Dwindling Working Class Signifies a Rent in the Social Fabric

By Peter Stockland
Peter Stockland
Peter Stockland
Peter Stockland is a former editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette and co-founder of Convivium magazine under the auspices of the think tank Cardus. He is also head of strategic communications for Ottawa’s Acacia Law Group.
January 23, 2022Updated: January 23, 2022


During a recent class I took in pursuit of an MA in history, the discussion organically turned to the current academic obsessions of race, gender, and class.

No longer as brash as I was at the age of most of my classmates, I’m safe and happy keeping my mouth shut on the first two. Having grown up emphatically working class, though, I’m willing to venture into that territory the way the Canadian-born walk on ice in winter: prudently yet getting where they want to go.

Why, I asked, do we still use the classification “working class” when a major swathe of its former cohort has been unwillingly replaced by robots, and the surviving few bide time until “progress” turns them into IT technicians who fix the robots? Why, in other words, do we keep fishing out of the dustbin of history a Marxist category that was already losing steam at the end of the 19th century, and was effectively kaput by the turn of the 21st?

Surely, I said, a far more meaningful division today is between those in society who perform for pay and those who pay to watch them. In the Republic of Spectating that we inhabit, prestige, wealth, and power flow to those who are spectated upon. There’s no longer glory or future in knowing what to do, in the immortal words of the ancient Monty Python “Trouble at Mill” sketch, when “one on’t cross beams has gone owt askew on’t treddle.”

The class responded as though I was a heffalump, fresh off the pages of “Winnie the Pooh,” who had just burst into the room reciting Shakespeare in Magyar. Discussion, shall we say, was rapidly re-directed. Yet a story in the Jan. 21 Wall Street Journal reveals that I was at least on to something by standard of coincidental correctness that makes even a stopped clock right twice a day.

In the feature article “The Underside of the ‘Great Resignation,’” writer Mene Ukueberuwa showcases some startling statistics about the multi-generational shift from active work to passive observing. Ukueberuwa’s most shocking number, to me at least, is that in the United States, so-called “non-working men” self-report being “in front of screens 2,000 hours a year”—that’s 5.5 hours out of each waking day, every waking day. It would be 62.5 percent of a standard working day if these men were actually at work.

“It’s like (watching screens) is their job,” he quotes Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist with the American Enterprise Institute.

One of Eberstadt’s research fields is the growing phenomenon, which he explored in the 2016 book “Men Without Work,” of able-bodied males exiting the workforce not because they’re facing a period of unemployment, but because they’ve simply abandoned a belief in work. In the United States, labour force participation for “prime age men” was at 96.9 percent. By November of 2021, it had dropped to 88.2 percent. Or as Ukueberuwa re-states it: “Almost one in eight men is sitting out his best years.”

In fact, the United States has now been overtaken by the European Union in terms of work rate for “prime age” participation, male and female. Yes. The EU. Think Italy. Think France.

There’s a multiplicity of causes for declining work, some of it obviously demographic as the population ages. Some of it is clearly technological. Economic cycles also play a role. But, currently, a shortage of work isn’t a cause given the pandemic frenzy to find someone, anyone, to do the jobs that desperately need doing. Overly rich government COVID support schemes might make a short-term contribution, but don’t explain the “straight line drop” since 1961 in willingness to take a job and do it.

More distressing than numbers and causality is Eberstadt’s finding, drawing on a Time Use Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that these idle men “don’t ‘do’ civil society” as their parents did. “Their time spent helping in the home, spent in worship – a whole range of activities, they just aren’t doing,” he is quoted.

That determination signifies something more than a workplace problem at play. It signals a gaping hole appearing in our history itself that can’t be ignored in favour of fashionable academic fixations about race, gender, and class. It signifies a rent in the social fabric between those who feel entitled to take part, and those for whom active participation means merely watching what appears on screen.

Years ago, comedian Jerry Seinfeld presaged the sheer confusion caused by such a divide when he professed bafflement at sports fans who shout “We won, we won” when their team is victorious. “No,” Seinfeld said. “They won. You watched.”

It’s actually worse. They won. You watched. We all lost.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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