In 1954, 96 percent of American men between 25 and 54 years old worked. Today, 80 percent do. One-fifth of men in their prime working ages are out of the labor force.
As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has put it, “The situation here is basically a disaster, a crisis far worse than most commentators and policy makers seem to recognize, and with no clear prospects for appreciable improvement over the near-term horizon.”
The definitive explanation for this catastrophe has yet to be written. Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure. Work by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that men raised in fatherless homes, without as many immediate masculine role models, do worse in the labor force. Some of the problem probably has to do with a mismatch between boy culture and school culture, especially in the early years.
But, surely, there has been some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity. Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues.