Even as U.S. economic growth accelerates, one dark cloud hanging over the recovery is that men still aren’t going back to work.

The trend isn’t new. Male workforce participation has trended downward since the 1940s. Only about 70 percent of American men today either have jobs or want them, compared with nearly 87 percent in 1948.

But the social costs are real. While women who aren’t in the formal workforce tend to do useful things like go to school or care for children at home, men aren’t nearly as likely to do the same. Indeed, a much-cited June 2017 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research hypothesizes that one factor keeping less-educated men from 21 to 30 from rejoining the workforce is the amount of time they spend playing video games. In fact, they seem to be happy to do so, reporting rising life satisfaction.

The researchers acknowledge we need more evidence to determine whether video games really are causing men to drop out of the workforce. But even if they do play a role in workforce disengagement, the way to address that concern has nothing to do with the games themselves. Instead, we need to provide less-educated men with better career opportunities.

Between 1950 and 1960, men left the workforce at an even faster rate than they have in the last decade. Obviously, video games couldn’t have caused that. Likewise, as the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis points out, modest recent upticks in labor-force participation for younger men don’t correlate with video games becoming less diverting. Most important, while women make up nearly half of all gamers, and have access to the same games as men, their workforce participation has trended upward since the first consumer games became widely available in the late 1970s.

Yet the sheer quantity of time out-of-workforce men devote to playing video games makes it difficult to believe that improved home entertainment options have nothing to do with the observed trends. The real question is why we would see the observed disparity that men shift from working to leisure, while women do not.

The answer may be that the economy has much less use for men without college degrees than it once did. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data tell the story. While men dominate the most prestigious and remunerative careers, a disproportionate number of the best and fastest-growing jobs for less-educated people are positions overwhelmingly held by women: dental hygienists (98 percent female); registered nurses (90 percent); and teacher assistants (90 percent).

A man with limited academic aptitude and limited financial resources often faces an unenviable choice: take a job at near minimum wage with little mobility; enter a “girly” career that counselors, parents and friends never even suggested to him; or sit at home exploring mystical realms. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that, for many, that last option is the most attractive.

And even if researchers do somehow provide irrefutable evidence that video games cause men to leave the workforce, it’s difficult to think of a plausible public policy that could do anything about it. Government can’t mandate that new games be made “un-fun” or enforce a law limiting the number of hours people are allowed to play. And in a world without video games, it’s likely these same men would be watching television, drinking in bars or even committing petty crimes.

Over the long haul, we probably should explore ways to encourage men who aren’t in the workforce to provide more child care and spend more time in school. In the near term, the most promising solution may well be to steer more men into fast-growing, but traditionally female careers. It took decades of cultural, educational and legal changes before women began to make up a majority of law school students, a third of practicing doctors and outright majorities even in some high-status careers that aren’t stereotypically female, like statisticians and veterinarians.

If deliberate policy can get highly educated, academically engaged women into many of these careers, it ought to be possible to get more men to become dental hygienists, teacher assistants and the like.

Looking at questions of job design, cultural messaging, employment standards and more could bring many men back into the workforce. Blaming video games does nothing useful.

Image by Roman Samborsky

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