Do you enjoy playing video games? If you're like most people, you probably answered yes. But do you enjoy them more than going to work? More than looking for work? Would you rather play video games than have a job? For men in their 20s without college degrees, the answers may be yes, yes, and yes.

That disturbing finding comes from University of Chicago Business Economics Professor Erik Hurst, who studies the relationship between technology and the labor force. Between 2000 and 2015, he notes, employment rates for 21-to-55-year-old men without a college degree fell from 84 percent to 77 percent. That's a persistent decline that was going on before the Great Recession, and it hasn't reversed itself during the recent recovery years.

The drop-off in unskilled male employment largely has to do with the rise of automation in manufacturing, Hurst explained in a speech to the graduating class at the University's Booth School of Business. "Since 2000, the US economy has lost more than 8 million manufacturing jobs, despite manufacturing going up."

Thus, large numbers of young men are spending less time--or no time--working, he continued. In fact, in 2015, more than one fifth of 21-to-30-year-old men without college degrees hadn't worked in at least a year. That's a pretty frightening number, and Hurst set out to find out what these young men were doing with their time instead, using time diaries to record their activities. On average, he found, young men without degrees had four more hours of leisure time every week in 2015 than they did in 2000. And they spent three of those extra four hours playing video games. Without jobs, they couldn't pay rent, and so the proportion of these men in their 20s living with their parents or another relative has jumped up to 51 percent in 2015, compared to 35 percent in 2000.

With no jobs, few job prospects, and not much pressing need to find work, these young men are free to spend as much time as they want on video games. And they do. On average, they reported spending two hours a day gaming, Hurst found in his study. A quarter reported spending three hours a day on games, and 10 percent said they play video games six hours a day. It is exactly the life his 12-year-old would find ideal, Hurst notes.

A valid choice?

For many young men with no college degrees, playing video games all day might actually seem like a sensible decision. Hurst says men in their 20s these days report themselves to be happier, on average, than men in their 20s were in 2000, back when a lot more of them had jobs. One obvious conclusion: Playing video games is much more fun than going to work. Especially in modern times, when video games are more sophisticated and engaging than ever before, and when gamers typically play with other gamers across the globe, in a loose-knit community that offers comradeship and a social context as well as the opportunity to slay a lot of bad guys.

To explore Hurst's findings, Ryan Avent, a writer for The Economist interviewed a number of young men and one young woman who spend their days playing video games rather than working or looking for work. For some of them, it seemed like a good tradeoff. "Work is a means to an end," explains one. That end is enjoying life, traveling when you can and playing games or reading when you can't. He works just enough to pay for his games and the occasional trip, and spends the rest of his time gaming or reading.

There's a certain logic to this. One recent study showed that people who choose more free time over more money are generally happier than those who choose money over time. Continuing improvements in the gaming world make it more and more fun to sit home playing games. Meantime, dwindling opportunities in an increasingly automated world means available jobs for men without degrees pay less than they used to. As a result, "For lower-skilled workers with low market wages, it is now more attractive to take leisure," Hurst said.

But if many of them are happy with their choices today, they may be quite unhappy with them in a few years. "There is some evidence that these young, lower-skilled men who are happy in their 20s become much less happy in their 30s and 40s," Hurst said. "They haven't accumulated on-the-job skills because they spent their 20s idle. Many eventually get married and have kids. When this happens, living in their parents' basements is no longer a viable option."

But at that point, with no marketable job skills, the employment prospects for these former 20-year-olds is bleak, Hurst said. "There is rising evidence that lower-skilled workers in their 30s and 40s are increasing their drug use. We have also seen increased suicide rates for lower-skilled workers in middle age."

That's pretty frightening, and something we should all take seriously because our society needs these young men alert, engaged, and most importantly, alive. If you have one of these young non-working gamers in your life, it's time to reach out and see if you can help inspire a change. And if you yourself are spending several hours a day playing games instead of working, say goodbye to your online friends, put down the controller, and go outside for some fresh air, at least for a little while. Consider looking for a job, or getting some training in new skills. Ten years from now, you may be glad you did.

Published on: Mar 31, 2017
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