Bryan Caplan  

Great Stagnation or Great Vacation?

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Keynesians have long mocked their critics as people who believe that the Great Depression was really a "Great Vacation."  Charles Murray's new book makes a decent case that working class men have indeed taken a Great Vacation over the last couple of decades.  He approvingly quotes Aguiar and Hurst: between 1985 and 2005...
[M]en who had not completed high school increased their leisure time by eight hours per week, while men who had completed college decreased their leisure time by six hours per week.
Murray remarks:
[T]he worst results were found among men without jobs.  In 2003-5, men who were not employed spent less time on job search, education, and training, and doing useful things around the house than they had in 1985.  They spent less time on civic and religious activities.  They didn't even spend their leisure time on active pastimes such as exercise, sports, hobbies, or reading... How did they spend that extra leisure time? Sleeping and watching television.  The increase in television viewing was especially large - from 27.7 hours per week in 1985 to 36.7 hours in 2003-5...

To sum up: There is no evidence that men without jobs in the 2000s before the 2008 recession hit were trying hard to find work but failing.
Murray concludes that working class males have simply become less industrious.  Quite plausible, though he neglects a strong alternative explanation.  Namely: Female income has greatly increased, and men with low status jobs are "inferior goods" in the mating market.  As a result, the demand to date and marry such men has sharply declined.  The average guy with a low-status job is only modestly more dateable in women's eyes than the average guy with no job at all.  Men respond by either working much harder to become "superior goods," or saying "Why bother?" and giving up.  On this account, working class men are acting less industriously even though their preferences are no less industrious than they used to be.

What do you think?


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
effem writes:

I'm pretty sure the number of overweight women has risen right along with the number of poor men. Seems like it should be a wash.

In a system where upward mobility is hard to attain (despite the "American Dream") i'd say "giving up" is fairly normal.

OneEyedMan writes:

Given that they don't spend more time on exercise, sports, and hobbies, women would also have to not care about healthier or more interesting men either. Watching lots of extra TV and sleeping more sounds like (but obviously isn't always) depression, not leisure.

Nathan Smith writes:

The decline of gender complementarity and its effect on male labor force participation is an interesting topic. Not one that's safe to discuss quite openly though.

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "working class men have indeed taken a Great Vacation over the last couple of decades"

This sentence is a stark reminder of what a travesty the term "working class" is. If there were any justice, "working class" would refer to all employed people, and especially workaholic tycoon CEOs.

Michael Cust writes:

You're absolutely right. Women are hypergamous. With feminism having raising their status, they find far fewer men attractive. Low status men have lost their incentive to be industrious -- access to a vagina. Women don't find them attractive even if they work.

Doug writes:

The quality and quantity of available television has increased tremendously in the past few decades. Could this be a plausible explanation of why people are dropping out of the labor force?

Do people simply become less industrious when they have the entire season of their favorite television shows easily available on Netflix? Is this effect especially pronounced among the lower classes who lower future time orientation?

Might the "OnDemand" model of entertainment simply be too tantalizing and enjoyable to freely be available to the lower classes? (Much like how drug laws are based on hard drugs being too enjoyable to be freely and easily available.) Might we have to pass laws forcing a return to scheduled and rationed entertainment.

Josh writes:

If the income of women has increased, couldn't it be that men married to women who make enough to support the family have reduced incentive to work? In a sense, men and women have reversed roles over the past 40 years in such a scenario - the man's income is now gravy.

I always wonder that about recent recessions. In the past, a non-working wife often wasn't considered unemployed. But today, such a non-working spouse of any gender is counted as unemployed. But the incentive to take crappy jobs is the same for both time periods, ie low.

joeftansey writes:

There's going to be a massive split in the population between those who succumb to the "diseases of affluence" and those who rise above and flourish.

The philosophy of Nietzsche will prove appealing to those who believe that enough Will To Power can cure depression and sloth. In reality, humanity's greatest advances have come from doing the right work, not the hardest work.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Here is an idea:

Let's simplify an idea of men have higher variance in ability than women. So there are 3 types of people in increasing order of productivity:
Low productivity men
Average productivity women
High productivity men

People are all paired one man with one woman. Each couple must produce both house-care and outside-work. Now, the returns to productivity in house-care is a logarithmic function. Making the house hygenic, having the children well educated and ensuring the food is prepared such that nobody gets sick are supremely important. But the returns eventually diminish. Past a certain point, keeping the house cleaner didn't make much sense. In that situation, the low productivity males are low and far from the asymptote, the average women almost read the asymptote and the high productivity males are very close to the asymptote. On the other hand, the returns to outside work are proportional to productivity.

But now comes technology which does a couple of things. First, in house-work, vaccum cleaners, schools, washing machines etc mean that everyone is close to the asymptote. On the other hand, technology means you now get increasing returns to productivity.

So what happens? Well, the low productivity males get put at home where even a little bit of productivity will get us very close to the max we can get out of it, while their average productivity wives go work outside.

On the other hand, the composition for high-productivity marriages doesn't change much in the model. So you need a different story to explain that one.

Tom West writes:

Women are hypergamous.

Oh brother. Can we have any statistics that confirm a massive change in women's behavior with regard to mate selection?

Marriage and cohabitating rates haven't declined precipitously, nor have the number of sexual partners of either men or women changed a huge amount in recent years.

If there's been any movement towards hypergamy (and there may be some slight change), it's massively overshadowed by a huge increase in the number of men claiming "women are hypergamous" :-).

This is not even mentioning the silliness of trying to claim a majority of women as having any single given behavior. Humans are a pretty diverse lot.

Jason writes:

I wouldn't have put the Great Depression in the post, it was way to sudden to be explained by changing preferences or a story similar to the one you tell.

Curt Doolittle writes:

The use of aggregates help the Keyensians reinforce their illusion of equality in everything. If we captured enough data by individual, everyone would be an Austrian.

Society is bi-modal: The lower middle class and up. The upper proletariat and down.

Michael Cust writes:

Tom,

lol Women are hypergamous, meaning they desire status -- and there is a great deal of research to bear it out. It's how they've evolved. It's not a new development. And, yes, it's universal. Much as men desire beauty. It's evolved and universal.

Marriages are failing at higher rates, women's happiness in marriage is declining, and instances of mental health problems in women have increased -- all since the 1970s when second-wave feminism became dominant and women gained social equality. What that development has done is make the men around them less attractive and therefore they're less happy.

The eye-rolls toward these insights of evolutionary psychology among the feminist-minded are not unlike the libertarian reaction to climate change, the conservative reaction to evolutionary biology, or the progressive reaction to economics. In each case, a science is denounced because it's findings conflict with the given group's values. Problematically for these value-groups, values have no bearing on the findings of positive sciences.

Mercer writes:

Tom West said:

"Marriage and cohabitating rates haven't declined precipitously,"

Murray claims that the percentage of married low class whites went from 84 in 1960 to 48 in 2010. What rate of decline would you say is precipitous?

Greg G writes:

I think the idea that experiencing unemployment is like experiencing a vacation is preposterous.

Maybe even more preposterous than the idea that getting women might be the only reason many men want jobs.

Adam writes:

High tax rates for two-income, low income households may also increase the disincentive to work and marry. From the Employment Institute:

"as wages rise, the working parent in this example faces substantial tax rate effects that claim between 58% and 109% of the next dollar she earns from a full-time job [or marries]..., such massive effective tax rates are the result of rapid-fire changes in means-tested federal tax credits, Food Stamp and Medicaid benefits, housing subsidies and welfare payments." Brackets added.

Richard writes:

It seems to me certainly plausible that if

A) Women evolved to find higher status men more attractive and
B) Women's status in society is increasing vis-a-vis men

then...

C) Women will find fewer men attractive

There will thus be less marriage in society, and fewer successful heterosexual relationships.

I think B is indisputable and A is too, with caveats and exceptions of course.

Would we all be happier if women were banned from working? I tend to say no, generally speaking, the more choices the better. But I can see how someone could come to the opposite conclusion.

Michael Cust writes:

Richard,

We don't need to ban women from work -- that's illiberal and extreme. All we need to do is end special protections in law that artificially reduce male status relative to female status, such as guaranteed maternity benefits, equal division of the man's income at divorce, etc. Rescinding laws that obstruct the sexual division of labour will make men sexier to women by raising their social staus.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Michael,
I agree. Especially, the laws that allow people to divorce without ever settling their property till someone dies need to go away. Now.

mike shupp writes:

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Mr. Econotarian writes:

There also are more men being incarcerated today and living with the stigma of criminal conviction.

65 million Americans (around 1 in 4) have an arrest or conviction that shows up in a routine criminal background check (data from The National Employment Law Project).

Richard writes:

Michael, I was being somewhat facetious. Of course there's a spectrum: special preferences for women to libertarianism to preferences for men.

In addition to what you mentioned, there's affirmative action for women and government employment, which disproportionately employs women. Without coercive feminist policies, I wonder how much "equality" we would have achieved.

Will writes:

I posit another explanation- the portrait of men sleeping and watching TV all day is a portrait of fairly severe depression.

Is it possible that with work harder to find, more men passed from searching for work into giving-up/depression?

Evan writes:

@Michael Cust

You're absolutely right. Women are hypergamous. With feminism having raising their status, they find far fewer men attractive. Low status men have lost their incentive to be industrious -- access to a vagina. Women don't find them attractive even if they work.
The most important insight of ev-psych, one that popularizations of it tend to miss, is that organisms are adaptation-executors, not fitness maximizers. Evolution is very subtle. It didn't program us to want to undertake actions that spread our genes, it programmed us do want to do things that happened to spread our genes in the AE, without really knowing why.

What evolution did was program men to desire status without really knowing why, and then program women to be attracted to high-status men, again without really knowing why. There certainly are men who notice the correlation between high status and attractiveness and attempt to gain high status to get sex. But generally most people desire status as an end in itself. I think that this observation poses a problem for Bryan's account as well.

Now, a modified version of your and Bryan's stories might still work. It could be that the increased status of women has made it more difficult for men to gain status (since status is often a zero-sum game). For that reason men who perceive themselves as having poor odds at gaining high status through work might decide to give up, as they think the odds are stacked against them. And more and more men are not working, as the odds stack higher and higher. This seems somewhat plausible to me.

ohwilleke writes:

"There also are more men being incarcerated today and living with the stigma of criminal conviction."

Good point. Incarcation rates have gone from negligable to non-negligable, and one's odds of incarceration fall by something on the order of a factor of twenty simply by getting any college degree, even a two year degree. Even people with college degrees who have moderate to severe mental health problems are very unlikely to go to prison.

Much of this is simple economics. The vast majority of crime that results in someone being sent to prison is motivated by a desire to earn a better income, either directly (e.g. by drug dealing or major theft or robbery), or indirectly (e.g. with drug gang or burglary related violent crime). People who have the potential to earn decent money at straight jobs don't take the risks necessary to make surprising unimpressive and unreliable incomes from crime. The average bank robbery nets $5,000 and almost nobody manages to pull one off every month for a full year, and almost all other forms of property crime net less per felony on average. Low level drug deals net incomes on a par with car salesmen at much greater risk of exposure to gang violence, being cheated without recourse and incarceration.

Once your a felon, your job prospects are close to nil and you are even banned from many forms of self-employment.

Michael Cust writes:

Evan,

I'm afraid I don't see much insight in bringing up that distinction. It's value rests on the assumption that I was imputing conscious awareness of these evolved desires to people. But I was doing nothing of the sort.

Tom West writes:

Michael Cust:

Marriages are failing at higher rates, women's happiness in marriage is declining, and instances of mental health problems in women have increased

The problem with evo-bio explanations is that they're essentially just-so stories. They provide a narrative that people crave that happens to fit the facts, if that.

I'd probably be slightly more sympathetic to the whole 'women are hypergamous' if it wasn't inextricably linked to the men's whining (sorry, "game") movement that claims in the last 10-15 years, everything has changed. Except that statistically in the last 10-15 years, it hasn't (at least 2-3 years ago when I last cared enough to refute the claims).

Problematically for these value-groups, values have no bearing on the findings of positive sciences.

You know, I think that's what *really* bothers me. I like throwing out conjectures and debating them with the best of them. After all, I love a good narrative as much as the next person. However, I don't try and pretend that *my* conjectures are "science".

dr. john writes:

Just a personal observation. I naively thought during med school in the '70s that I'd be secure enough in later life to spend time pursuing outdoor sports of hunting and fishing. I've found that guys who really get to spend prime time in those leisure pursuits are the maintenance guys at my hospital. They schedule their vaction time to participate. I spend all of my time trying to survive government mandates and insurance hassles, both very expensive propositions. Joke's on me.

Daniel DeCamp writes:

dr. john,

Maybe if we had a national health care system, like most developed countries, and we didn't have a government whose law makers look out for big business interests to the detriment of the country as a whole, you could have more of that leisure time you desire.

Dean writes:

Regarding the mistaken belief that women have evolved to desire status:

At best, it could be argued that women have evolved to desire the better "hunter" and people who are richer are today's replacement for "hunters."

From Michael:
"We don't need to ban women from work -- that's illiberal and extreme."
It's shocking that you would criticize a policy as illiberal and then recommend several extremely illiberal (or bigoted, at Merriam Webster would suggest as an alternative word) policies. Amongst your beliefs seems to be the idea that the male status is not already artificially inflated or women's status artificially deflated and thus in need of correction.

"All we need to do is end special protections in law that artificially reduce male status relative to female status, such as guaranteed maternity benefits,"
I'm unsure how, exactly this would benefit society other than lowering the status of women back to a previous position. Perhaps, if limiting the "artificial reduction of male status" is the goal, you should be fighting for paternity leave. Thus allowing for the crucial first months of a baby's life to be spent with both parents, instead of fighting for it to be spent with neither.

"equal division of the man's income at divorce, etc."
The traditional arrangement is that the women foregoes outside income in order to raise a family while men earn income to support the family. If this is the arrangement, then it is only fair that women are compensated for giving up their careers to raise a family.

"Rescinding laws that obstruct the sexual division of labour will make men sexier to women by raising their social status."
Trying to convince women that they once again belong barefoot in the kitchen will not work. Your policies suggest women should be unable to have a family and work by being required quit their jobs upon becoming pregnant. They also suggest women are unable to divorce men they no longer love for fear that they will be left destitute and unlovable will not make men sexier.

Illiberal indeed.

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