What George Will calls America's "quiet catastrophe" is as striking as his recent Washington Post op-ed claims it is.
After 88 consecutive months of economic expansion that began June 2009, a smaller percentage of American males in the prime working years (ages 25 to 54) are working than were working near the end of the Great Depression in 1940, when the unemployment rate was above 14 percent.What that means, or so it seems to me, is that even though "unemployment," as traditionally defined, is far lower than it was when seven years ago, the percentage of American men who are not working today is greater significantly than it was at the end of the Great Depression. Thousands of American men are unemployed, not because there are no jobs, but for other reasons.
That's new and that's news.
George Will opens up a study by Nicholas Eberstadt, "Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis," which, Will says, opens up this startling phenomenon.
Startlingly--almost unbelievably--32 percent of American males simply choose not to have a job. They choose not to work. [Seriously--stop reading and think about that amazing statistic.] Almost a third of American males choose to stay home and watch TV and movies. (The study shows that their five hours every day doubles the two hours those who are unemployed and actually seeking work spend in front of the screen.)
Who are these men?
J.D. Vance's much-heralded new book tells the abject story of his hillbilly boyhood in scenes so unrelentingly regrettable that it's a miracle he emerged whole from the groggy miasma of his mother's multiple dependencies. Hillbilly Elegy is reality TV without commercials, worse because the story it tells is not managed. His family is the car wreck you stare at even when you'd rather not see.
But Hillbilly Elegy made headlines and brought J. D. Vance into the national spotlight because his life story documents, after a fashion, the very phenomenon "Men Without Work" seeks to have America understand. Vance brings us face to face with people who are angry about what they believe life's handed them, but make no particular effort to relieve their own squalor.
What makes both J. D. Vance and the Eberstadt study so fascinating--and distressing--is that our tired political answers don't answer anything. We're not talking about lazy bums living off the public dole. Will would like to make it an argument against food stamps, but he knows himself that welfare isn't the evil here.
Liberals would love to view these folks romantically, somehow unable to keep three kids fed healthily and in school clothes. And, like it or not, the answer, Eberstadt concludes, is not simply more or better education: "The collapse of work for modern American's men happened despite considerable upgrades in educational attainment."
This dilemma has no tried-and-true conservative or liberal answers. Sorry. It's altogether new. It's related, people say, to two societal trends documented elsewhere: distrust in any forms of institutional life--church or school or even family; plus what some call "the infantalization" of our culture--a people reluctant to accept traditional adult roles like husband and father.
People who can somehow get by and therefore simply choose not to work.
Will and Vance help some of us at least understand the strange phenomenon happening all around, people clamoring to get aboard the Trump bandwagon, despite the fact that the man could well have done what he imagined right here at Dordt College, when he told America he could shoot a man dead on Broadway and his people would still love him.
Will's conservative credentials are impeccable, but he is definitely in the "not Trump" camp. "Donald Trump," Will says in his op-ed, "is perhaps perverse evidence that some of his army of angry men are at least healthily unhappy about the loss of meaning, self-esteem and masculinity that is a consequence of chosen and protracted idleness."
Vance describes some of the men in his neighborhoods as true believers in the whole American dream, people passionately patriotic, who don't do much at all but crow about it. Vance calls the societal problem "cultural detachment," despite the fact that--and here's the paradox--that they seem entirely in love with "the red, white, and blue."
In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance says a man he knew showed up at a bar one night and told him he'd quit working at his job because "he was sick of waking up early." Later, Vance writes, "I saw him complaining on Facebook about the 'Obama economy.'" Vance, who is clearly a political conservative, says, "I don't doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not one of them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he's made, and his life will improve only through better decisions."
Whether the new POTUS is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton makes no difference. What our entire society will face is problems created by the "quiet catastrophe" of willful unemployment, by people who somehow simply choose not to work.