Why American men choose not to work

Men who aren’t even looking for jobs are driving a lot of the trend. To judge from various surveys, these men fill their days with mindless leisure, sometimes including drugs. They are actually less socially engaged than men with jobs, with lower rates of church attendance and volunteering. In fairness, non-working men do spend about 30 minutes more each day on housework than working men, which puts them roughly on par with employed women.

Why is this happening? Eberstadt offers a number of explanations, some more controversial than others.

One obvious factor is that the economy has changed in ways that make life harder for low-skilled men, the group that has experienced the most pronounced drop-off in employment. We can argue about how much to blame immigration, trade, or technology for the shift, but the bottom line is that the days of easily available, decent-paying factory jobs for men with little education are over. This isn’t a full explanation—for instance, low-skilled immigrants don’t seem to have trouble finding jobs—but it’s a big one.

Another factor may be the rise of mass incarceration, though as Eberstadt notes, any policy change in this area must be made with an eye toward preserving public safety. Only about one-half of one percent of the American population is imprisoned at any given time, but that’s still five times the rate of the 1960s. Additionally, most prison sentences are short, meaning that while the “stock” of prisoners is low relative to the size of the total population, the “flow” of prisoners is substantial. During the course of their lives, many men enter the system and then return to society with criminal records.