There’s a young man I know called Ben, whose story has become familiar. Ben is 24. He finished high school, but university was not for him. He’s bounced through a lot of low-paid jobs in retail and fast food, with spells of unemployment in between. Nothing has quite caught on, and he has no plan for his life. Like many twentysomethings, he can’t afford to live on his own, so he’s moved back in with his mother. It’s not clear – least of all to him – how he’ll establish himself as an independent adult.
The recession has been particularly hard on guys like Ben. Even so, he’s luckier than many. In Canada, the jobless rate for young adults is a relatively low 14 per cent. Across the European Union, the jobless rate is more than 20 per cent. In the U.S., the jobless rate for high-school-educated men between 20 and 24 – Ben’s generation – has reached 22.4 per cent. That’s more than double what it was four years ago. The situation of young American blacks is much worse. In Illinois, for example, only about 25 per cent of young black male adults have a job. And this time, nobody, anywhere, expects the job market to pick up any time soon.
Despite what the Occupy movement says, the biggest economic challenge we face today is not income inequality, greedy corporations, Wall Street corruption or the concentration of wealth among the top 1 per cent. It’s the increasing failure of young men with high-school degrees or less to latch on to the world of work.
Young men without work aren’t just an economic problem. They’re a huge social problem. “We’re at risk of having a generation of young males who aren’t well-connected to the labour market and who don’t feel strong ownership of community or society because they haven’t benefited from it,” Ralph Catalano, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Wall Street Journal.
Young men without work are trapped in a twilight world of failure to achieve adulthood. They don’t move out and they don’t get married (although they’re increasingly likely to have kids). In the U.S., four out of 10 men between 18 and 30 are living with their parents. In Britain, it’s five out of 10. In Italy, it’s eight out of 10 (although that also reflects the extraordinary attachment of Italian parents to their grown-up kids).
But young men who live at home also have less incentive to find work. The longer they go without work, the dimmer their prospects become. And the more likely they are to drink, do drugs and develop other habits that will make them even less employable.
There’s a reason this downturn has been called the “mancession.” Jobs in manufacturing and construction have dried up, while employment in female-friendly fields such as health care has stayed steady or even grown. But something else is going wrong. A lot of young men seem to have given up. In an age when having a university degree matters more than ever, large numbers have gone AWOL from higher education. Even the ones who have degrees face higher unemployment than women do, a British study found. Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of a British think tank on higher education, blamed the men’s underachievement on complacency and “general hopelessness.”
Psychology professor Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me, also thinks behavioural factors are holding young people back. She argues that an epidemic of narcissism has created millions of young adults who think they don’t have to work or study hard because they’re already smart. “It’s delusional thinking,” she told a conference of psychologists in Australia.
Joblessness is not the same as poverty. It’s worse. There’s lots of evidence to show that the scars of joblessness can last a lifetime. And fixing the problem will be very hard, because the problem is not simply economic. It’s also structural and social. We’ll need more than an economic upturn to reconnect a lot of our young men to work. But it matters more than we think – because without work, there’s no path to manhood.