What Are Young Non-Working Men Doing?

Older men without a college degree are the core of Trump’s constituency. Perhaps it’s worth seeing how their younger selves are doing now.

Ina Fassbender / Reuters

In February 2011, the Washington Post published a survey it conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University on the U.S. economy. Although black and Hispanic families were hurt by the Great Recession, it was the "non-college whites" who held the darkest view of the country. These men used to the the backbone of an economy built by brawn and rooted in manufacturing jobs. But now, nostalgic and despondent in equal measure, more than half said that America’s best days were past, and 43 percent said "hard work and determination are no guarantees of success.”

The survey feels portentous now that the category of “non-college whites” has become the core demographic of Donald Trump’s astonishingly strong coalition. Trump’s support is driven by racism, xenophobia, and other varieties of cultural unease, but it is also a reflection of a lost generation of men, enraged and adrift in an economy where a college degree is one of the few dependable life rafts.

Non-college men in their 40s and older are shocking the country with their turn toward nationalism. But what’s the situation among non-college men under 35?

If good, steady, well-paying work is the key to any person’s economic satisfaction, there are several reasons to be nervous about the upcoming generation. Since 2000, the labor-force participation rate of young men without a college degree has declined more than any other age-and-gender group. Since the turn of the century, the participation rate of 16-to-24-year olds with just a high-school degree has fallen 10 points to about 70 percent; for those without even a high-school degree, it's fallen 20 points, to 30 percent. Some of this drop is attributable to rising college attendance. But not all of it. Nine percent of Americans between 20 and 24 are neither in school, work, or training.

Labor Force Participation Rate by Age and Education

So where do these men live? What are they doing all day?

The answer to the first question seems to be that more of them are living at home. For the first time since at least the 1940s, young men are more likely to be living with their parents than with romantic partners. In 2014, 35 percent of young men between 18 and 34 lived with their parents, compared to just 28 percent who lived with a spouse. It's not the cost of college or the weight of student loans alone that is forcing young people to stay home. Young adults without a high-school or college degree are far more likely to live with their parents. For young black men, this trend is hardly new; even in 1980, they were more likely to live with their parents than with a spouse or girlfriend.

As for what they’re doing all day, Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, is now conducting research that suggests that non-college men who aren’t in the labor market are spending a considerable amount of their time in front of screens. Here is how Hurst explained his preliminary findings in a “Faculty Spotlight” profile on the University of Chicago’s website, as noted by the economist Tyler Cowen on his blog:

In the 2000s, employment rates for young men with less than a four-year degree dropped sharply – more than in any other group. We have determined that, in general, they are not going back to school or switching careers, so what are they doing with their time? The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. [Emphasis mine]

Detached from the labor force, with neither a college degree nor a steady job, these men have little income. But the technological revolution in media and entertainment of the last few decades has made it cheaper than ever to divert oneself on a phone, computer, television, or video-game console. Leisure is cheap enough that it apparently doesn’t require a steady W-2 or 1099 to have fun.

And they are having fun, Hurst emphasized. “Happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers,” he told UChicago. In the short run, not working doesn’t seem to make men miserable at all.

Cheap and abundant entertainment anesthetizes less-skilled and less-educated young men in the present. But in the long run, it cuts them off from the same things that provide meaning in middle age, according to psychological and longitudinal studies —a career, a family, and a sense of accomplishment. The problem is that these 20-year-olds will eventually be 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds, and although young men who don’t go to college might appear happy now, those same satisfaction studies suggest that they will be much less happy in their 30s and 40s—less likely to get married, and more likely to be in poverty.

There is a rising generation of less-educated men, cut off from steady employment, but, for the moment, diverted by entertainment. They are, as far as Hurst can tell, not miserable now; and yet, there is little precedent for a large and highly satisfied group of non-married, middle-aged men living in poverty in an advanced economy. “This problem, if that is the right word for it, will not be easily solved," Cowen wrote on his blog.

If these men back a political movement, it probably won’t look much like today’s Trumpist’s coalition. After all, Trump’s support skews heavily white, and many of today’s young men who didn’t graduate high school are black and Hispanic. But one possible lesson of this election is that feelings of cultural isolation and economic despondency are ingredients in a noxious and unpredictable compound, which can combust in surprising ways. Another mix may be brewing.