Mike Rowe, the well-known host of the popular show Dirty Jobs, has become a national advocate for the American blue-collar worker. He recently had an equal parts fascinating/disturbing interview on his podcast with a leading demographer on the deeply troubling trend of men dropping out of the American workforce at unprecedented rates. This translates into a crisis for the family as well.
This podcast episode, entitled “It’s Worse Than You Think,” is a conversation with Nicholas Eberstadt, a leading economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, on the new release of a post-pandemic update of his important 2016 book, Men Without Work.
Professor Eberstadt told Mike Rowe that what he is seeing in the numbers on American male employment is “completely perverse.” Careful scholars like Eberstadt seldom use such provocative language. Here is the overview.
Eberstadt explained, “Since the pandemic broke, the number of unfilled jobs has gone up by about 4 million. And since the pandemic broke, the people in the labor force has dropped about 4 million below trend.”
That is simply a massive gaping hole of workforce non-participation at the very time that jobs are as plentiful as ever. But this workforce short-fall is most notably found among wholly able-bodied males in the prime of their lives, ages 25-50, which Eberstadt calls “the backbone of the workforce.”
Eberstadt put it this way to Rowe, “In terms of work rates for the United States today for guys, we’re at about a 1937 level, even though we’ve got over 10 million unfilled jobs in the country.” Take that in fully.
This means we have more jobs available than any other time in American history, but employment levels for able-bodied men in America are at historically low Great Depression levels. The real number of such men affirmatively choosing not to work is north of 7 million.
Eberstadt puts it bluntly, “The problem is that over the past half century in the United States, the fastest growing group of guys has been workforce dropouts, prime age men neither working nor looking for work.”
He explains the ratio between those seeking work and those who are total drop-outs is staggering, “And so now, for every unemployed guy, out of work, looking for a job in 2022, there are four guys who are neither working nor looking for work.”
So what are all these able-bodied men doing?
This is where the story gets even worse. Eberstadt told Rowe that according to the U.S. government Time Use Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these adult male labor force dropouts are not really doing anything. At least anything socially or personally productive. Around 90 percent are not opting out of work in order to attend school to improve their futures. They are literally idle. Utterly given up. Layabouts.
Eberstadt draws a bleak picture for Rowe’s listeners, “Basically, these guys say that they don’t do civil society. They don’t do worship. They don’t do charity. They don’t do volunteer. They’ve had a lot of time on their hands, but they don’t do a lot of help around the house.”
What are these men doing while they sit around the house? They were all too happy to tell government data collectors. Eberstadt explains these men admit to logging about 2,000 hours a year of nothing but screentime, “like as much as a full-time job.” And what makes this all the worse, is that almost half of these video game playing/video watching able-bodied male workforce dropouts said they were also taking painkillers every day.
Eberstadt concluded to Rowe,
So you’ve got this picture of people who are spending their lives not only playing Call of Duty but playing Call of Duty stoned and it’s a huge waste of human potential. It’s a tragedy in its own right. And it’s also probably kind of like a training ground for the sort of depths of despair that we’re seeing all too many of in America today.
How are these men supporting themselves? Well, of course, they are not.
Eberstadt explains who is carrying the primary load of all this adult male inaction, “If you’re playing the odds, you’d say that most of these drop out men are being supported by their girlfriends and their families. If you include Uncle Sam as part of the family.”
Only an American Problem?
Eberstadt explained recently to the Wall Street Journal that this dramatic able-bodied, adult male labor force drop-out is not just an American problem, “I mean, there has been a decline in labor force participation for prime age guys, all across the [developed world].” But he explains the problem is most pronounced in the U.S.
The question is why has the plunge been so much worse, so much steeper and farther in the United States than in, let’s say a country like France or Australia? Very different places, both of which have also seen their manufacturing sectors shrivel to about the same level or size in the economy that U.S. manufacturing sector has shrunk. So the trends are everywhere, but we seem to be more severely affected by it.
Eberstadt recently wrote in the fall issue of National Affairs, “America today is in the grip of a gradually building crisis that, despite its manifest importance, somehow managed to remain more or less invisible for decades — at least, until the political earthquake of 2016.”
He explains, “That crisis is the collapse of work for adult men, and the retreat from the world of work of growing numbers of men of conventional working age.” And it is something, not that is happening to men, but that men are choosing to do themselves. They have just given up on the will to work and be productive.
This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.
This crisis is historically unprecedented and it has massive consequences for family formation. It is nearly impossible to form and grow successful families when men are not working. It is utterly impossible when 7 million American men are refusing to work, trading full-time gainful employment for full-time screentime, and doing so while heavily medicated with opiates.
This is a massive crisis of manhood that every sector of our nation must become serious about solving. As Mike Rowe explained, “It’s kind of appalling, in my opinion, that so many pundits and politicians go so far out of their way to ignore the vast numbers of people in this country who have simply chosen not to work. They matter, and their impact on our economy is enormous.”
Mike Rowe is exactly right, and we must come to terms with this perverse fact.
Photo from Shutterstock.