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Men without work

A retreat from labor leads to diminished flourishing


Men without work
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In 2016, Nicholas Eberstadt highlighted the exodus of adult men from the workforce in his book Men Without Work. Millions of men ages 25-54 don’t have a job and aren’t looking for one. Worklessness among these prime-working-age men is at a level not seen since the end of the Great Depression in 1940 when work simply wasn’t available.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, more than 10 million jobs are vacant. That’s about three million more openings than the number of prime-age men who are not working. Covid-era policy, including unprecedented subsidies to those out of work, has exacerbated the challenge Eberstadt documented in 2016, prompting him to reissue a post-pandemic edition of his book.

As Eberstadt explains, idleness among the prime-age population is an economic problem that will hamper full recovery from the pandemic. But he also argues that the problem of men without work is a moral crisis. We should heed that alarm. Policies and other factors that discourage men from working in the prime of life hurt them, their relationships, and communities at large.

The retreat from work among able-bodied prime-age men detracts from their flourishing. God has designed us in his image to work, after his pattern as Creator. God’s first directive to humanity was a charge to engage in purposeful activity (Genesis 1:28). As a result, work and meaningful engagement of our capacities are closely linked to our sense of purpose in life. Eberstadt’s research shows non-working men are typically idle at home, spending between five and six hours per day in front of screens.

These men without work are vulnerable to conditions contributing to deaths of despair. That’s the term Anne Case and Angus Deaton have used to describe deaths by drug overdose, alcohol poisoning, and suicide that have contributed to declining life expectancy in the United States. More than one million Americans died from drugs, alcohol, and suicide between 2010 and 2019. 

Public policy has largely neglected the situation of these non-working men.

Non-work also hurts men’s relationships and even their ability to form them. To be made in the image of a triune God is to be relational. Loss of relationship hinders human flourishing, especially when it jeopardizes the fundamental ties of marriage and family.

“Jobs are not just the source of money,” as Case and Deaton explain. The erosion of work is related to fraying family life. “Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. It is the loss of meaning, of dignity, of pride, and of self-respect that comes with the loss of marriage and of community that brings on despair, not just or even primarily the loss of money.” Rather than providing for themselves and those around them, men detached from work are dependent on others, whether through government welfare, their parents, or the women in their lives.

When men are disengaged from work, it also detracts from community. Non-working men “don’t ‘do’ civil society,” says Eberstadt. They are less likely to be in church, volunteering, or contributing in other ways to civic life.

Public policy has, in turn, largely neglected the situation of these non-working men. Policymakers are too focused on the unemployment rate, argues Eberstadt, overlooking those who are not seeking work and the reasons they are opting out. Unemployment is at an historically low rate since the pandemic. Because the unemployment rate only measures those looking for work, however, it does not account for those who are not seeking jobs.

Policy reforms to address the crisis of non-work need to begin with considering how aspects of the current welfare system discourage job-seeking. The growth of the government safety net has made alternatives to work more attractive, but it has not made human outcomes more desirable.

The need goes beyond policy as well. Ministry outreach can help those disengaged from work overcome obstacles like substance abuse that may prevent them from seeking meaningful employment. Pursuing human flourishing means serving our neighbors who are not thriving. As Eberstadt writes, “the United States cannot prosper unless its prime-age men do.”

Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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