What if we have a booming economy and nobody shows up?
The labor market is tight as employers scramble to find workers. Too many jobs are chasing too few workers. The official narrative is that the crisis is caused by the "Great Resignation," a move in which workers are resigning in record numbers to seek more lucrative employment elsewhere. With the economy roaring back from the pandemic, companies are trying to lure them back with higher wages and benefits. Thus, the whole affair can be reduced to an economic problem of labor supply and demand.
The left proposes a major stimulus package to provide better jobs and benefits. New infrastructure projects will bring back more people and resolve the labor crisis.
Jobs are not a problem now. The present labor market consists of some ten million job openings, two jobs for every job-seeker. All people have to do is show up. The most urgent issue is those who are not showing up. Vast numbers of Americans are not even interested in participating. This problem is beyond economics. It's a moral problem of those who have disconnected themselves from society and the economy.
Plunging Labor-Force Participation Rates
Already before the COVID crisis, the labor market suffered from a huge sector of workers who refused to show up. The unemployment statistics reflect only those who are actively looking for work. Those who have given up the search or made other arrangements do not count.
That is why the present unemployment rate is so low, and the number who don't work is so high. Since August 2020, the labor force participation rate has been stuck at a stubborn 62% of the population. It is 1.5 points below pre-pandemic levels and also below Great Depression rates. People are not showing up to work!
Economists are apprehensive about the vast number of able-bodied men in their prime working age dropping out and weighing down the economy and society. The exodus is straining social services and harming family life.
Why Men Are Absent
It's not the quality of the work but the will to labor that is at stake. It involves the character-strengthening effect of work upon individuals. All the stimulus money in the world would not be enough to fix the problem. In fact, it can make the situation worse.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute who has long studied the waning of the labor market. His 2016 book, Men Without Work, looks at the causes behind the drastic decline in labor force participation, which peaked at 67 percent in 2000.
His findings do not reflect well upon this nonworking public, especially men.
Men are dropping out of the workforce in great numbers. In his book, Dr. Eberstadt estimated that a veritable army of ten million able-bodied men is absent from duty. These men are casualties of a cultural shift that has hit them hard and steered them away from their traditional role of providers.
Some reasons for the diminishing ranks include the opioid crisis, a videogame slacker culture, and the stigmatization of traditionally male jobs like construction. Others rely on parents, wives, and friends to keep them afloat. Eberstadt also notes the suspicious rise in the number of working-age Americans receiving federal disability payments, which doubled from 2.2% in 1977 to 4.3% in 2020.
What Do They Do With Their Time?
Instead of working, many men simply stay home and do nothing. One government report claims that the idlers spend a lot of time "watching." They watch lots and lots of hours on screens of every size and shape. Some spend as many as 2,000 hours a year, almost like a full-time job. Streaming movies, videogames, and social media fill their days.
COVID has made matters worse by facilitating sitting around and watching. Before COVID, some of these men at least had menial part-time jobs. The flood of benefits and transfer payments from COVID aid packages gave many an excuse to do nothing.
"We did a limited dress rehearsal for a universal basic income," Eberstadt reports on the 18 months of COVID benefits that discouraged working. People got the idea that government has infinite resources to sustain them in their idleness.
Dropping Out of Civil Society
Even worse, workless men are not engaged in civil society, thus not contributing to the common good. This workless sector is narcissistically self-absorbed. Rarely are these working-age men involved in volunteer work, religious worship, family activities, or public forums.
"By and large, nonworking men don't 'do' civil society," Eberstadt says in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "Their time spent helping in the home, their time spent in worship — a whole range of activities, they just aren't doing."
Had America maintained labor participation rates of the early part of the century, Eberstadt believes that thirteen million more jobs would be filled today. There would be no labor shortage, and the economy would be much healthier.
The sad fact is that once people are paid to do nothing, it is difficult to get them working again.