For centuries, philosophers, theologians, and social scientists have contemplated the distinction between leisure (the basis of culture as per Josef Pieper) and idleness as defined by the cardinal sin of acedia. Modernity tends to blur the difference between spending time in a way that elevates the individual and society and a way which is unproductive and/or harmful. By utilizing various research conducted by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor statistics annual American Time Use survey, Eberstadt is able to show how prime-age men not in the labor force (NILF), unemployed men, employed men, and employed women spend their time. What comes to fore is that prime-age NILF men with their free-time dividend of over 2000 hours/year spend no more time assisting with household care than employed women and less time than unemployed men. Out of the four groups, these men spend the least amount of time in religious and volunteer activities—despite the much greater amount of free time they possess. Instead, this time is spent engaging in “personal care” which includes sleeping and grooming, and most notably, a huge amount of time spent in “socializing, relaxing, and leisure.” Especially telling is the fact that prime-age NILF men watch nearly five-and-a-half hours of television and movies each day which far surpasses all of the other sub-categories and is a full two hours per day more than unemployed men. Seeing as NILF men are much more likely to use illicit drugs and visit gambling establishments, while less likely to attend religious services, read the newspaper, or vote in a presidential election, the parallel of entertainment media to the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is unavoidable and deeply troubling. It is a crisis for the individual, the family, and society at-large.
The macroeconomic changes which can be deemed responsible for this male flight from work in the United States are varied. Increasingly, the influence of innovation, automation, and globalization is seen causing a fundamental shift in the nature of work. The large-scale incarceration of men—especially black men following the “war on crime”—unquestionably plays a major role, given not only the time each prisoner spends in jail but also the scarlet letter of a previous conviction that marks him when attempting to re-enter the labor market. Interestingly, Eberstadt also references a rapid increase in disability and social welfare claims which is perceived as inhibiting gainful employment. As Eberstadt makes clear, his intent is to create awareness of this crisis and open the discussion rather than providing all of the possible solutions. Without question, this book and the subsequent surprise victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election has led to an increased awareness of the plight of these “forgotten men.” The social reformers of Riis’ era clearly understood the effect that housing had on the individual and the family. One can only hope that we can be as wise to value the many benefits that work provides for men and society and develop the economy accordingly. The tenements are long gone but the challenge to develop virtue and character remains.
Nicholas Eberstadt writes: “Today’s received wisdom holds that the United States is now at or near “full employment.” An alternative view would hold that, by not-so-distant historic standards, the nation today is short of full employment by nearly 10 million male workers (to say nothing of the additional current “jobs deficit” for women). Unlike the dead soldiers in Roman antiquity, our decimated men still live and walk among us, though in an existence without productive economic purpose. We might say those many millions of men without work constitute a sort of invisible army, ghost soldiers lost in an overlooked, modern-day depression.”
Like J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” Eberstadt speaks to a serious issue that’s seriously under-addressed…