Over the last decades, I have noticed an interesting and upsetting phenomenon—adult men who live their lives as boys. They never become self-sufficient men.
Everyone has the right to choose their own path. Not everyone has to be ambitious and driven. However, traditionally, men have felt a responsibility to be self-sufficient and productive. To be clear, I’m not lambasting alternative lifestyles. For instance, the househusband or the man who gives up a traditional job to care for an elderly parent. These folks are productive members of society. I’m talking about boys who never grow up. Individuals who choose to live a dependent and responsibility-free life where they contribute little to others or society. These people have always existed, but their numbers are growing. Nicholas Eberstadt, the chair of Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, notes the following:
Over 7 million men, ages 25-54 (prime working years), are unemployed and are not looking for work. To put that number into perspective, that is more people than the combined populations of Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, San Franciso, and Orlando.
Individuals with only a high school diploma are overrepresented in this group, and those without a high school certificate represent an even higher number.
Forty percent of this group has some college, and one-sixth has a college degree.
If you are foreign-born, you are less likely to be in this group.
This lack of employment is not strictly due to outsourcing jobs, lack of low-requirement jobs, economic downturns, or the automation of jobs.
This lack of employment is not due to lack of education as there are 11 million job openings, and many have minimal requirements, such as showing up sober and being on time.
African Americans are overrepresented, while Latinos and Asians are under-represented. Therefore, if you compare whites to non-whites, the numbers are pretty much a wash.
You are less likely to be in this group if you are married or in a situation where you are responsible for children. A married African-American male would be underrepresented in this group.
This non-working, non-job-seeking group is four times larger than those unemployed and looking for work. However, this group is not measured in governmental statistics on unemployment.
The 7 million number does not include institutionalized individuals, such as prisoners.
You may ask what these individuals do with their time. The answer is not much. They don’t seem involved in their communities and are not helping around the house. Most list their main activity as screen time, but this statistic is not defined further. The average time spent in front of a screen is around 2000 hours/year, equivalent to a full-time job.
These folks survive on the charity of others: family members, wives, and girlfriends. About half are on some sort of government assistance. However, this is difficult to quantify further as there are many different types of assistance and disability programs in the US, and no comprehensive clearinghouse collates these numbers.
Although their financial resources could be considered penurious, their basic needs are being met. In fact, they would be considered well-to-do if you compared their economic status to unemployed individuals in the 1800s. They have enough to get by.
In summary, there are over seven million men who, during their prime working years, choose not to work. This number continues to grow at an alarming rate and is independent of factors such as the loss of jobs due to automation or outsourcing. Some individuals may have valid reasons for their lack of employment, but it is a choice for many others. These individuals don’t contribute money or labor to their homes or communities and drain resources that could be used for others.
This work refusal trend started around 1965 and has increased monthly by about 0.1%/month. If you plot the numbers, it is a linear increasing line independent of economic changes. In other words, since 1965, there has been a steady linear increase in the number of men who are no longer in the workforce and are not looking for a job.
During my years as a psychotherapist, I sometimes treated these individuals. Additionally, I treated teens who seemed destined to adopt this non-productive lifestyle. Here are four examples. Identifiers have been changed to protect these individuals.
Billy was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. He did the absolute minimum in school and barely passed despite receiving many resources. He didn’t like to socialize and had no friends. He spent most of his time on his computer. Billy denied being depressed or having anxiety issues. When asked what he liked to do, he responded, “Nothing.” When I tried to engage him on any topic, for instance, what kind of music he liked, he denied any preferences. He appeared quietly angry and very passive. He was an empty individual. His parents said he didn’t cause any problems at home; he refused to participate in any family activity and preferred to isolate himself. There was no suspicion of drug or alcohol use.
John was a 19-year-old college freshman. He was in advanced math in high school and declared he was a math major in college. I saw him after his disastrous freshman year, as he had failed his classes, including math. He said that all his teachers were “terrible and incompetent.” He didn’t feel motivated to return to school but didn’t want to get a job either. He admitted that he had gone from occasionally smoking marijuana in high school to using it multiple times a day in college, now that he was away from home. He was convinced that the marijuana enhanced his thinking ability and helped him be more creative. When I told him that it was likely that the marijuana was doing the opposite, he became angry and left treatment.
Joe was a pleasant 29-year-old man living with his parents. Joe went away to college but flunked out. His parents then sent him to their local community college. He said he was attending class, but it was later discovered that he would leave the house and roam the streets instead of going to school. Joe’s parents then found him various jobs through their contacts, but he would get fired due to lack of work or attendance. He did some socializing with his high school friends but spent most of his time online. His parents wanted to sell their house and move to another state. They did not want to take Joe with them. Joe said he wanted to be responsible and find a job but never attempted. He talked about making big money by starting his own YouTube channel but never did. He wanted to live independently but never made any effort to make that happen. Joe said all the right things but never acted on any of them. His parents eventually moved, and Joe went with them.
Jimmy was a 59-year-old single male who was superficially friendly and chatty. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of rock bands from the 70s and 80s and tended to use up much of his sessions talking about them in an avoidant strategy. He reminded me of a 12-15 year old boy. Jimmy had substance use problems but had no access to street drugs or alcohol as he lived in his 85-year-old mother’s basement. She took care of him. Despite my stern warnings about their dangers, he was committed to getting high and frequently snorted organic solvents. Although he presented as a friendly guy, he had a dark side. His mother was hospitalized for a week, and Jimmy quickly moved from the basement to the first floor, destroying much of the house over the seven days she was away. In addition, he ran up his mom’s credit cards to their limits. When his siblings found out, they kicked him out of his mom’s house. How did Jimmy react? He thought that he was treated unfairly and that his siblings were mean. At the same time, he asked his siblings to fund an apartment for him. They declined his request.
In these examples, none exhibited a psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, bipolar illness, psychosis, or significant anxiety, that warranted medication treatment. Two had substance abuse issues that added to their symptoms. Although most were happy to engage in sessions, their efforts represented more appeasement than actual work. Generally, they were not confrontational and (at least initially) presented themselves as passive victims. Although some said they wanted more out of life, they were unwilling to do anything to make that happen. I often felt that they told me what they thought I wanted to hear to shut me up. They said the right things, but their actions suggested otherwise. None were treatment successes.
Psychotherapy requires work on the part of the patient, and sometimes that work can be difficult. These folks wanted more but did not want to work to change. What was interesting was that, in some cases, it would have been just as easy to do the right thing, but they chose a path that led them in the opposite direction. For instance, it probably took more work for Joe to hide out instead of attending class, and Jimmy couldn’t explain why he destroyed his 85-year-old mother’s house—the woman who was providing him with food and shelter.
Why does this lifestyle exist, and why are the numbers increasing? I can only speculate, but it is likely due to multiple reasons exacerbating common issues.
It is reasonable to believe that qualities like ambition and drive exist along a spectrum. There are highly ambitious folks and those that are less so. The same can be said of intelligence, whether we are talking about academic intelligence or social intelligence. Likewise, we can say the same about dependency needs, social skills, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, and other factors.
It also must be accepted that many expectations placed on men are neither fulfilling nor rewarding. Many men work in jobs that can be mind-numbing or even degrading. They must deal with repetitive or dangerous tasks as they navigate ridiculous work policies and cruel supervisors.
If you take several conditions from the preceding two paragraphs, you could imagine a scenario where it becomes easier to retreat from societal expectations.
Those situations have existed since the dawn of society, so why are we seeing a steady increase in these man-boys? This could be due to changes in society in general.
The recent blockbuster movie “Barbie” continually hammered home the idea of the patriarchy, the foundation of our society. The movie emphasized that this system promotes the domination and oppression of women. I firmly believe that women should have the same rights as men, but I also believe that such a simplistic explanation is insufficient to define a society. Women have always held positions of power, and men often defer to women. However, the 1960s brought a more rapid equalization that continues today. Two factors contributed to this change: equal rights and the birth control pill. More women had a chance to earn a living outside the home and were less bound by the social constraints of the past. This allowed some men to become more dependent. This was a good thing in some situations as some men could assume productive roles they were formally banned from. However, it also allowed others to check out and allow their significant other to support them.
Recent times have brought an ever greater need for workers to be skilled and intelligent. The media promotes glamorous jobs and fabulous lifestyles. High-paying, lower-skill jobs, such as unionized factory work, are disappearing. The above can result in a “why bother” attitude. This is especially the case since many of these individuals have found alternative ways to support their basic needs.
There are some easy ways to experience an alternative reality that seem a better option than real life. Drugs, video games, porn, and other outlets are widely available and can counterbalance the pressures of dealing with the real world.
Male-focused clubs and fraternal organizations are on the decline. In the past, almost everyone belonged to a church or temple. These groups had expectations for their members to be responsible citizens. Men were taught to be the breadwinners and protectors. The power and influence of these large organizations is diminishing.
The institution of marriage is on the decline. It was not that long ago that it was considered odd not to be married. Fewer people are getting married for a variety of reasons. Marriage provided social pressure for men to be productive. Men who are married are less likely to drop out of society.
Statistics demonstrate that men responsible for children are more likely to be productive. We know that more individuals are choosing not to have children or are delaying having children. This presents a different problem for society but also contributes to dropouts.
More men are choosing an isolative lifestyle that doesn’t include women. Since 2008, the number of men under the age of 30 who are living celibate lives has tripled to almost 30 percent. These individuals do not have relational pressures to be responsible.
Higher education costs have become astronomically high, creating an impossible barrier for some to overcome. Although ⅙th of men who drop out have a college degree, 5/6ths do not.
The bottom line is that it has become easier to live a passive, unproductive life, and it has become harder to live a self-sufficient, contributing life. Depending on your personality, it is reasonable to drop out of society as many can figure out ways to fulfill their basic needs. At the same time, they can find alternative reality options that numb any remnant desires to grow up. Drugs and alcohol have been long-term solutions. However, many time-wasting activities are now available in the ever-expanding digital age.
Once a person drops out of society, re-entering becomes more difficult or impossible. It is well established that men who stop looking for work are much less likely ever to re-enter the workforce than unemployed men who are actively searching for a job.
Our continued social and technological changes have allowed some men to remove themself from productive lives, and that number is escalating at a linear rate over time. Traditional techniques, like psychotherapy, seem less effective as many individuals are not invested in making change. Additionally, no consistent governmental programs are designed to address this serious problem. This is likely since these men live under the radar. They are sitting on their couch connected to a video screen, not causing havoc in society. In some cases, tough love works; in others, it doesn’t. Supporting family members are often angry and frustrated with these dropouts. However, in many cases, they feel responsible for their well-being. A feeling promoted by these individuals who often present themselves as the victim or at least helpless.
Seven million men and growing. A disaster that is happening right now and right before our eyes. A disaster that no one seems to be paying attention to.