Education and the Young Male Population

“In 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months.” ~ Erik Hurst.  That’s nearly a quarter of young men without a college degree do not have, and have not had work in the past 12 months.  And it’s getting worse.  Unstated in Erik’s work, is that young black male employment rate is historically twice as severe.

I was just listening to a podcast with Erik Hurst (the author of the article linked above) about the changing employment rates for males without college degrees. It is truly disturbing. In the last 15 years, the rate of employment for this group has dropped nearly 10% from 82% in 2000 to 72% in 2015. Most of these males are living with their parents or close relatives.  The stats are not as stark for other age groups, but show a similar trend.

These facts have some important cultural, economic, and parenting implications. I discuss them below.

Cultural implications

It’s hard to imagine what’s going on in these homes where young men are not working. Are they actively encouraged to look for jobs or is it passive acceptance of things as they are?  A son of my mother-in-law’s friend was unemployed for several years. He is now in his 40s and still lives in her home AFTER she moved out. She’s paying the bills for a house she doesn’t live in.  From what I can tell, she is not forcing the issue. Is this endemic to all these out of work men?

This doesn’t sound like an isolated case though.  It sounds as if millions of households are doing the same thing, not forcing the issue. They accept the underemployed young men and continue to care for them.  In some sense, it’s nice that we are wealthy enough as a nation that such lack of income is not creating massive starvation and suffering.  However, I have to wonder if this is as much a cultural phenomena as an economic issue.  Parents nation-wide are baring the burden of this group.  I realize there may be difficulty finding jobs, but as Mike Rowe (famous for his TV show Dirty Jobs) has argued, there are lots of jobs out there for non-college educated folks.

As a counter example, my parents charged my brother rent when he moved back home after college.  He hated it, but quickly got his act together, found a job, and moved out.  For me, it was an act of independence to move out.  I loved that fact that I was on my own and taking charge of my life.  I suffered 6 months of unemployment during the first 2 years after moving out, but muddled through and am stronger from it. But I also had the motivation to push out into the world.  Are these men missing the same motivation?  Is it because their parents have sheltered them from it?  Are parents letting them “be kids” so long that they never learn how to be adults?  Even some college educated kids seem to need “adulting” lessons, so this is not just a problem with the non-college educated. This is a cultural problem as much as anything.

Economic implications

While the drop in manufacturing jobs has matched the drop in non-educated employment, I’m hesitant to blame one on the other.  Back in the 1920s, during the first wave of assembly lines and machine automation, manufacturing jobs increased. As economist Hayek poignantly explained, the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford led to a vast increase in jobs at Ford Motor Company. Quite the opposite of what many Luddites claim. This phenomena occurred world-wide. However, those displaced workers needed to be retrained.

In today’s work force, which is increasingly information based, training must be commensurate.  New jobs require higher levels of knowledge and more complex decision-making. College education provides that training. Even service level jobs require additional training.  When I took a job at PetSmart in 2003, I had a week of training as a service employee.  PetSmart wanted me to not only stock the shelves and feed the fish, birds, lizards, and rodents, but also be able to help customers with their questions about pet care.  My wife, while managing an Old Navy store, likewise had to train sales associates on various parts of their job. While these particular service jobs are low salary careers, there are numerous others that pay much better such as HVAC technicians, jobs in sales, and even some IT careers.

But now we have a large group of individuals unable or unwilling to learn the skills necessary to work.  This is particularly troubling because a large segment of the population – the baby boomers – will be retiring and leaving the work force soon. This means the most knowledgeable and skilled segment of the population is leaving the workforce. Unfortunately, the young workers to replace them sit in their parents basements playing video games. Furthermore, with the aging population, medical costs will go up.  With this group of youngsters not working, there will be less income tax to help pay for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. By some estimates, there is over 100 billion in unfunded liabilities to these programs (projected funds collected versus projected expenses).  When it comes time to pay for these liabilities, major changes will have to come or else there will be economic catastrophe.  After learning about these demographic issues, I’m now doubly concerned.

Where we do we go from here?  The political issues I’ll leave for another day except for two small points.  Things like increasing minimum wage won’t magically get these people off their butts and back into jobs.  They seem content. If anything, it will drive businesses to automate even more rapidly, exasperating the problem. Second, increasing the age that kids can stay on their parents insurance only perpetuates the problem.  However, this are just practical arguments for what should rightfully be a moral questions of governance.

Parenting implications

There is nothing inherently wrong with multi-generational households – if the whole household contributes. However, the current parenting expectations make the problem worse, not better.  Helicopter parenting with excessive focus on parents altruistically giving all of themselves for their kids puts the wrong emphasis on values. Parents need to be more selfish (rationally so, not in the egotistical, narcissistic way), focusing less on their kids and more on their careers and personal values. If they do so, they might apply more pressure on kids to change their behavior – to get the training they need to become employable, to apply for jobs, and to stop sitting at home.  Or at least, make them productive members of the household – doing things like cleaning, cooking, repairs, or various household activities. 

As a parent myself, I’m encouraged to set higher expectations for them and follow through with consequences should my kids not live up to them.  That’s not meant in a mean way, because I love doing things with my kids.  But in a way that best encourages them to find work that they love and to love getting better at real life challenges. I want progress, not perfection.

These changes in work demographics are not necessarily bad and things may work themselves out in surprising ways. I don’t want to be too pessimistic. However, it’s also good to be aware of the possible downside and to prepare for it. How and what these changes may mean for the future is for all of us to figure out and make real.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at