The bare fact will not surprise you: Many of our country’s young men fritter away potential work hours by enjoying fun leisure activities instead. Nor is it especially news that more men do this more often than they did even a decade ago—we’ve had a recession in the interim, after all. What is odd is how precise the diagnosis gets. In a forthcoming paper detailed by the Washington Post, economists attribute this slump to video games specifically, even after accounting for larger economic forces:
Young men without college degrees have replaced 75 percent of the time they used to spend working with time on the computer, mostly playing video games, according to the study, which is based on the Census Bureau’s time-use surveys. Before the recession, from 2004 to 2007, young, unemployed men without college degrees were spending 3.4 hours per week playing video games. By 2011 to 2014, that time had shot up to 8.6 hours per week on average.
Haven’t able-bodied young men been slothful and hedonistic as long as young men have existed? Didn’t they have other ways of whiling away their time? Playing actual sports, lolling in the grass, roller skating and then later blading, building model aircraft, collecting stamps, enjoying vices of the times, taking their high-school sweethearts on dates, playing with frisbees or yo-yos, sipping egg creams at the good-ass egg cream spot? Why such a noticeable dent in productivity now, just due to the very dankness of our digital content?
Some speculate it has to do with the cost-benefit structure: Even if there’s a steep upfront cost for a console or game, you can wring hours and hours and hours of mind-numbing play out of that, from the convenience of the sofa. It also seems to be numbing some emotional pain and stressful expectations. The Post story smuggles in bits of real pathos, offering quotes about about the ways games can address feelings of loneliness and economic disenfranchisement, by providing a sense of community and completion.
“Honestly, I realized it was a bad thing when my mom would say things like, ‘When are you going to go apply for these jobs? When are you going to go back to school?’ And then in the back of my mind I kept hearing fun facts about these games.”
“As a young, first-generation male, there’s a lot of expectations. So it’s kind of cool to pop on a game … and you will be rewarded for doing small tasks,” he says. “They just make me happy.”
If you look at young men aged 21-30 with educations below a bachelor’s degree, our large adult sons are now three times as likely to say they didn’t work in the previous year, compared to those in the 1970s. The same group also reports more feelings of happiness, but these may be shortlived, according to the doom-saying, no-fun-having economists, who warn of silly stuff like “a lifetime of decreased wages, limited opportunities and challenges such as depression and drug use,” or wring their hands over the disappearance of a group that has historically comprised a huge chunk of our workforce.
Why is this happening? Why are young men struggling to find good work? I’m tempted to attribute this to the feeble grip strength of our nation’s youth—we all know that millennial hands are basically the undersides of slugs—but those game controllers don’t grip themselves.