Work and family are inextricably linked. Both are in deep trouble.
COVID and the policy response to it—lockdowns and large stimulus payments—reduced the workforce. It raised the income and savings of those economically in the lower half of society. It increased the mismatch between the supply of workers and employers’ demand for them.
Well before the pandemic, however, Nicholas Eberstadt shows in his 2016 book “Men Without Work,” there was a Depression-level rate of men without jobs, even with plenty of positions available. These “un-workers,” men of prime working age 25 to 54, were not unemployed, as in looking for work but failing to find it. They were neither in employment nor education or training. They spent the equivalent of a full-time, year-round job, not helping with childcare or housework or being active in civic associations or churches, but in looking at screens. (Researchers did not ask what they were looking at.)
Work and Family
This retreat from work, which began with men of prime working age in 1965, reflected and hastened a decline in the institution of marriage and weakened family structure. Men’s and society’s understanding of marriage as a duty motivated their commitment to the labor force. They worked to support a wife and family.
Boys’ passage to manhood involved a life script. To succeed and stay out of poverty, they followed a success sequence in which young men transitioned from completed high school education to work to “settling down.” Marriage (accompanied by an increase in earnings and a decline in risky behavior) resulted in most cases in children and the work of providing for and raising a family.
Sexual Revolution and Work
The sexual revolution redefined marriage by abandoning what had always and everywhere been its central purpose—of establishing fatherhood as a legal, economic, and social responsibility. The millennia-old and universal institution of marriage supported the best environment for making and raising children so that they and society can flourish.
The revolution of the 1960s and 1970s destigmatized a wide range of sexual behavior that was by its nature sterile, with no capacity to produce children. No-fault divorce ended marriage as a binding contract. The poor and working classes, and later the middle class, increasingly accepted cohabitation, the pill, and non-marital births. Marriage, in short, became the province of the more affluent and educated, seen as a reward for achieving a certain economic success rather than a path to it.
Marriage became less reliable as a source of stability and protection for women and children, as the sexual revolution became more a charter for cads who sought to engage in baby-making activity without its social restrictions and responsibilities.
One result of the decreased dependability of marriage due to the sexual revolution was that women sought and found education and work that would make them and their children less dependent on the men in their lives. They looked to the state rather than to a male breadwinner for economic security.
As they did so, men’s attachment to the labor force and to marriage and family—typically key sources of motivation and meaning in their lives—weakened.
The State as Family Head
One policy response to the plight of single women with children was to replace the absent fathers with the bureaucratic state. Family policy developed that encouraged and enabled women’s ability to work for wages by subsidizing the care of their children by others.
Both work and family get short shrift in this brave new world where the government steps in as family provider. Both a much-mocked Obama campaign tool, the slideshow infographic The Life of Julia (2012), and its Biden campaign’s sequel of 2021, The Life of Linda, portray a fictional single woman at various phases of her life, showing how much better it is due to government policies and programs. It inadvertently depicts a spiritually impoverished world in which the vast social space between individual and state—of marriage, family, and community—has been hollowed out.
As Ben Shapiro puts it, the promise of cradle-to-grave security to single women and their children through government programs “only sounds good in the absence of a cultural alternative: the alternative of a warm home, with husband and children, embedded in community, surrounded by social support of neighbors and friends. All of that is absent from a society in which marriage and family have been eviscerated in the name of a centralized bureaucracy designed to alleviate the burdens of life—but which removes the meaning of life in the process.”
Labor Shortages and the Non-Working
In his 2022 update, six years after “Men Without Work” was first published, Eberstadt notes that the retreat from work he had found in prime working-age men (25 to 54) had expanded to younger men and older men and women. “Where Did Young Male Workers Go?” asks the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board in its review of the Labor Department’s November jobs report.
The combination of non-working adults with unprecedented peacetime labor shortages is often explained as a mismatch of job skills and employers’ needs with the decline of manufacturing. But this may not be the full reason. Nor is the problem a lack of demand for labor like the unemployment of the Great Depression, though its level of worklessness reached comparable heights.
The problem of worklessness, Eberstadt shows, is not simply a matter of a shortage of skills needed for work in the services and health care sectors rather than mining and manufacturing. Many of the prime-age unworking have above-average educational attainment. And in the years of the pandemic, the ranks of the unworking have expanded from prime working-age men to include women and those over 55 years of age.
There’s no shortage of available jobs for workers who don’t need new or advanced skills. Eberstadt explains:
“With more than eleven million unfilled job openings, there is no lack of positions—in retail, leisure, hospitality, construction, and transport, for example. These jobs … do not require extensive skills, apart from the ‘skills’ of showing up to work, regularly and on time, drug free.”
Why does it matter that so many millions of adults, including but not limited to men of prime working age, are not working?
Firstly there’s a loss to the economy as a result of the self-exile of millions of men in what are typically their most productive years.
Such a mass withdrawal from the workforce makes society poorer. It means that millions of those who could add to society’s prosperity and well-being do not do so.
Those absenting themselves from the labor force seem to lack any compensating meaning or purpose in life. They don’t work or look for work, or contribute much to their families, churches, or communities.
They succumb to deaths of despair—from overdoses, suicide, and alcohol-related diseases.
The massively increased incomes and savings that government infusions of cash produced resulted in higher prices while disincentivizing work. As those windfall personal savings are spent down, a recession may lie ahead. Meanwhile, the temporary enrichment via government stimulus masks a deeper impoverishment of life.
Work is a matter of service—to those we serve through our work and those who depend on us for support—as well as of our personal identity. Marriage involves duty and obligations—of spouses to each other, to their families and communities—rather than being limited to subjective feelings and personal fulfillment.
Family policy can help, if it’s revised to support rather than offer a government substitute for marriage and fathers. It needs to be guided by what mothers actually want—they prefer, where possible, time at home with their children to professional childcare when the children are not in school.
That is, family policy shouldn’t subordinate family to the labor market but prioritize the needs of children and the wishes and agency of parents. Without that priority, neither families nor the labor market flourishes.
But the solution to the cultural collapse we face can’t be mainly a matter of government programs and interventions. It requires the revival from below of civil society, the vast social space between the person and the state. This is the work of people in communities joining together in associations that enable them to address problems they can’t solve on their own and rebuild our culture and society in the process.
Families and communities need the support of their productive, working-age members in the labor force and in the home. Government intervention can support but not substitute for the energy, creativity, and caring capacity of communities—their churches and many kinds of formal and informal voluntary associations. As de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who studied America’s democratic system in the 1830s, showed, the art of association, of joining together for common purposes, is the first law of democracy.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.