The Wheatley Institution

America and the New 'Workless Lifestyle'

February 23, 2017 | Katie Eldredge

“There is an army of 7 million men not working or looking for work” who have created “the invisible crisis… a social problem in the US [that] seems to have been overlooked by society.” And this ‘invisible crisis’ is going to have serious consequences, which is why Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, is calling attention to it. On February 1st, in a Wheatley Forum titled, “Men Without Work: Key Findings,” Eberstadt shared the critical facts he has uncovered during his research.

“Since the 1960’s there has been an almost relentless ratcheting up of able-bodied men with no work. Today, 1 in 6 men have no work.” While it might sound as if there aren’t enough jobs, that’s just not the case. A new employment category has emerged between employed and unemployed. Dr. Eberstadt calls it “the workless lifestyle.”

This social shift has been overlooked because national unemployment rates don’t accurately reflect it. Unemployment is typically interpreted as an inability to find work; however, this exit from the workplace has been voluntary. “For every unemployed prime-age guy, there are 3 guys who are neither employed nor looking for work. So if you just look at unemployment rate you’re missing ¾ of the story.”

This new lifestyle for able-bodied men is having unprecedented effects on society. “Un-working guys really don’t do civil society. They also don’t do all that much in the way of childcare or household care. And they report doing about 2,100 hours a year of TV watching.” And even more troubling, Eberstadt asks, “What does this tell us about their prospects of getting back into the workforce?”

Oddly enough, the numbers seem to suggest that this is only an American issue. During his research, Eberstadt analyzed labor force participation rates for all post-war era rich countries. His discovery? “We’ve won a race to the bottom and it’s not a race we should want to win.”

One could ask, where did this problem come from? Have we facilitated it through government assistance programs? Was it inevitable? Disability programs in the US were designed to protect those who are unable to work. However, these “programs now serve as a sort of unemployment insurance.”

Eberstadt also addressed the role of crime and punishment laws in this employment collapse. “Today, in our real, existing America we have about 20 million men and women who are not behind bars but have at least one felony conviction in their background.” Our national numbers are much higher than any other rich society’s, once again suggesting that this is an American issue. “No matter age, ethnicity, educational level, etc., if they have a prison sentence in their background they are more likely to be out of the workforce than if they’ve only been arrested or never in trouble in with the law.”

Unfortunately, at this moment, nothing is being done to understand these “workless” men and what drives them to avoid employment. Dr. Eberstadt concluded with his goal for the project: “My hope in casting a little bit of light on this is to encourage others to look at this problem too. I don’t think we can really turn this problem around unless everyone in society takes some responsibility for it.”

Watch the full lecture here.

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