The Commentary cover story for November hits an increasingly resounding note: the “war on work” and the left’s de-emphasis on vocational dignity. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic took a mallet to the economy, possibly permanently shattering its Second Thessalonian strictures, labor-force participation remains stickily low. For two years, businesses were pinioned by immobilizing government dictates, forced closed or allowed partially open, while furloughed factotums fed heartily at the dole trough. The “non-essential” employee narrative took root. Employers griped frequently about the lack of qualified help. Years on, employee retention remains an issue. “Quiet quitting” has become a popular internet meme. As has “coasting culture.” At least once a week, The Wall Street Journal editorial page sings a dirge to the Protestant work ethic.
Then there are the statics, largely cleaned from another “flight from work” piece in the November issue of The Spectator World. (What’s up with all these hard-grind threnodies in November periodicals? Is no-shave November also turning into no-bathe November, with no clients to aromatically please? Must be a slow, make-work month for public affairs scribblers.) Only about one in five American males is currently seeking station. The other four NILFs—”not in labor force”—are twiddling their thumbs, presumably scrounging off another income source. There are two open jobs for every single seeker. There has been a monthly average of 11 million available non-agro-positions for well over a year.
The details aren’t pretty, which is to be expected from the less fair sex. But America’s toiling troubles are, contra the shrill whine of the woke, male-centric. Labor participation has been a gender totter: as men dropped from employment rolls, women put down the Hoover to fill the vacuum. But even after filling the employee gap created out of Great Society programs, the liberated housewives are starting to slip from worker ranks. Hey, one step closer to gender equality!
There’s one more work-worry piece to add to the mix: a review of Richard Reeves’s new book Of Boys and Men in the current edition of the Washington Examiner magazine. Reeve’s offering runs a lot of the same tracks as other “men today” tracts. “Labor force participation was almost universal for ‘prime-age’ men (age 25-54) decades ago,” reviewer Robert Verbruggen writes. “Now, more than 1 in 10 men, and 1 in 3 with just a high school degree, lacks a job and isn’t actively looking for one.”
Those statistics diverge a bit from those chronicled in The Spectator World, but not by much. Aggregate measurement of attitudes, collected via voluntary questionnaires, are always liable to fluctuation and fibbing. But the trend can still be discerned: America’s attitude toward work is shifting, and not in an auspicious way. A job, a title, an income, an occupation—all are being abandoned for stagnation. This isn’t just doing damage to state-budget solvency; societal expectations are suffering a blow. The putting off of work en masse paints an ugly picture: sedentary rats gorging on government cheese. Croomers, failsons, chincels, the whole taxonomy of Doritos-dust-covered, cookie-crumbs-in-neck-folds NEETs barnacled to public rolls.
The all-important question: so what? If a sizable hunk of American males has begged off wagery, what’s the problem? Punching a time card isn’t an autotelic imperative, is it? We work only to survive—not thrive. Other than the pecuniary interests of the government maintaining transfer payments, why should anyone care about how another man, or now woman, spends their daylight hours?
Apologies, reader. The questions aren’t posed for you. I’m really asking myself, who wrote over a decade ago: “At best, jobs are a mere impediment we must endure to pursue those activities which we find pleasurable.”
What a strapping tyro I was! By the economist’s bare lights, there was nothing wrong in my reasoning. Labor is a prerequisite for wealth accumulation. But man is no Homo Economicus alone. He has higher purpose beyond cashing a bi-weekly paycheck, whether from office coin-counters or Uncle Sam.
The US unemployment rate remains deceptively low only because a large chunk of the labor force is estranged from the economy, trading synthetic-leather gloves for an Xbox controller. This spells a problem not only since we aren’t in the Marxian post-scarcity dreamscape, lolling our days on recliners being fed and entertained via machines à la “Wall-E,” but because of the ennui generated by persistent lying about. Tocqueville said virtue is best inspired unconsciously by habit. And moiling muscles atrophy due to prolonged unuse.
The old adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop isn’t false just because Ludwig von Mises cracked the remunerative exchange formula a century ago. There is something disturbing about a quarter of American men sitting on their duffs all day, zoned out in front of the boob tube. Pointing that out doesn’t make you a Puritan scold. There can be purpose and meaning in providing for yourself and family. The puerile Blinks were right in singing, “work sucks, I know,” but anyone, man or woman, who doesn’t work and acts like a societal remora sucks more—literally.
Lazy-shaming is a good thing. Because at the end of the accounting identity, someone working pays the bills of someone lazing.