In a recent book, Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt shows that, although unemployment in the U.S. has been falling in what he calls this “second Gilded Age,” there is simultaneously a “flight from work” by men in their prime. Even while manufacturers are finding it difficult to fill vacancies, the percentage of working men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four is now lower than it was at the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Approximately one in eight men in their prime has left the workforce altogether, and about one in six is without paid work, a trend that has been visible since the mid-1960s. The graph of this male exodus from the workplace is an almost straight upward line, regardless of booms or recessions, indicating that weakening market demand is not the critical factor. Nearly seven million American men in their prime have left behind—it seems of their own volition—the idea of trading their skills and talents in the marketplace, and many have turned their backs on all forms of commitment and responsibility. Some are ex-cons, but the greater part is composed of single men without parental responsibilities and with limited formal education, a significant quotient of these being African Americans. Marriage trumps race as an indicator of employment, as does being a recent immigrant. For every man in his prime deemed unemployed, there are three others who are neither working nor looking for work. Almost three in five of these men are receiving at least one disability benefit, a factor that Eberstadt concedes may not be driving the phenomenon but is certainly financing it.
We observe, then, the depths of an existential rather than an economic or purely social crisis, with most of these men wasting away for an average of 2,100 hours a year in front of screens, binging on TV, pornography, sugar, and painkillers, no longer feeling that America has a place for their humanity. They don’t do civic society, religion, or volunteerism. If 1965 work rates pertained in the U.S. today, Eberstadt maintains, there would be approximately 10 million more men with paid work than there are now. He professes to find this baffling, given that national wealth has doubled since the turn of the millennium. He expresses similar incomprehension about the fact that, globalization and deindustrialization notwithstanding, this precise syndrome has not afflicted other Western societies to anything like the same extent. He calls it the “quiet catastrophe,” ignored by politicians and commentators.