The Real Cause of America’s Declining Labor Participation Rate? Boys and Their Joysticks

A wily and widespread addiction has caused a massive epidemic among young men — one so bad that they are no longer working. This addiction has a name: video games. That’s right, video games have sapped America’s male youth of its ability to be productive, to function eight hours a day at a job. Their brains are fried.
That’s what you would conclude from media reports on a study titled “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men,” which states that between 2000 and 2016, young men have put a premium on leisure accounting for 23 to 46 percent of the decline in their market work.
The reason, according to the study’s authors: Young men would rather play video games.
The four researchers conducting the study found that young men worked 12 percent less time in 2012-2015 than in 2004-2007. At the same time, they dedicated 2.3 hours more to leisure activities. Eighty-two percent of that extra leisure time went to recreational computing and video gaming.
By comparison, men 31-55 only decreased their hours worked by 8 percent over the same period, but without the commensurate uptick in video game playing.
This is where that chicken and egg question gets cracked, and columnist James Pethokoukis concludes that “America faces a massive array of daunting economic challenges but Overwatch, Final Fantasy, and Call of Duty are not among them.”
First of all, it’s a red flag that the big gaps in hours and employment between younger and older men emerged during the Great Recession and Not So Great Recovery. There are lots of potential non-video-game explanations for this. For instance, employers might have started demanding more education or experience before hiring during a time of economic tumult. …
The big jobs event in 2007 wasn’t the release of Halo 3. It was the start of a severe economic downturn.
If the recession and recovery played a big role in young men working less, then work rates should improve the further we move into the economic expansion. And that’s exactly what seems to be happening.
The employment-to-population ratio — the share of a particular population with a job — for 20- to 24-year-olds fell to 61.3 percent in 2010 from 72.7 percent in 2006, the last full non-recession year. But that number has since rebounded to 66.2 percent. Is video game quality suddenly getting worse?”
Obviously, the answer to that question is no. Even the study’s authors note that since the economic recovery kicked in, total leisure time enjoyed by non-employed young men fell five hours per week between 2012-2015.
So if young men are not working and not playing (and not in school and not caring for children, say the authors), what are young men doing? Maybe looking for work? Or maybe they’re doing chores for their parents since the percentage of young men living with a close relative between 2000 and 2015 increased by 12 points.
That’s a nice thought, though it is not the answer, according to the study’s authors.  Not under consideration in the analysis: time spent on Facebook or web browsing. Also not included in the analysis, how many people are multi-tasking: playing on a computer game while riding the bus, for instance.
Even if men aren’t working, they don’t seem too upset about it. Surveys find that 21-30-year-old men were also 7 percentage points happier than men of their age in the early 2000s. Why? Well if you’re not working and you live in your parents’ basement, you probably have few cares. Voìla, instant satisfaction.
Pethokoukis notes that “gamers can still be workers,” and workers are still in demand even as the labor force participation rate for young men is decreasing. And that’s all the more reason to ask what is motivating younger workers to sit out the jobs. The answer is not conclusively video games.