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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

MARGARET WENTE

America’s hidden crisis: Men not at work Add to ...

I think we can all let our breath out now. Donald Trump is finished. Hillary Clinton will win. A great calamity will be averted.

Ms. Clinton probably won’t face an immediate financial crisis, as U.S. President Barack Obama did in 2008. The United States’ biggest problem at the moment is more insidious. Millions of able-bodied men have dropped out of society – out of working life, of civic life, of family life. Many of these men belong to the Trumpenproletariat. How to re-engage them may be the biggest domestic challenge the country faces.

Political economist Nicholas Eberstadt calls these men “the unworking,” to distinguish them from people who want work but can’t find it. “America is now home to a vast army of jobless men who are no longer even looking for work,” he writes. “Roughly seven million of them age 25 to 54, the traditional prime of working life.” His new book, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, is essential reading for this election cycle. “For every prime-age man who is unemployed today,” he writes, “another three are neither working nor looking for work.” Most of these men are less educated, and many, particularly blacks, have prison records.

The standard argument goes that globalization and technology are responsible for the vast destruction of working-class jobs. And that’s true. But in fact, the work rate has been in decline for two generations. What happened during those decades was a massive shift in cultural values.

Not so long ago, virtually all men in their prime worked. The only exceptions were the disabled and the feeble-minded. Work was integral to what it was to be a man, and not to work was shameful. That’s no longer true. Today, a man can choose a no-work lifestyle as an option – and plenty do. They’re quite happy to sit around and watch TV, sponging off the government, their relatives and their girlfriends.

The eminent economist Lawrence Summers does not believe this is a blip. He says it’s more like a snowball. “Everything we hear and see regarding technology suggests the rate of job destruction will pick up,” he wrote in The Washington Post. He’s also worried about social contagion. “To the extent that non-work is contagious, it is likely to grow exponentially rather than at a linear rate.” If current trends continue, he expects that more than one-third of all men in the 25-54 age group will be out of work by mid-century. That is a truly terrifying prospect – as well as fertile soil for toxic populism.

At its root, the collapse of the working class isn’t so much economic as it is social, moral and spiritual. This means that economic remedies will only take us so far. Marriage rates for less-educated men have plunged – and unmarried men are far more likely to opt for unwork. The percentage of babies born to unmarried parents has soared. Working-class whites have largely abandoned church (while church attendance among higher-income whites has stayed relatively high). Family and community networks have dissolved.

Meanwhile, opiate addictions are ripping through the Rust Belt like a plague. For the first time in history, death rates among white, less educated, middle-aged Americans are actually going up – mostly because of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicides and liver disease. Angus Deaton, the Nobel-winning economist who documented the phenomenon with his wife and fellow Princeton economist Anne Case, calls themdeaths of despair.” Women are not spared. “Across the country, middle-aged white women are dying at staggeringly higher rates, particularly from drug overdoses, suicides and excessive drinking,” reports The Washington Post in a harrowing investigative series. One reason: Women have gained a social licence to drink and smoke like men.

Today, to crib a line from Marx, opiates are the opiate of the masses. We’re not supposed to say it’s anybody’s fault, of course – talk of blame and personal responsibility are taboo in public policy. But the more that undesirable behaviour is normalized, the more people will behave that way. “I have known a lot of people who like to get up in the morning and start getting high (pot, THC, whatever),” one reader commented, in response to an erudite discussion of working-class woes on an economics website. “I have trouble relating to that because I do not have that desire at all but none of them seemed to be in any particular despair. As far as I could tell it was entertainment.”

So good luck to Ms. Clinton. The flight of working men could be her biggest socioeconomic challenge. An economic revival might help. A spiritual revival might help, too. If only we had a clue how to do that.

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