I’ve recently authored two guidebooks for The Philanthropy Roundtable, Clearing Obstacles to Work and then Learning to Be Useful, about how thoughtful donors can help economic strugglers become gainfully employed and self-sufficient. The reasons for these books are self-evident—too many Americans today are unemployed or lack the skills to thrive in our modern economy. Many of these individuals rely on welfare or disability payments instead of earned income. Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work reveals the depth of this problem, and warns that the pattern of prime-age males fleeing work can no longer safely be ignored.
Eberstadt uses stark words to describe our current situation. Unemployed males today make up “a sort of invisible army, ghost soldiers lost in an overlooked, modern-day depression.” The facts back up his rhetoric. By 2016, more than 7 million men between the ages of 26 and 54 were idle and not seeking to enter the labor market. That’s up from about a million counterparts in 1965. In 2015, work rates for U.S. prime-age males were worse than during the Great Depression.
This non-working brotherhood doesn’t include the unemployed worker who is actively seeking a new job. This is a cohort with deeper pathologies. They have dropped out, unplugged, and given up on work altogether. They depend on wives, girlfriends, older family members, and government support (particularly disability payments) to survive.
Eberstadt begins his case by providing a brief statistical history of tumbling labor force participation. Male work rates began a steady decline decades ago, but really fell off a cliff over the last 15 years. Eberstadt notes that a full 10 million more male workers would now be in the labor force if the employment patterns of 1965 simply held true today.
The only reason this hasn’t damaged the U.S. economy more badly is because of the increase of female labor. Women have partly offset the declines in the male work ethic, with the percentage of women in the labor market more than doubling between 1948 and 2015. “For two full generations, the upsurge of employment for women disguised the steady decline in work for men,” Eberstadt writes.
He also describes a tectonic cultural shift regarding marriage. As marriage rates have declined, many males do not have the responsibility of supporting a wife and children financially. Males can choose to not seek employment at all, and be supported by social safety nets and the indulgence of benevolent females or parents. “A life without work (or the search for work) has become a viable option for today’s prime-age male—and ever-greater numbers of them seem to be choosing this option.”
Eberstadt also dives into the consequences of not working. The annual time-use survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows how non-working men spend their ample free time. Most of their activity falls into the category of “socializing, relaxing, and leisure”—to which they devote an average of eight hours per day more than their working brethren (the equivalent of a full-time job). What specific activities filled this time? Gambling, tobacco and drug use, listening to the radio, arts and crafts, and watching TV were the top results.
Men pursuing such activities aren’t even contributing to their households in non- income-producing ways like caring for children or elderly family members, doing household chores, or participating in religious and charitable causes. “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,” notes Eberstadt.
To address this problem, he suggests a welfare overhaul focused on men, equivalent to the reforms of the 1990s that helped many single mothers transition to the workforce. But even if public-policy reform cuts off enabling payments, these nonworking men will also need something else—training to fill the jobs of the twenty-first century. Public-spirited philanthropists will be important here. By funding work-readiness nonprofits, innovative high schools, and high- performing community colleges, donors can play a key role in bringing about a renaissance of male work in the U.S.
The decline of well-paying blue-collar jobs likely plays a role in the male flight from work. But an estimated 29 million “middle-skill jobs” will open in the U.S. over the next two decades, presenting abundant opportunities for male workers to rise again and command middle-class wages. The key for an applicant is to obtain the right mix of training that combines technical knowledge with the soft skills and “language” of work—which men who have been unemployed for years must re-learn. This training must be closely tied to real jobs that exist in the economy. There are real jobs in our economy available for men with this background, but struggling men presently lack the necessary attitudes and skills to hold them.
Despite doom-and-gloom pronouncements on the decline of U.S. manufacturing, the sector is actually experiencing a shortage of qualified knowledge workers—to the tune of 2 million advanced manufacturing jobs expected to go unfilled in the next decade. Machines may have replaced the routine tasks once accomplished by the hands of men, but competent workers are needed to run the machines. And there simply aren’t enough laborers today, creating a yawning skills gap.
If advanced manufacturing is going to be among the keys to widespread reintegration of men into the workforce, philanthropy will have a crucial role to play to train, support, and encourage these men to pursue these opportunities. Government job training programs have been notoriously ineffective. There are many exciting philanthropic models, however—as chronicled in the two Philanthropy Roundtable guidebooks I mentioned earlier. And a renewal of male work needn’t be limited to the manufacturing sector. Many service occupations could be well filled by today’s aimless males.
Beyond the immediate training and placement of men in jobs, philanthropists can help chip away at this toxic problem by encouraging a culture of self-sufficiency, moving men away from dependence on family members and transfer payments. The notion of able-bodied men failing to work was unthinkable two generations ago. Today, it’s quietly accepted. Society’s mediating institutions have urgent work ahead of them to revive expectations of economic independence and self-reliance
“It is high time for American citizens and policy makers to recognize the American male’s postwar flight from work for what it is: a grave social ill,” writes Eberstadt. “It is imperative for the future health of our nation that we make a determined and sustained commitment to bringing these detached men back—back into the workplace, back into their families, back into our civil society.”
David Bass is the author of the Philanthropy Roundtable guidebooks Learning to Be Useful and Clearing Obstacles to Work.