August 1, 2006
On Monday, The New York Times ran a fascinating front-page feature on a new trend: men who won't work. The article focused on a couple of men who represent a new trend in widespread, prolonged unemployment. The men featured—an ex-steelworker and a formerly six-figure-earning electrical engineer—are using their savings and second mortgages to fund an inactive lifestyle. They are reminiscent of the character in Herman Melville's Bartelby, the Scrivener who did less and less, saying only of his withdrawal from life, "I prefer not to."
The article makes some interesting cultural observations. For example, that not working is heavily celebrated as "the good life" in a culture that touts millionaire retirees in their 40s and 50s. That women's entry into the workforce has reduced pressure on men to find their whole identity in wage-earning. And that Americans generally have the aspirations and habits, but not the funds, to be the idle rich. The future doesn't look bright for the nonworking middle class men in the story, but for now they prefer to defer it.
Alan Beggerow, the former steelworker who lost his job in 2001, has an almost Buddhist present-focus. He is enjoying reading, writing pulp fiction, and getting a lot of sleep. He says he no longer dwells on the future much. Since he doesn't have much money, all that retirement planning and worrying he used to do just doesn't seem relevant anymore.
A common thread among the men the Times interviews is their unwillingness to take low-paying, no-benefits jobs, or jobs that just seem distasteful to them. They are pessimistic about the idea of continuing to improve their lives through work: The most they could hope for is subsistence, and degrading work, in their estimation. They'd rather stay home and read.
I suspect this story will fuel an outcry among conservatives. A particular target will be the news that men like Beggerow are able to maintain themselves in part because of Social Security disability payments and Medicaid--two government programs that are already under assault by would-be privatizers. The idea of lazy stay-at-home husbands disdaining a hard day's work is just what the privatizers need to cut the last legs out from under the social welfare system.
That's a shame, because a closer look at the statistics the Times presents shows that most of the male unemployed are not lazy or lacking in "personal responsibility," to borrow a phrase that fueled welfare reform's undoing of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
At the very end of the long article, which spends a lot of time on displaced dot-comers and other highly skilled and once highly played workforce dropouts, the Times covers another group that makes up a large portion of discouraged workers--men who have been released from prison, and can't find a job. Odd jobs, off-the-books part-time work, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens make up the web of supports that hold these men's lives together.
In total, of the 13 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 54 who are not working, 43 percent have a household income of less than $25,000, and 71 percent have less than $50,000 a year. Only 24 percent have any college education at all.
So the large photo the Times ran of Christopher Priga, 54, the former electrical engineer, sitting in a trendy cafe reading a book, is hardly representative.
An accompanying bar graph that charts the trend since the 1970s is striking. Less than 6 percent of 30-to-54-year-old men were not working then, compared with more than double that number today.
The big story of this time period is the rise of the low-wage, no-benefits work force, the decline of union membership and manufacturing jobs with family-supporting wages, and the grim outlook of men whose fathers had lifelong careers without lay-offs and plant closings. These are the factors that are driving the insecurity of today's workforce. Instead of delving into them, the Times focuses on the personal quirks of a few men who could easily be transformed into the apocryphal Cadillac-driving welfare queens the pundits and politicians derided when the assault on welfare began.
In his book "All Together Now," Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute--writes about what he calls the YOYO mentality in America--You're On Your Own. It eschews common solutions for a radical individualism that threatens to tear apart our social fabric. He calls for an alternative perspective he calls WITT--We're In This Together--as the only solution to the economic problems that threaten to undo opportunity and fairness in American society.
It would be a shame if Social Security and Medicaid--two programs that still embody the nobler communal values of the New Deal and Great Society eras— fell prey to the You're On Your Own mentality. The concept of social insurance still enjoys widespread support, and keeps alive the sense that we are in this economy together. But the folks who are fueling the worship of wealth that skews our culture and those who would like to keep heaping tax cuts on the rich would like you to think that a few lazy men want to suck up your tax money to fund their idleness.
You can just imagine the outcry on rightwing talk radio--send these guys to work at Wal-Mart! As if all of us should be dedicating ourselves to round-the-clock, low-wage work so the owners and big investors can fund their own idle lifestyles.
The Times piece was interesting from a cultural and existential point of view. But politically it could have some really negative effects. We live in such demoralizing economic times. With high-income tax cheats costing the government between $40 and $70 billion a year and opportunities for hardworking lower and middle income people disappearing, we should focus on these larger conditions instead of blaming discouraged workers for losing faith.