Men Without Work

By one reading, things look pretty good for Americans today: the country is richer than ever before and the unemployment rate is down by half since the Great Recession—lower today, in fact, than for most of the postwar era.

But a closer look shows that something is going seriously wrong. This is the collapse of work—most especially among America’s men. Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist who holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, shows that while “unemployment” has gone down, America’s work rate is also lower today than a generation ago—and that the work rate for US men has been spiraling downward for half a century. Astonishingly, the work rate for American males aged twenty-five to fifty-four—or “men of prime working age”—was actually slightly lower in 2015 than it had been in 1940: before the War, and at the tail end of the Great Depression.

Today, nearly one in six prime working age men has no paid work at all—and nearly one in eight is out of the labor force entirely, neither working nor even looking for work. This new normal of “men without work,” argues Eberstadt, is “America’s invisible crisis.”

So who are these men? How did they get there? What are they doing with their time? And what are the implications of this exit from work for American society?

Nicholas Eberstadt lays out the issue and Jared Bernstein from the left and Henry Olsen from the right offer their responses to this national crisis.

“Eberstadt’s Men Without Work is the social-science ballast to the powerful impressionistic account offered in J.D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, the book of the year.”

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“Nicholas Eberstadt of the center-right American Enterprise Institute released a book, Men Without Work, earlier this year has helped spark many man-centric conversations about labor force participation. Eberstadt argues that if you ignore differences in retirement age, American men are now less likely to work than European men, and that male labor force participation has been declining for a few generations now. This is all true.”

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“A longtime fellow of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Eberstadt is a respected scholar and writes in a cautious and moderate tone. He often cites those who disagree with him, including a solid study by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers that directly conflicts with his own analysis.”

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“An unsettling portrait not just of male unemployment, but also of lives deeply alienated from civil society.”

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“In a recent book, Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt shows that, although unemployment in the U.S. has been falling in what he calls this “second Gilded Age,” there is simultaneously a ‘flight from work’ by men in their prime. Even while manufacturers are finding it difficult to fill vacancies, the percentage of working men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four is now lower than it was at the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

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“Eberstadt has put his finger on what may be the most important socio-economic question the US will face over the next quarter-century.”

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“It is vital to reckon with the research of Nicholas Eberstadt, whose forthcoming book documents the travails of the 7 million prime-age men who have dropped out of the workforce.”

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“Getting men to work is important because it doesn’t seem like they’re doing anything much better with their time. In his new book, Men Without Work, scholar Nicholas Eberstadt of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute estimates that men who are out of the labor force gain an extra 2,150 hours of free time each year… Before you dismiss these findings as the hand-wringing of a conservative think tank, consider this: The Obama administration largely agrees.”

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“Nicholas Eberstadt, the author of Men Without Work (Templeton Press, 2016), estimates that non-working men have an extra 2,150 hours of free time per year. But instead of using this time to serve others in their family or community, the data shows that non-working men spend much of it sleeping, engaging in self-care or relaxing, which includes five-and-a-half hours of media consumption per day. Darker self-indulgent habits, such as pornography and drug use, also occur with greater frequency.”

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About the Authors

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he researches and writes extensively on demographics and economic development generally, and more specifically on international security in the Korean peninsula and Asia. Domestically, he focuses on poverty and social well-being. Dr. Eberstadt is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

His many books and monographs include Poverty in China (IDI, 1979); The Tyranny of Numbers (AEI Press, 1995); The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999); The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008); Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis (NBR, 2010); and A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic (Templeton Press, 2012). His latest book is Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (Templeton Press, 2016).

He has offered invited testimony before Congress on numerous occasions and has served as consultant or adviser for a variety of units within the US government. His appearances on radio and television range from NPR to CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.

Mr. Eberstadt has a Ph.D. in political economy and government, an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government, and an A.B. from Harvard University. In addition, he holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics.

In 2012, Mr. Eberstadt was awarded the prestigious Bradley Prize.

Jared Bernstein joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in May 2011 as a Senior Fellow. From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Executive Director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Bernstein was a senior economist and the director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute, and between 1995 and 1996, he held the post of Deputy Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Bernstein holds a PhD in Social Welfare from Columbia University and is the author and coauthor of numerous books for both popular and academic audiences, including his latest book, The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity. Bernstein has published extensively in various venues, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The American Prospect. In addition to hosting this blog and co-hosting the On The Economy podcast, he is an on-air commentator for the cable stations CNBC and MSNBC and contributor to The Washington Post’s PostEverything blog.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how to address, consistent with conservative principles, the electoral challenges facing modern American conservatism.

This work will culminate in a book titled The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, to be published in June 2017.

Mr. Olsen has worked in senior executive positions at many center-right think tanks. He most recently served from 2006 to 2013 as Vice President and Director, National Research Initiative, at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously worked as Vice President of Programs at the Manhattan Institute and President of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Mr. Olsen’s work has been featured in many prominent publications, including The Wall Street JournalThe Washington PostNational Review, and The Weekly Standard. His pre-election predictions of the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections were particularly praised for their remarkable accuracy. In the 2016 campaign, he accurately identified the factors fueling the rise of Donald Trump early in the race, and his election eve predictions were more accurate than those of virtually any other major analyst or commentator.

Mr. Olsen started his career as a political consultant at the California firm of Hoffenblum-Mollrich. He then worked with the California State Assembly Republican Caucus before attending law school. He served as a law clerk to the Honorable Danny J. Boggs on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and as an associate at Dechert, Price & Rhoads. He has a B.A. from Claremont McKenna College and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where he served as Comment Editor for the University of Chicago Law Review.