Rising “Voluntary” Unemployment Among Men

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an interesting story about how men between the ages of 30 and 54 are voluntarily dropping out of work, unable to find a job that interests them, and preferring instead to live at home, doing things that they find more fulfilling. The numbers are hardly insignificant: about 10 percent of men in this age group—roughly 3 million workers—are out of work and not looking for jobs.

The article mostly delves into the causes of this trend—in particular, there’s the decline of stable, unionized jobs, especially in manufacturing and technology, and the unwillingness of those who are laid off to seek work that’s beneath them, preferring instead to pursue other interests. In that case, the fault resides with an economy that’s chiefly creating low-paying, unfulfilling, and overly stressful jobs. There’s also the fact that roughly 2 million men in this age group have prison records, thanks largely to the surge of drug-related convictions in the 1980s and ’90s, and have trouble finding work.

But I also wonder what the effects of this trend might be. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge any 50-year-old who just lost his job and decided it would be more fulfilling to stay at home, reading and tending to the vegetable garden, say, rather than taking an unstable, lower-paying job with mandatory overtime and the constant threat of being fired yet again—especially if he can pay for it with savings and home equity. But considering the economy as a whole, having millions of able-bodied workers leave the workforce in increasing numbers can’t be insignificant.

As Beverly Goldberg points out, those who decide to retire early tend to spend much less—they start cooking at home, moving into cheaper homes, and basically learning to live at subsistence levels. After all, most of these workers aren’t wealthy, living off investments and the like, so they’ll have to scrimp and get by. That’s certainly what those interviewed in the Times article seem to be doing. So what does this trend mean for an economy that’s as dependent on consumer spending as ours? And what about programs such as Medicare and Social Security that depend on having as many working-age people as possible employed and working?

And won’t lower employment-to-population ratios—creating what Marx called a “reserve army of labor”—result in depressed wages and even more uncertain working conditions for those who do still have jobs? That, again, could further increase the number of people who decide that work is no longer fulfilling and retire early—again, scrimping to get by. Then, of course, the cycle repeats. I can’t honestly say whether this is a good or bad thing—in many ways, reduced consumption seems like a net positive, especially from an ecological standpoint—but it certainly seems noteworthy.