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.

Want to Work? Then Don’t Wait For Universal Basic Income

I recently read an interesting series of memos that propose three possible futures for the U.S. economy. This suite of essays, published by the Knight Foundation, merit a read if you’re interested in innovation and techno-futurism.

Their most optimistic scenario includes a version of a “universal basic income,” a popular policy idea among academics. The UBI would replace most complicated, conditional welfare programs with a straight-up minimum income guarantee that everyone receives from the government simply for being alive. (Nice work if you can get it!)

The UBI is the rare idea that garners support from both liberal and conservative intellectuals. Progressives like the idea of a generous and unconditional benefit for anyone who needs it; conservatives like the idea of replacing messy bureaucracies with a much clearer and more concise policy.

Unfortunately, on this front, I am the skunk at the garden party. As I wrote in a drive-by Medium response to the Knight memo, simply conceding a “post-work” future and paying everyone a salary to breathe is a poor substitute for the tougher job of actually getting people back to work. As the memo rightly notes, there are huge costs to simply cutting work out of people’s lives, even if you mitigate the financial aspect.

You can read the Medium post for my favorite research on this, but here’s one sample. Running my own statistical analysis on some survey data, I have found that Americans who have a job and feel successful at it are more than twice as likely to say they’re “very happy” than people who don’t meet those conditions. Importantly, this holds up when you control for income. Put simply, having a reason to set our alarm each morning gives us a psychic benefit that goes way beyond a paycheck.

What’s the better, more meaningful solution? How about we try a radical new agenda for forming human capital that empowers more Americans to stay engaged in the economy, rather than making it less painful for them to drop out?

NILFs, They Are Not What You Think: Men Without Work

The number of men age 25-54 not in the labor force (NILFs, get it?) has reached a shockingly high figure — about 7 million, or about the same percentage as at the end of the Depression in 1940. This number doesn’t even include men who are in prison, students, or stay-at-home dads.


Demographer Nick Eberstadt, who authored the new book, Men Without Work, says that one in six working-age men in America are jobless, and if the trend continues, that number will go to one in five jobless men in America in a generation.

“These detached men live and walk among us, though without productive economic purpose — as they endure an overlooked, modern-day Depression,” Eberstadt says.

This increase in male NILFs is a reality across the developed world, but the increase is especially high in the United States. Trying to come up with an explanation why has become something of a parlor game for economists and social scientists. Among some of the explanations — trade sending jobs away, technology automating jobs, federal benefits that make work less desirable or necessary, even video games, which have driven a rise in couch potatoes.

Eberstadt argues that the problem stems not from the number of men in prison, but from the number of men who have previously been in prison. About 12 percent of the adult male civilian population currently not in jail has been convicted of a felony.

A single variable — having a criminal record — is a key missing piece in explaining why work rates and LFPRs [labor-force participation rates] have collapsed much more dramatically in America than other affluent Western societies over the past two generations. This single variable also helps explain why the collapse has been so much greater for American men than women and why it has been so much more dramatic for African American men and men with low educational attainment than for other prime-age men in the United States.

Eberstadt notes that African-American men are twice as likely to constitute this American “un-worker” than whites or Latinos, which is not surprising since African-Americans make up about 40 percent of the prison population even though they are only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population. That compares to whites who are 64 percent of the U.S. population, but 39 percent of the prison population, and Latinos who are 16 percent of the U.S. population, but 19 percent of the prison population.

Eberstadt offers some solutions to the problem. He notes that former prisoners have paid their debt to society so need to be welcomed back into society. He calls it a “shameful reflection of our ignorance” that we have marginalized ex-prisoners, much less failed to stop the triggers that lead people to commit the offenses that land them in prison in the first place.

He notes that welfare reform worked in the 1990s to get single mothers into the workforce, and that disability insurance programs should be predicated on a “work first” incentive rather than the current system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year to encourage men to sit on the sidelines.

Revitalizing American business, and avoiding a trade war, will also keep employment rates from further declining, he says, not to mention public policies that make marriage a more attractive option since married men with kids are much more likely to be in the workforce than unmarried, childless men.

Order the book, Men Without Work.