How many men are we talking about? About 12 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 — roughly 7 million men — are neither working nor looking for work. The latter is important. As the unemployment rate has steadily decreased, and the number of job openings has steadily increased, the question becomes: Why aren’t these men working?
Maybe they don’t have the right skills. That’s where apprenticeships could help. Or maybe they’re just too happy playing video games.
That’s what researchers from Princeton University, the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester seem to be saying in a recent white paper. These scholars observe that between the years 2000 and 2015, young men (defined throughout the research as ages 21 to 30) have been working less. And they’re filling the majority of their extra free time looking at a screen, playing video games.
Video games aren’t just sucking more time, they’re increasingly preferred over blogs, streamed videos and Facebook.
If you remove full-time students from consideration, about three in four young men have less than a bachelor’s degree. The percentage of this group that didn’t work at all in a given year has increased from 9.5 percent in 2000 to a whopping 22 percent in 2015. That’s a lot of young men with extra time on their hands. So how do we tease out the role of video games?
The Role of Video Games
Screen time for young men without college degrees has more than doubled from the period 2004-2007 to the period 2011-2014. Unemployed young men now spend 2 to 3 times as many hours in front of a screen, compared to those who have jobs. More to the point, the percentage of screen time devoted to computer games has increased. Video games aren’t just sucking more time, they’re increasingly preferred over blogs, streamed videos and Facebook.
The study’s authors found that adults have more free time than we did a decade ago. That’s because we’re working fewer hours, both at work and at home. In our homes, technology and automation means we spend less time shopping, preparing meals and doing chores. The upshot is that all cohorts — younger men, older men, younger women and older women — have more leisure time.
But the greatest gains are with the young men. They’ve acquired an extra 2.3 hours of extra leisure time per week. And what do they do with it? They spend an extra 82 percent of it in front of their computers. And about 75 percent of that time is spent playing video games. (These figures are for working and non-working young men, combined.)
Why are video games beating out other forms of leisure — not just other kinds of screen-based entertainment, but real-world diversions like going out with friends? Maybe it’s because video games are getting better — more realistic — at a rate that other activities can’t compete with. How much better are board games today than they were in 2000? Maybe you like Settlers of Catan or some other strategy game. Their improvements have been marginal at best.
Video games yield a dependable high — not just satisfaction, I suspect, but a sense of accomplishment.
But video games? Since my days as a teenager, the enhancements have been off the charts. The richness of the graphics, the intensity, the complexity and creativity of the storyline, the pseudo-community that can be built around multiplayer role-playing games — in sum, the amazing quality of these games contributes to an addictive effect, particularly for young men who are otherwise detached from the world of productivity.
Writing for the Washington Post, Ana Swenson spoke with Danny Izquierdo, a 22-year-old who lives with his parents. Izquierdo has held a series of part-time, low-wage jobs since earning an associates degree from Brooklyn College. “When I play a game,” Izquierdo confessed, “I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded. With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.”
The game yields a dependable high — not just satisfaction, I suspect, but a sense of accomplishment. The world of employment? Not so much.
It’s one thing to show correlation, and another to prove causation. Are young men really being dulled into long-term unemployment by the video games? Or are they playing more video games because they’re unemployed?
Even if we say it’s some of both, I think there’s a deeper factor at work. Something must be enabling these young men’s lack of productivity. It turns out that 70 percent of unemployed young men in 2015 lived with a close relative, versus 46 percent in 2000.
Which brings me to another interesting factor. Unemployed men have historically been unhappy. Turns out they still are — but only if they’re older. Using data from the General Social Survey, which asks people how happy they are, the team of researchers assigned a happiness index to participants on a scale of 0 to 1. A score of 1 was assigned if an individual reported being “very happy” or “pretty happy.” Otherwise a score of 0 was assigned. They discovered that the happiness index of young men without college degrees had increased by 7 percentage points (from 81 to 88%) during the very same years that their unemployment rate jumped from 9.5 to 22%.
This finding provokes another question: What is keeping them happy, when their unemployment rate has more than doubled and their wages have fallen relative to inflation? Over this same period of time older uneducated men—also more likely to be unemployed—saw their happiness index drop by the same 7 percentage points (from 88% to 81%).
For me, the last two points are clinchers. It’s not just that unemployed young men are spending more time with video games. It’s that their lack of productivity is being ever more subsidized. These visually stimulating video games to which they give themselves provide a real sense of escape and an imaginary sense of accomplishment. These men are able to live vicariously through the quests of their on-screen personas in a way that the (less happy) coach potato 25 years ago couldn’t. And it dulls them from vigorously pursuing productivity in the real world.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).
(Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to include more data from the General Social Survey.)