Men without work

Author Nicholas Eberstadt highlights the troubling class of men who have removed themselves from the job market

Scholar and author Nicholas Eberstadt says that America has quietly plunged into a “Depression-scale crisis in relation to men and work.”

Giving the keynote address at an event in which Center of the American Experiment launched its Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree initiative, Eberstadt described an “invisible army” of seven million men between the ages of 25-54— traditional prime working age—who are neither working nor looking for work.

Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Men Without Work, a book that describes and analyzes this alarming cultural phenomenon.

Using available data, he said this group of men devotes an enormous amount of time—2,100 hours per year, about the same time commitment as holding fulltime employment—to passive leisure activities, watching TV, surfing the internet and using other “electronic gadgets and gizmos.”

On top of that, almost half report taking painkillers every day. “It is not just sitting in front of a screen,” Eberstadt said. “It is sitting in front of a screen, stoned.…” Pretty grim.

They support themselves, he added, through family, girlfriends, and government programs, particularly disability insurance. Although the government doesn’t maintain a central depository of information about disability enrollment or payment (“a shame and maybe a scandal,” according to Eberstadt), he used census survey data to discover that almost 60 percent of the men in this group had obtained at least one disability program benefit; 14 percent had attained two or more.

Eberstadt then correlated disability insurance with America’s rising opioid crisis.

“Disability insurance establishes your eligibility for Medicaid; Medicaid can establish your eligibility for OxyContin.” If they find the right pain doctor, he added, patients can get a month’s supply of OxyContin—90 pills—for just a $3 copay.

Despite the bleak portrayal, Eberstadt finds hope in America’s ability to fix this problem.

“The turnaround comes when people are committed to shining a spotlight on this problem and come from all over the political spectrum to say, ‘this problem can’t be invisible anymore.’”

Center of the American Experiment’s Great Jobs initiative will try to help break that cycle by emphasizing the types of fulfilling, prosperous careers that can be achieved with education and training other than through a four-year college path.

Senior Fellow Katherine Kersten, who is co-chairing the project with American Experiment founder Mitch Pearlstein, called attention to the irony that many Minnesota companies can’t find workers to fill jobs while many young Minnesotans, especially young men, are unprepared to exploit those opportunities.

“What a paradox,” she said. “Today there are good jobs going begging and many 26-year olds are adrift, living in their parents’ basements, with no clear plan to prepare themselves for one of the well-paying, in-demand jobs they need to maintain middle class status, to be independent and to support a family.”

She said the Center’s Great Jobs initiative will in part attack “our society’s strong cultural bias that a four-year degree is the only path to success.”