“Let’s Talk” the Character Gap: An Analysis of Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work

The statistics about the skills gap and unfilled manufacturing jobs are staggering. 2.1 million manufacturing jobs to go unfilled by 2030! (NAM News Room) And yet, the trades are not the only place where jobs are going unfilled, begging the question, where are all these working-age males going?

Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work sets out to explain this phenomenon that has been slowly sneaking up on us since the mid-twentieth century. This 2016 study has since been updated in a “Post-Pandemic Edition” explaining the effects that COVID-19 has had on this already problematic issue.

Where Have All the Young Men Gone?

In 2022, there were 11 million open jobs (Eberstadt, 5, 2022). In the last decade, 1 of every 6 men between the ages of 25 and 55 was not earning wages (Eberstadt, 7, 2022). Yet, money is still necessary for the survival of a human being in any developed society, including the United States. So how are these men surviving?

First, to clarify the language that Eberstadt uses, a Not-In-Labor-Force (NILF) is a man between the ages of 25 and 55 and has never entered the workforce. These men are voluntarily unemployed—and do not include the numbers for full and part-time students. NILFs should not be confused with Unemployed Men. Unemployed Men are men between the ages of 25 and 55, earning wages 40% or less of the year and actively searching for employment. These are important terms because they show how the numbers presented to us of unemployment rates are not including this large demographic. NILFs are unemployed by choice and, therefore, fly under the radar. 

Unemployed Men are registered unemployed with the United States government and make money through government programs. This is the demographic that we are familiar with, but still, with unemployment rates lowering, how is it that there are so many unfilled jobs and so few members of the workforce? Especially when the rate of working-aged men is growing. In the last 50 years, the number of men in the working age range has doubled (Eberstadt, 69, 2022). This means that even though the Baby Boomers are retiring, there are eligible men to take their place. They just aren’t. Where are they? The simple fact is that there are men (and women) who are unemployed but are never recorded in the numbers.

Lyin’ in the Noon Day Sun

It is hard to say what is causing this. Looking at the data, we know there is a cultural difference between Unemployed Men, NILFs, working men, and working women. 

First, it should be said that there is a cultural shift that has happened in our society that has impacted the data that we are about to see; women joining the workforce. This is not to say that this shift has been bad as a whole, but it brings new meaning to the data that we will be looking at, especially in the age of the stay-at-home dad and paternity leave from work. Despite this shift, according to Eberstadt, married men with families are more likely to work more hours than unmarried men (Eberstadt, 98, 2022). As a whole, it seems that it is still a majority of women taking care of their families. Below are some statistics from the Survey of Income and Program Participation provided by Eberstadt.

20-64 Year-Old Men Who Hadn’t Been Working 4 Consecutive Months or More 20-64 Year-Old Women Who Hadn’t Been Working 4 Consecutive Months or More
Abstaining from Work Due to Childcare 1996 2.6%
Abstaining from Work Due to Childcare 2004 2.4% 39%
Abstaining from Work Due to Childcare 2013 4.6%
Abstaining from Work Due to Not Being Able to Find Work 2004 14%

(Eberstadt, 109-110, 2022)

If these unemployed men are not taking care of household members or seeking employment, how do they spend their time? What motivates these individuals? The table below shows abridged statistics on the time usage in average minutes on different daily activities from the American Time Use Survey.

NILFs Employed Women Unemployed Men
Caring for Household Members 28 47 47
Household Care 109 109 114
Personal Care (Including Sleep) 608 564 577
Socializing, Relaxing, and Leisure 472 191 353
Working 7 305 68

(Eberstadt, 114, 2022)

Outside of time use, the cultural difference is shown in religious practice and attendance, and political engagement. Eberstadt says:

There is a longstanding pattern of lower religious attendance for nonworking men than for working men twenty-five-to-fifty-five. Between 1972  and 2014, formal worship was on the decline among all American adults, but the proportion of un-working men who never went to worship was distinctly higher than for men with work… Un-working men were likewise less likely to have volunteered over the previous month than working men…daily newspaper reading was appreciably lower for the un-working than the working, despite having more free-time. Working men were also consistently more likely to vote in presidential elections years than un-working men (Eberstadt, 120, 2022).

As Eberstadt had earlier mentioned in his book, it makes sense that high religious participation and work would go hand-in-hand. Christianity condemns the sin of “sloth” which is idleness in the avoidance of work. (Eberstadt, 107, 2022). Eberstadt’s theory is that it isn’t that these individuals want things, they want leisure, they want to be idle—-a sin, even in secular culture. It is impossible to truly know or generalize the intentions of such a large population though. 

COVID-19 as an Influence

Some may blame COVID-19 for a lot of what we are seeing. But as the above data shows, this is a problem that COVID-19 has only just put into overdrive and exposed for what it is. The deeper issue is cultural. There are two reasons that this cultural issue has been hidden so much, both covered earlier in this analysis. 

The first is that there are men who do not want to be in the workforce, and they do not declare themselves unemployed. 

The second reason that the decrease in men in the workforce has been hidden is also something that we covered, women joining the workforce. Women have slowly been leaving the “homemaker” role for work outside the home since the late mid-19th century. Perhaps you remember 80s women’s films such as 9-5 and BabyBoom. The roles that women have taken on since existing in the workforce include positions in the trades, upper management, medicine, etc. Gone are the days of young, unmarried females working as a stenographer until she could find a husband. This slow increase in women joining the workforce camouflaged the fleeing of men from the workforce. Or, at least, it hid the stats until the number of women in the workforce became stagnant and fell (Eberstadt, 62-64, 2022). 

Now the pandemic has continued to expose the plague in our job market and has caused it to escalate. When the United States went into lockdown for two weeks to stop the spread, employees were instantly offered unemployment while they were laid off. When it became clear that many lower and middle-class families would be struggling, the government raised the amount distributed for unemployment. Many were receiving more money on employment than they were working. The intention was noble enough, but the result was hell nonetheless, de-incentivizing work. 

When the country began to reopen, you may remember fast-food restaurants offering workers “Get paid next day,” for those who wanted to work one shift and then quit, their hours already cut due to a lack of help. Again, this followed the reopening of the country; vaccines had been distributed, schools reopened, and the unemployment bonus was lowered. But the unemployment bonus was not entirely gone. In the 6 months before the $300/a week unemployment was eliminated, “fewer than one million people (re) joined the labor force” (Eberstadt, 22, 2022). The 6 months following? “America’s labor force rose by 2.5 million—three times as many people” (Eberstadt, 22, 2022). It’s hard to blame these people for not taking free money and only going back to work when that well dries up. Although there are no statistics on this, Eberstadt mentions that many young people have grown up with parents under welfare and disability; they know what they know. Without the knowledge of the Gospel of Work or any other belief in the fulfillment of work, how can we expect human beings to turn down that temptation? Is the solution education?

Education as an Influence

Often, you’ll hear education referred to as the most important thing in a developed society today, and it doesn’t seem like something controversial. We now live in a society in which the farmers’ sons no longer leave school early to work on the farm. High school diplomas have become an expectation of today’s youth. This is not where the controversy lies, it is with the growing expectation that every high school graduate moves on to post-secondary education for a bachelor’s degree—not to be confused with any other form of post-secondary education like trade schools or associate’s degrees. Eberstadt does not cover the skills gap, but he does talk about the inflation of bachelor’s degrees and the amount of unworking men that have higher education experience: 

Many of today’s un-working prime-age men have above-average educational attainment. In 2021, well over two-fifths had some college, and nearly a fifth were college graduates. In any case, millions of open positions do not require daunting educational credentials. Major sectors of the economy—retail, leisure, hospitality, construction, and transport—are open to applicants without extensive skills, apart from the “skills” of showing up to work, regularly and on time, drug free (Eberstadt, 18, 2023).

Although it is hard to deny the issue that we are seeing in the manufacturing industry, Eberstadt is correct. When it comes down to it, 2.1 million jobs open in a single industry is a lot but manufacturing jobs only account for 19% of the open positions should there still be 11 million in 2030. As far as education goes, the situation is dire enough that most employees are willing to train workers who lack experience if they believe that they will stay for a long-time and be good employees, yet even those with some higher education choose to not be a part of the labor force, instead, leaving those positions open.

With so many employment opportunities, why is it that those young men are going to college, racking up thousands of dollars in debt, only to be unemployed? In 2009, the film Post Grad was released, following a hopeful college graduate, assuming she would get her dream job in publishing, only to come to the rude awakening that the coveted position would not go to her.  She chooses to live unemployed rather than take a job that she sees below her status. Being the heroine, the resolution leaves the audience unsure of what message should be derived from the story, as she lands that dream job, only to quit because it was more work than she thought it would be (Jensen, 2009).

Whether life imitates art, or art imitates life, it is not unreasonable to believe that with so few jobs requiring a degree and so many with degrees, those not chosen to work in their dream field choose to be a part of that one-fifth of NILFs. Or even that some acquire these positions, thinking that they will be “Working Smarter, not Harder” only to realize that all work requires effort. Maybe you are familiar with Mike Rowe’s “Work Harder and Smarter” campaign associated with his foundation, fighting against this attitude and misconception.

This is not to say that the young men enrolled in post-secondary education are not going to have a good work ethic, after all, there are so many young men in an education program—“2.5 million more adult men were in education or training in 2014 than in 1956” (Eberstadt, 58, 2022) and less than a fifth of NILFs are college graduates. Not to mention, according to a survey by the Census Bureau, “55 percent of all men twenty and older enrolled in schooling were simultaneously working paid jobs” (Eberstadt, 58-59, 2022). The number increased to 70% for students 25 and older.

Is Harmel the Solution?

Since there is no solution that Eberstadt or any other economist has provided—with the obvious exception of education on the topic—it would be easy enough to say that Harmel is the solution. If only it were that simple. Just because Harmel exists, doesn’t mean that young men preparing to join the workforce will see the benefits of work over free time. The solution must be in the American culture itself. Let’s face it, the American dream is no longer what it used to be, and as Eberstadt said, the overworked American has its counterpart: the underworked American (Eberstadt, 88, 2022).

This problem is not a problem that can be partisan, it has stretched from administration to administration and has been suppressed under each party. This problem is not political, it is for every member of this country.

Harmel focuses on the individual formation of each man, introducing students to the Gospel of Work and teaching them the important lessons to take into their places of employment. What Harmel hopes to accomplish is to bring to employers, young men, ready and willing to work, trained in their skills and formed in their character. Our Humanities program plays a pivotal role in this formation, requiring much study and conversation in which students and faculty discuss all aspects of the human person: relationships, community, prayer, spirituality, sacrifice, and so much more. Alongside the more spiritual formation, the students here at Harmel also have the unique opportunity to learn important practical lessons: how to buy their first house, balance a checkbook, budget a household, etc., preparing them to forge ahead with confidence and competence in a world where so many men take little ownership of their lives, as Eberstadt makes so evident above.

Eberstadt ends his book with no real answers, just the statement that no problem—including this—can be solved by ignoring it. This is a problem that needs attention in order to bring this 50+ year trend to a close.

So, is Harmel the solution?

Eberstadt, N. (2022). Men Without Work: Post-pandemic edition. Templeton Press.
Reitman, I., Medjuck, J., Clifford, J., & Fremon, K. (2009). Post Grad. United States; 20th Century Fox.

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