Young men in America need a culture-shifting moment that brings an otherwise invisible issue to the forefront of our consciousness.
In an era where we seem to agree on nothing, economist and policy wonks on both ends of the political spectrum have attempted to sound the alarm on the growing issues uniquely impacting young men. From educational attainment to labor force participation, marriage rates, violent crime, and suicides, we are in one of the most troubling periods in American history for men ages 18-34.
A 2016 study commissioned by the Obama White House found that labor force participation among “prime-age” men — those between the ages of 25 and 54 — fell from 98 percent in 1954, to 88 percent today. Nicolas Eberstadt, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, wrote a book on the male labor force crisis in 2016, finding an overall labor force participation drop for men over the age of 20 from 86 percent in 1948, to 68 percent in 2015. Similar research by Alan Krueger, who served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Barack Obama, led him to proclaim that the male labor force is “our biggest social problem.”
Put simply, American men today are significantly less likely to have a job than their generational predecessors.
For men without a college education, declines have been even worse. In 1964, 97 percent of prime-age men with a high school education or less participated in the workforce, virtually the same percentage as their college-educated counterparts. In 2015, 94 percent of prime-age college-educated men were working while those with a high school diploma or less had fallen to 83 percent.
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The stark imbalance in educational attainment between men and women makes this increasingly unsettling. Men account for only 42 percent of college graduates, and approximately the same percentage of currently enrolled students. If trends hold, 2017 will have been the ninth straight year that women have earned more master’s and doctoral degrees than men. As of 2016, more law school students in the United States are women than men for the first time.
Everyone might not “need” a four-year degree, but there are increasingly better opportunities for those men that have one, and fewer opportunities for those that don’t. Even so, many young American men have decided that college isn’t for them.
Many of those same men have decided, perhaps involuntarily, that marriage isn’t for them either. As Ben Sasse noted in his book “The Vanishing American Adult,” in 1968, 56 percent of American men ages 18-31 were married or heads of households. Today, that number is down to approximately 23 percent. Over 30 percent of Americans 18-34 live with their parents, meaning it is more likely for a young man in this group to still live with his parents than live with a spouse.
As one might imagine, the absence of a job, quality education, or spouse has not bred otherwise productive citizens. Multiple studies have found that young men have replaced what would otherwise be working hours with leisure time at a near 1-1 ratio. Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, found that young men spent a startling 75 percent of this leisure time playing video games, with many spending more than 30 hours a week gaming and over 5 million Americans spending more than 45 hours per week.
Higher suicide rates, violent crime, and drug addiction among young men have followed. Suicide rates in the United States are at a 30-year high, with men more than three and a half times more likely to take their own lives than women. Around the United States, violent crimes, homicide in particular, has increased in two-thirds of American cities, with overwhelming young male perpetrators driving the increase. A 2015 Brookings Institute study estimated that nearly half of working-age American men who are out of the labor force are using painkillers, daily.
These problems have been “invisible” for too long.
Data show that this is a long-term trend that needs long-term policy and cultural solutions. Reforming entitlement programs and encouraging educational attainment will help, but as we learned in 2017, maybe nothing is more valuable than stirring a national conversation.
The bipartisan bliss in acknowledging the problem hasn’t bred a healthy rhetoric or satisfactory solutions yet. This year, we should change that.
Jordan Harris is the executive director of the Pegasus Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, privately funded research organization in Louisville.
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