Thursday, September 22, 2016

Where have all the young men gone?

I went to listen to the president give his annual state-of-the-college address.  He, like most educators these days, talked about how student enrollment growth is critical for the fiscal future of the university.  He used phrases that one would hear from a factory owner: production, products, pipeline, and--of course--how more students mean more money.  There was no detailed presentation, however, on how well the products (graduates) are selling!

Despite repeating the flat--or even a negative growth--enrollment scenario, the president talked in plenty about the new building construction that has been completed, and another that will soon begin.  How is it that people with PhDs do not see the contradiction in massively increasing capacity even when knowing well that the demand won't be there?  Was there a KoolAid drink that I missed sipping?

Was I also the only one who thought it was yet another profound evidence when the president said that female students accounted for 65 percent of the incoming freshman class?  From 55-45, to 60-40, we have now reached 65-35.  Amazing.  Simply astounding.  What is this evidence for?  It adds more to the 'save the males" that I have been talking and writing about for almost two decades now.

Teenage boys and young men are simply not understanding that the world has changed rapidly in the past two decades.
For low-skilled men in their 20s, employment rates have fallen by about 10 percentage points over the last 15 years—from 82 percent in 2000 to only 72 percent in 2015. This decline is staggering. You might think it’s matched by a rise in school attendance for this age group. That is not the case.
The following may be the most shocking number I give you today: in 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months. Think about that for a second.
Yes, think about all that data. Take more than a second.  Take ten minutes.  In fact, you should ponder those data for a long, long time.  One in five young men between the ages of 21 and 30 had not worked (for wages) over the 12 months.  One in five!

If you are a thinker--and you are; after all, you are here reading this--your immediate question is: "If they are not working, where do these young, low-skilled men live?"

You have an answer, right?  And you are correct about that:
In 2014, 70 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s without a job lived with a parent or close relative.
Are you now beginning to have a little bit of an anxiety? Perhaps a tinge of panic?  If so, hold on to something, and get a brown-bag if you are beginning to hyperventilate.
If they are not working, how do these young men eat? We—the parents and relatives—feed them. When they are in our basements, they come up for food from time to time and raid our refrigerators. I have no information on whether or not they are showering.
Are these young, nonworking, lower-skilled men who are living in their parents’ basements married? You may be surprised to hear this: they are not. The age of marriage is increasing for this group. In summary, these younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives.
There is an interesting twist to all this.  You ready for that?
If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being—surveys that ask people to assess their overall level of happiness—lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s. This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.
Those young men are happy.  The parents and close relatives hosting these young men might not be happy, but that is another story!

They are happy now. Yes. But, how about life after 30?
There is some evidence that these young, lower-skilled men who are happy in their 20s become much less happy in their 30s and 40s. They haven’t accumulated on-the-job skills because they spent their 20s idle. Many eventually get married and have kids. When this happens, living in their parents’ basements is no longer a viable option. Playing video games does not put food on their tables. It’s a bad combination: low labor demand plus the accumulated effects of low labor supply makes economic conditions for these aging workers pretty bleak.
These labor-market outcomes affect many facets of society. They affect the take-up rates of government transfer programs. They may explain voting patterns for certain candidates in recent periods. There is rising evidence that lower-skilled workers in their 30s and 40s are increasing their drug use. We have also seen increased suicide rates for lower-skilled workers in middle age. The effects of changing technology on the labor markets of lower-skilled workers will likely have repercussions within the US economy for years to come.
When I yell about the urgency to re-write the social contract, to find alternative outlets for testosterone, to figure out ways in which we can help people be productive if they don't want to, or are not suited for, college, well, all those are not random independent issues.  Nope.  These are all inter-related issues that require a great deal of our time and energy.  Our time and energy as in all of us.  And for that, in a democracy, we need leaders who understand these nuances, help shape the conversations, and work out strategies for collective action.  Ain't gonna happen in the democracy that we have and the one that we will wake up to on November 9th :(

Oh, btw, if you thought all the quotes were excerpted from some left-wing nutcase's rants, ahem, it is from as academically rigorous right-wing economics as you can possibly get--Erik Hurst is an economics professor at the University of Chicago.  So, when a U. of Chicago economics/business professor says all those, well, you ought to be scared shitless by now.


Mike Hoth said...

The low-skill worker isn't the only one at risk. My wife and I both graduated in June, and we've had a combined 3 job interviews since. She got a degree in a field that is supposedly desperate for new blood, but we still live with my father. She graduated cum laude, I got close and had an internship in my field, but there are no jobs closer than Denver or LA for either of us. Most young people don't want to throw their friends and possessions away for a job that might become a career. That's what we're offered, and so many of my peers choose to play the waiting game.

Anne in Salem said...

Perhaps I am cynical, but in reading the statistics, I went to motivation. Are these young men trying to get jobs? Are they trying to learn skills? Do these men have an entitled attitude - they are entitled to a dream job, earning lots of money, right from the start, rather than working their way up? Are they willing to do fifty oil changes every day because they have to put in the time to learn skills and business and management before they become the boss?

I'm not surprised they are a happy group. No responsibilities, unlimited free time, no expenses. What's to cause unhappiness?

I am certain the ones who are unhappy are the ones trying to get jobs and get out of Mom's basement - the ones willing to put in the effort, the ones who want to contribute to society, the ones who want to be adults. I wonder what percentage of the group they are. How rare are Mike and his wife?

"Figure out ways in which we can help people be productive." That sounds like leading a horse to water and trying to make him drink. We can't help someone be productive if he doesn't want to be productive. What do you have in mind?

Sriram Khé said...

I wish you and your wife well, Mike. It might take a little bit longer, especially if you two do not want to live in different geographic areas for the sake of your jobs.

Anne, the feeling of "entitlement" exists in every demographic group that we can think of. The young men that this post is about are not that different from the rest of us when feeling entitled to the comforts of life.
As I have noted in many, many posts before this one, there are plenty of forces at play, creating a context in which the young find themselves. Even the literal example of oil change is a great example: thanks to the wonderful level of technology, machines do not need the kind of maintenance like they did in the past, and they do not break down often either. That then eliminates the need for multiple workers at oil change places.
The oil change can also serve as a metaphor for many other technological innovations that have preempted the need for employing people.
At the same time, unlike in the past, large employers are uninterested in hiring young people and investing in training them. The old timers have plenty of such stories to offer. But, not anymore.

You and I fundamentally disagree on how we read the tea leaves: you seem convinced that if the young men (and women too) are unable to find jobs, then it is a problem that they have created for themselves. I, on the other hand, believe otherwise, and have explored them in multiple posts in this blog.

To continue with your "like leading a horse to water", we have been leading them to the holes that don't have any water at all, and we then wonder why those horses are not drinking any water? We--the middle-aged and older ones--need to spend lots and lots of time thinking about how to make sure the young will be productive and happy.

Ramesh said...

Mike - Wish you and your wife well in your quest to balance two careers, be with family and friends and having a rich career. It is rare to find such balanced perspectives and knowledge and insights as you obviously have reading your comments on this blog. An employer who is not actively wooing you simply does not know what he is losing.

I will add some thoughts to the Sriram vs Anne debate. I see merit in both the arguments. Yes, the economic landscape has fundamentally changed for the young white male who is not skilled enough. Yes, its tougher for them. They cannot be just termed scroungers. They deserve some sympathy and support.

But equally, I would not accept that many are doing enough to find their place in the world. Consider the early pioneers who built your great country. Thy came from far away. They went into unknown territories. They braved deprivation and misery. They toiled relentlessly. And they built the US of A that we have all inherited. That spirit is mostly gone. Witness the shortage of labour in US agriculture. Farms cannot get enough Americans to work ; that's why they import Mexicans illegal or otherwise. If I were an unemployed 20 year old and cannot find a job, I would pick fruit, or do whatever, even at low wages rather than sit at home. That's a choice most of those who you have featured in this post do not wish to make.

Sriram Khé said...

Ah, citing history makes things more complicated, Ramesh.
For one, when the economy is simpler, persistence and hard work has immense rewards. In the advanced, sophisticated economic scene, persistence and hard work in niche areas has immense rewards--in the rest, it is increasingly a roll of the dice.
For another, when we cite the industriousness of the old days, we forget that a huge chunk of the country toiled hard but got nothing in return--they were the slaves in plantations and homes and ... so, when we refer to "they braved deprivation and misery" it is far from the whole truth.

The only uncontestable fact is about the farm labor. But there again, we can argue in a different way. if there were no illegal workers, then the farm labor wage rate will be higher--perhaps high enough to induce native-born legals to work there, at least until something better comes along. but then US consumers want lettuce and strawberries to be dirt cheap ... we can't have the proverbial cake and eat it too ...

Anne in Salem said...

Farm labor can make upwards of $30/hour - if they are fast and diligent in their work. Such wages are sustainable if everyone EARNS it rather than being granted that wage by the government. Generally speaking, in the six summers I have spent on the farm, "native-born legals" won't or can't work hard enough to earn that much. Most don't last a week, some as little as a day. There are 60 year old migrant workers who earn three or four times what boys from the local high school earn. The difference is motivation and attitude.

I accept that not all young men are scroungers or lazy or deserving of the tone of my comment, but when one can attend a community college to earn an associates degree in a trade for little to no money (free for high school grads with a B or better average), what is the excuse? Have they been so brainwashed by the "everyone has to go to college to get a good job" crowd that skilled trade isn't good enough any more? Are they unwilling to do manual labor, thinking themselves above that?

Those who are trying, who want to work but can't find the job - the Mikes in this world - definitely deserve sympathy and support. No question. But for those not willing to make the effort, I have trouble generating much sympathy. God helps those who help themselves.

"We--the middle-aged and older ones--need to spend lots and lots of time thinking about how to make sure the young will be productive and happy." Why? The parents of the young should teach them the value of being productive. If that doesn't happen, perhaps a teacher can step in. No one can make another productive or happy. We can change environments - for example with more training - but we cannot make someone more productive or happy. It's not possible.

Sriram Khé said...

Re-read the original post, and the comments here.
I bet you, too, will be mighty impressed with the quality of the discussion.
All of us should pat ourselves on our backs.
If only the discussion among the larger public--and definitely among the politicians--will be at least this good, right?

We are in one hell of a transition time. The answers are not going to be easy.

NPR aired a few minutes ago a segment that fits in well with this discussion:

Posts popular the last 30 days