Transcript: Nicholas Eberstadt
My interview with the American political economist
On the Lean Out podcast, we’ve been talking about the state of the modern male.
My guest on the podcast this week walks us through his landmark study on an invisible crisis afflicting prime working-aged men in America — the collapse of work.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is Men Without Work. It’s recently out in a post-pandemic edition.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Nick, welcome to Lean Out.
NE: Hey, Tara. Thank you so much for inviting me.
TH: Great to have you here. Such a timely and important piece of work to discuss. You write in the new introduction to Men Without Work that today, in 2022, American men suffer Depression-era employment rates, even though they inhabit the wealthiest and most productive society ever known. Your book, a 2016 study, has been released in this post-pandemic edition. We’ll get to how the pandemic has exacerbated the trends you’ve observed, but first, let’s set the stage here. Give our listeners a sense of the timeline and the scope of the problem that you call this “invisible crisis.”
NE: Well, thank you, Tara. Thank you for having me here. The prosperity of modern America has helped conceal a catastrophe in employment collapse for prime age men. Prime working-age men — not my definition, 25 to 54 — it’s pretty self-evident why they’re called this. They’re not just important for the workforce, where they’re a main component. These are the crucial years for family formation and raising kids as well. For about two decades after the end of the Second World War, American prime male workforce participation was very, very high. Maybe 3 percent of men were not working, or looking for work. Then around the mid-1960s, something happened, and it was a big something. Because there was a retreat from the workforce, a flight from the labour market. That was almost a straight line upwards between the mid–sixties and 2016 when my first edition of Men Without Work came out. It almost looks like a straight line. It almost looks like something out of geology rather than something out of the social sciences.
Since then, this straight line has continued almost exactly in the same direction. That’s very odd. I could have almost drawn the same line back in 2016, and you could have seen it continue to this very day without altering it at all. What this means is that over three times the share of men out of work, and out of the labour force, can be seen today in America as back in the sixties. In practical terms, this means that the work rate for modern American men is at Great Depression levels. We didn’t start measuring employment seriously in the United States until the very tail end of the Great Depression, until the1940 census. But the work rate this month for American prime age guys is lower than it was in 1940, when the unemployment rate in the country as a whole was 15 percent. And for the 21st century as a whole, for the entire 21st century, you average it out month by month, the work rate for prime age guys is substantially lower than it was in 1940. For the 21st century to date, we have had a 1937 economy for work for men, even though we live in this fantastically wealthy, productive, technologically dynamic world.
TH: It really is astonishing. And as you point out in the book, America is alone in this. It’s not happening in other rich countries in the same way. Is that right?
NE: Absolutely true, Tara. I mean, of course it is true that all around the world, rich populations, affluent democracies, have been affected by economic and structural change and globalization. There’s been a decline in manufacturing as a proportion of the workforce everywhere. There’s been outsourcing everywhere. There’s been a decline in the demand for less skilled labor everywhere. So all through the rich world, we’ve seen some drop in work, in workforce participation, for prime age men, but nothing like what you see in the United States.
The United States, unfortunately, is the leader of the pack. It has gone down more dramatically and more harshly and over a longer period of time than any of its competitors. Speaking to you, you’re in Canada, I assume. Your country and mine are about as close to being identical twins as any big countries in the world can be. And the United States labour force participation rate for guys, as you know, is substantially lower than Canada’s.
TH: Something else that really struck me reading the book — and I want to get to what we know about this male cohort in a moment — but first, you talk about this quiet postwar collapse of male work. And you point out that this crisis involves no outward obvious signs of national distress. No national strikes, no riots, no massive social unrest. It seems what’s happening is instead this retreat, and this quiet despair. What do we know about the response here?
NE: Well, we know what hasn’t happened. The Depression-level work rates for men in America have not been accompanied by riots in the streets, by burning of cars, by mass strikes, by any sort of actual political energization — or even a tendency within one of our major parties. It’s been largely ignored. It’s kind of curious that such an extraordinarily important social problem could be overlooked for decade after decade. One of the reasons I think this has been the case is because these men have not been a menace to society. They have been much more likely to be courting deaths of despair at home. Another reason is that I think that ideologically, we are not predisposed to be alert to this problem. Working-age men are not a victim class in the modern sociopolitical taxonomy. They’re expected to be self-reliant and not vulnerable dependents. So, I think they easily get overlooked in this problem set.
It’s also true that our employment statistics in the United States are uniquely, or exquisitely, poorly poised to identify this problem. We developed, as I mentioned earlier, our national employment statistics to fight the last war, which was the Great Depression. And at the time of the Great Depression, it would’ve seemed unimaginable that a man who didn’t have a job wouldn’t be looking for one. So our taxonomy looks at those who were employed, and those who were not employed but looking for a job. And if you were in the “not in labour force” group, you’re not in the problem set here. We have this amazing situation in modern America where we therefore get all of this happy talk about how low our unemployment levels are. We’re at near full employment; we’re at full employment. And at the very same time, if you actually take a look at the population numbers, for every unemployed guy — this is in 2022, this is right now — for every unemployed guy, there were over four who are neither working nor looking for work. So our wonderful labour statistics managed to overlook four-fifths of the problem. So all of this is part of how we get this benign neglect, I think.
TH: Let’s talk about what we know about the demographics of this cohort. What do we know? Who are these men?
NE: At the moment there are over 7 million prime age men in the civilian non-institutional population — these are the technical terms — who are neither working nor looking for work. And if you have 7 million guys in a group, you’re going to have some of everything, right? That’s a big group. But some are overrepresented. And in ethnic terms, Black Americans, African Americans, are overrepresented. Latinos and Asians are underrepresented. And that means that if you do what’s common now, if you talk about Anglos or non-Hispanic whites versus so-called “persons of colour,” it’s about a wash. Very similar, if you put those groups together like that. It’s no surprise that less-educated men have much higher disposition to be out of the workforce. But interestingly enough, about 40 percent of those who are out of the workforce have at least some college and about a fifth have college degrees.
It turns out that family structure is a really big predictor. Married men with kids at home are way less likely to be out of the workforce, no matter what their ethnicity, no matter what their education. Guys who have never been married are way more likely correspondingly to be labour force dropouts. But interestingly enough, if you are a never-married guy and you’ve got kids under the same roof as you, you’re more likely to be in the workforce. There’s something — it almost looks like a provider impulse. And then there’s something that the Census Bureau, or the U.S., which collects all of these numbers, inelegantly calls “nativity.” Which is not a Christmas scene. It’s whether you were born in the U.S. or not. And foreign-born guys are always more likely to be in the workforce than native-born guys, no matter what their ethnicity. These are the basic overlays of the demographics of the dropout situation.
TH: And what do we know about how these men are spending their time?
NE: We know something about how they’re spending their time from what they tell us. Because there are these big annual surveys done by our Bureau of Labor Statistics called Time Use Surveys. They’re asked of all adults. They’re mainly intended to show what hours people are working, what times they’re working, how they’re commuting, things like that. But since it’s asked to all adults, we also have a pretty good picture of what’s happening with the male workforce dropouts. It’s a pretty depressing tableau. Of those seven plus million that I mentioned to you, about a tenth, maybe a little more than a tenth, are actually full-time students. They’re training to get back into the workforce. Their time use patterns look pretty much like employed guys. What is concerning is the overwhelming remainder of that group — who’re described in the U.S., and maybe in Canada, as NEET — are neither employed nor in education and training.
According to what they say — everybody lies on surveys, but I don’t think they’re lying to make themselves look miserable — they report that they really don’t do much civil society, they don’t do much worship, they don’t do much volunteering or charity. They’ve got a whole lot of time on their hands, but they report that they don’t do a whole lot of help around the house — either housework, chores, or helping with others at home. What they do report is that they spend a whole lot of time in front of screens. Surveys don’t tell us what they’re watching, or tell us what type of devices they’re watching. They report about 2000 hours a year in front of screens watching stuff. Now, 2000 hours is a pretty good full-time job. That’s well above the average annual hours per worker in Canada. And it’s even above the average annual work hours per worker in the States.
To make this tableau even more dispiriting, every so often these surveys ask additional questions. And before the pandemic, one of the additional questions that was asked one year was, “Do you take pain medication?” Almost half of the labour force dropouts said, “Yes, I take pain medication every day.” Not necessarily opioids, but pain medication. So we have this picture painted for us of a life where they are not just playing Call of Duty all day, but they’re playing Call of Duty stoned. And that is a miserable existence as a day-in, day-out expectation. And it’s not a skill set that’s going to get you back into the workforce. Which is one of the reasons that most of these guys are long-termers. But it may be the sort of pattern that’s going to get you, as I mentioned, on this road towards deaths of despair.
TH: As you described the picture to me, it sounds like depression, doesn’t it? I mean, not leaving the house, not socializing, checking out with drugs and with video games and all the rest. It sounds like depression.
NE: It’s a sort of a misery. I’m not a big philosophy reader, but I do recall that Aristotle said that human beings are social creatures and they need to be connected to society to thrive. And if you’re not connected to the workforce … disproportionately, this pool of men is not connected to family. You’re not getting out of the house, you’re not connected to community. You’re living in this atomized anomie. Call it depression, call it misery, but it’s a terrible loss of human potential and a terrible weight on the guys themselves, apart from everything else.
TH: What do we know about how they’re supporting themselves? How are they living?
NE: Well, again, I’m using official information that’s available. One thing that’s missing from the official information by definition is any sort of info on moonlighting and sideline work. My impression is that that’s not a big part of household budgets for these male dropouts. It’s there, but it’s not a big part of the picture. Mainly, it appears that they’re supported by friends and family, if you include in family Uncle Sam, the U.S. government. Girlfriends help out; living at home with parents or others is part of the routine often. But not always. U.S. government benefits matter as well. Here in particular, we have a kind of a crazy quilt patchwork of disability insurance programs in the U.S. They don’t talk to each other. There’s nobody in Washington who can tell you unambiguously exactly how many people in the United States are even getting disability insurance because of the multiplicity of non-communicative programs.
As far as I could tell by looking at some of the surveys, it looks like over half of — before the pandemic, over half of the labour force dropouts were obtaining at least one disability benefit. Many were obtaining two or three. About two-thirds lived in homes that were obtaining at least one disability benefit. Now, you’re not going to live a princely existence on the kind of penurious stipend that you get from U.S. disability programs, but it does apparently seem to be enough to provide a kind of work-free existence for millions and millions of guys.
I should mention one other thing. These men, for the most part, are not at the very bottom of our income scale, or of our standard of living. That is reserved disproportionately for our single mothers in the United States, who have a really hard row to hoe. The unworking men tend to be in the second quintile, the 20 to 40 percent group. And ironically, that’s where, in an earlier era, we would’ve expected to see what we used to call the “working class.” But this is kind of the “unworking class.”
TH: The period of history that we’re talking about, there were so many massive, wide-scale societal changes. I want to ask you about three, and the role that they’ve played. First of all, the period of time we’re talking about saw women enter the labour market en masse. How much has that contributed to men’s low labour force participation?
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