Browsing The Northern Cross

Faith in the Public Arena: The crisis of men without work

There is a growing deficit of men in the workforce.

According to government data, more than seven million American men between the ages of 25 and 54, the traditional prime of working life, are not even looking for a job. The U.S. now ranks second-to-last among developed nations in the rate of adult men in the workforce, thanks to a steady 13 percent decline over the past 50 years.

Jonathan Liedl
Jonathan Liedl
Faith in the Public Arena

The potential impact of this trend has economists sounding the alarm, but Pope Francis has also drawn attention to its spiritual and social consequences. It robs people of hope, he says, and squanders “their great resources of energy, creativity, and vision.”

Overcoming the crisis of young men without work is a cultural challenge, and is part of a broader crisis of manhood. But public policy also has a role to play. By fostering opportunities for wider economic participation, we can help more men get back to work and live lives consistent with their God-given human dignity.

A ‘fundamental dimension’

Pope St. John Paul II puts it plainly in “Laborem Exercens”: “Work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth.” While work can take on any number of forms (including work done in the home and nursery), we are all called to it. Work is an act of co-creation with God that involves and develops our creativity, rationality, and personality — those distinctively human gifts. Therefore, in the words of John Paul, when man works he “achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’”

We also work as an act of solidarity with the wider community. As John Paul says, “Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history.” Through work, we make a gift of self to others.

Men without work

In recent times, most men have worked outside the home. Therefore, opting out of the workforce has closed many men off to a primary opportunity for work, seriously crippling their capacity for both human development and self-gift.

One startling statistic illustrates clearly these debilitating effects. Nicholas Eberstadt, the author of “Men Without Work,” estimates that non-working men have an extra 2,150 hours of free time per year. But instead of using this time to serve others in their family or community, the data shows that non-working men spend much of it sleeping, engaging in self-care, or relaxing, which includes five and half hours of media consumption per day. Darker self-indulgent habits, such as pornography and drug use, also occur with greater frequency.

Deprived of the human formation that work provides, many men give in to their worst impulses instead of cultivating their most noble gifts. Cut off from the opportunity to serve others through work, many men turn inward instead of making a gift of self. Men need work to be thriving, selfless citizens.

Expanding economic participation

So how can public policy help address the “men without work” crisis?

For one, we can do a better job of connecting men with the work that is available. One puzzling aspect of the men without work crisis is that it is largely voluntary; many non-working men choose not to work, despite the availability of jobs, some that even pay quite well. In fact, the Star Tribune reported on July 5 that Twin Cities builders are struggling to find skilled workers to fill any number of decent-paying positions.

One problem is that our education system has imposed a one-size-fits-all approach to workforce preparation. Four-year university degrees are over-prioritized and, as a result, many men are ill-equipped — or uninterested — in blue collar jobs that, until recently, appealed to their demographic. A greater emphasis on vocational training at an earlier age could help connect men with these enriching work opportunities.

We can also incentivize businesses to more directly reach out to non-working men with jobs and training opportunities, especially those reintegrating into society after serving a prison sentence. Special attention must also be given to stagnant wages; men raising a family must be able to access work that pays a living wage.

The “men without work” problem has deep cultural and spiritual roots. But through public policy that expands and encourages economic participation, we can help more men get back to work, and back to answering God’s call to co-creation.

Jonathan Liedl is communications manager for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.