Are fewer men working because of the economy or culture?

by Ryan Streeter on February 21, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Reihan Salam looks at the problem of declining workforce participation among men:

[L]et’s say that the entire population has grown less desperate over time yet that only some people have grown less interested in working, i.e., let’s say that there is an achievement-oriented minority that for whatever reason — the discovery of novel, stimulating challenges; an attraction to tournaments and positional competition, etc. — has not only grown less interested in working but that has grown more interested in working, particularly performance-based compensation represents a higher share of its total compensation. Isn’t it obvious that this will tend to magnify income and wealth dispersion?

He’s responding to Matt Yglesias’s claim that the declining percentage of working-age men in the workforce is a natural outflow of progress: more women are working, and it’s easier than it used to be for guys to do things other than work.

Both writers seem to focus on the more, rather than less, affluent. The more education you have, the more options you’ve got, and the easier it is to be under-employed. It’s also more likely you’re married to a working woman, and you might have more time for cleaning the house and shuttling the kids to school. But the question about why so many guys farther down the ladder aren’t working as much as they used to is still something of a mystery.

Some of this is economic and has to do with the massive forces of change we’ve seen over the past generation. To Yglesias’s point, women have won the battle of the sexes, and men are paying a price at all levels along the income spectrum.

As Hanna Rosin wrote in August 2010, the “end of men” can be found not only in the fact that young women are getting more degrees and jobs than men, but in the reality that men only a fraction of the fastest-growing occupations favor men’s latent or historical advantage.

But there’s still an uncomfortable reality out there, one that we might sum up thus: lower-skilled American men weren’t exactly arm-wrestling illegal Mexican immigrants for all those jobs we hear people begrudge the illegals for taking. Why haul mulch or swing hammers or prune fruit trees if you can find part-time gigs here and there, live with mom and dad or your brother, and have more time for video games?

I’m not sure that’s the progress that Yglesias celebrates. But there are a lot of young men with lower skills and education levels who live that way. And it’s a contributing factor to the dropping employment-to-population ratios that we could all do well to understand better than we do. What if this has much less to do with the way the economy is shaking out than with the values of vocation and aspiration that are instilled through mediating cultural forces – such as fathers, who are increasingly absent, or schools or churches?