 – are not just unemployed, but have stopped looking for jobs altogether. This is a time bomb with far reaching economic, social, and political consequences. “Unlike the dead soldiers in Roman antiquity,” he writes, “our decimated men still live and walk among us, though in an existence without productive economic purpose. We might say those many millions of men without work constitute a sort of invisible army, ghost soldiers lost in an overlooked, modern-day depression.”

In many ways, this is a disturbing book. Never before in American history have so many men done absolutely nothing. Millions are becoming dependent, infantilized and sick. According to a recent paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger nearly half of the men who are not looking for work are on painkillers and many are disabled. They "experience notably low levels of emotional well-being throughout their days and ... they derive relatively little meaning from their daily activities," Krueger found. And there are 7 million of them. 

Consider these staggering statistics. Prime-age American men in employment spend 2,200 hours a year in work and work-related activity; employed women spend 1,850 hours; unemployed men spend 400 hours, mostly looking for jobs. But 7 million American men between 25 and 54 spent 43 hours a year working. That averages out to about 7 minutes a day.

And what did they do with their time? Learn French? Paint watercolours? Help at a local nursing home? Vacuuming? None of the above. They spent less time in volunteer and religious activities than the other three groups. They don’t read newspapers much. They don’t vote much. A third of them have used illegal drugs in the past year.

Basically they did nothing much. Time-use studies show that:

“When it came to ‘television and movies (not religious),’ the contrast between NILF men and all the rest was so enormous that it suggests a fundamental difference in mentality. For un-working men watching TV and movies ate up an average of five and a half hours a day. That’s four hours a day more than for working women, nearly three and a half hours more than working men, and a striking two hours a day more than unemployed men. …

“To a distressing degree, these men appear to have relinquished what we think of ordinarily as adult responsibilities not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens. Having largely freed themselves of such obligations, they fill their days in the pursuit of more immediate sources of gratification.”

No wonder pornography is flourishing on the internet.

How do they support themselves? Eberstadt is scathing: “The short answer is, apparently they don’t.” They are supported by parents, wives, girlfriends and government handouts. “Whatever the reasons or the motivations,” he says, “they are essentially living off the rest of us. Social cohesion is a direct casualty of this development, and social trust could scarcely help but be degraded by it as well.”

If there is a Year Zero for Male Infantilization it is 1965, the year President Johnson launched the American welfare state by rolling out the “Great Society”. Eberstadt also identifies it as the year when the Great Incarceration began. A crime wave started which was handled by jailing more and more criminals. Nowadays the US has the highest incarceration rates in the world. Even after release many of these men enter the legions of prime-age men who are not looking for work. “The circumstances of this ex-prisoner and at-large felon population are, it seems, a matter of almost complete indifference to the rest of us,” says Eberstadt. “These people only show up in our national statistics if and when they again run afoul of the criminal justice system.”

What can be done?

Eberstadt admits that he does not have the answers. He sees his job as alerting the United States to the existence of this army of men which has been shelved by politicians and policy-makers as “essentially dispensable”.

However, he says that solutions have to be sought in three broad areas: revitalizing American business to create new jobs; reducing the perverse incentives in welfare programs to stay out of the workforce; and allowing men who have spent time in jail to get jobs.

Eberstadt points out that this is a serious moral issue for the United States which must not be ignored. It is bizarre that the hardest-working country in the world should harbor a huge pool of able men whose lives are slowly being destroyed through idleness.

“The death of work has ushered in additional costs at the personal and social levels that may be difficult to quantify but are easy to describe. These include the corrosive effects of prolonged idleness on personality and behavior, the loss of self-esteem and the respect of others that may attend a man’s voluntary loss of economic independence, and the loss of meaning and fulfillment that work demonstrably brings to so many (though admittedly not all) people. Thus, the great male flight from work may well have increased our nation’s burden of misery in an incalculable but nonetheless immediate manner. Should this come as a surprise? Hardly. The surprise would be if a social emasculation on this scale had increased the happiness of those concerned.”

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Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

This article by Michael Cook was originally published on MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons License. If you enjoyed this article, visit MercatorNet.com for more. The views expressed by the author and MercatorNet.com are not necessarily endorsed by this organization and are simply provided as food for thought from Intellectual Takeout.  ​