Over the past two generations, America has suffered a quiet catastrophe in the collapse of work for men. In the half-century between 1965 and 2015, work rates (the ratio of employment to population) for the American male spiraled relentlessly downward — a seeming flight from work in which ever-greater numbers of working-age men exited the labor force altogether. America is now home to an army of prime-working-age men, some seven million of them ages 25 to 54, who no longer even look for work. Consider a single fact: in 2015, the work-rate of males aged 25 to 54 was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, when the official unemployment rate was 14.6 percent and the United States was just coming out of a decade of depression in which the search for work was usually futile.
By the Numbers
To understand what’s happened and why, some perspective is valuable. For good or ill, America is living through a period that I would describe as a second gilded age. Somehow, in spite of lackluster growth by historical standards, the 21st-century American economy has managed to produce markedly more wealth for its elite, even as it generated markedly less employment for its workers. Between the third quarter of 2000 and third quarter of 2016, household and nonprofit net worth soared from $44 trillion to just over $90 trillion, while the work rate (for both genders combined) fell by five percentage points — levels last recorded three decades earlier.
Let’s take a look at what you need to be a responsible working adult in the United States these days.
You’ll need a car, thanks to the almost-universally underfunded public transportation system. You’ll need car insurance, which is insanely expensive. You’ll need a place to stay, so you’ll be paying rent. You’ll need a reasonably decent wardrobe. A kitchen, and all the accessories needed to cook. Furniture. A cell phone, because being in touch is mandatory for pretty much any job these days. You’ll need health insurance, also insanely expensive. If you’re renting and you don’t have renter’s insurance and anything happens, you’re screwed, so renter’s insurance.
In terms of restrictions on your personal behavior, no more drugs. Most places drug test these days. If you say something on social media that reflects badly on your company, you can be fired. Your hours will change at the whims of managers, limiting your other opportunities.
All of the things you need to work have to be maintained; they break down, they cost money. In order to stay stationary, you have to be making enough every week not just to get by, but to put a little aside for the inevitable crises that come from things like biology or entropy. Your car will break down; you will get sick; your furniture will need replacing, your cell plan will go up. And if you’re not ahead when that happens, then you’re behind.
So now we have a society built almost entirely on jobs that only barely keep you alive from week to week, without letting you get ahead at all. Jobs that cap you at thirty hours so you can’t get health insurance. Jobs that deliberately schedule employees so they can’t take other part-time work. Jobs that actively limit what you can do in your own time off. Jobs that don’t pay you enough to actually work for them long-term.
It’s not a great deal for the workers.
So people are finding other ways to survive. I noticed the article didn’t mention the black market, or under-the-table wages, but that’s part of it. A lot of people have figured out that hustling on the edges of the system is just as profitable as trying to live within it. It’s not a great long-term strategy, but hey, neither are service jobs with no retirement plans.
If we want people to participate in the labor market, we have to price jobs competitively.
But of course, since there’s no longer enough work, and there are getting to be far too many people, that’s not going to be happening any time soon.
What we’re seeing is the creation of a shadow economy; a whole sector of the public that’s divorced from the mainstream way of life. We’ve disenfranchised around ten million people, according to the article. That’s like, the entire population of Portugal.
A nation of the dispossessed, living among us.
And I think we’re seeing the results of this in the anger that’s become the dominant mode for discourse of late, in politics, in the media, and on the internet. It’s not very focused yet, but the fury that people have accrued for a system that takes advantage of them at every opportunity should not be underestimated.