The Descent of Man: Culture vs. Economics

From Quillette Reversing the Descent of Man:

Heavy rates of unemployment are widely seen as related to the collapse of male morale and motivation. But it is a mistake to regard joblessness in itself as the cause of men’s problems. Male unemployment is no novelty, and reached high levels in the ’30s without weakening male resolve and family commitment or readiness to retrain for new types of work. Arguably it even sharpened these.


What is new is the loss of morale and sense of purpose among men, and this is a cultural rather than an economic change, arising out of the libertarian assault on sex roles. Men are bombarded with the message that modern women value the opportunity for self-realization through work. So the chivalrous thing to do these days is for men not strive too hard to hold down a job or seek promotion, but stand aside and let women go for it themselves. This is the root of contemporary male economic and educational failure, and the reason why there are increasing numbers of unemployed men even though the total number of jobs remains stable.


It is not possible to do much about this so long as the problem is seen simply in terms of the amount of work available. Boosting employment is likely to benefit women more than men, as they are the ones presently more highly motivated (by existing or anticipated family duties) to take work seriously. We need measures which recognize the greater relative importance of work to men as their distinctive contribution to society.

Don’t really agree with this or much of the article. Men are not abdicating responsibility or delaying adulthood because of chivalry or changing gender roles, but because the labor market is simply too hard for most men and the pay is not good enough. This is fundamentally an economic problem, both in terms of wages and incentives, not a cultural one, although that does not mean that culture does not play at least a small role as I will discuss later.

It’s true unemployment is low and and there are a lot of jobs, but that not mean that that most unemployed men are qualified. The majority of unemployed men don’t have college degrees, which makes employment difficult and wages low, and it’s not like a middle-aged men who have IQs of 90-100, who have been out of the labor force for up to years at a time can just suddenly acquire high-paying, in-demand skills. And furthermore, middle-aged men have to compete with foreign labor, automation, and outsourcing, as well as retirees (due to pensions becoming obsolete, forced retirements, people living longer, rising medical costs and living expenses for seniors, and shrinking social safety nets). Manufacturing jobs used to provide good wages and consistent pay for men without college degrees, but those jobs are becoming scarce and manufacturing jobs are a much smaller percentage of the labor force than generations ago. Another problem that many employers no longer train employees, but rather job seekers must first get a ton of certifications and qualifications before applying, which costs money and time. If someone is unemployed and does not have much money saved up, which is often the case with low-income workers, then basic survival takes precedence over skill-attainment.

Making matters worse, jobs that employ average-IQ men–as opposed to high-IQ professions such as tech, medical, or legal–are, economically, much more volatile than than the low-paying service sector. The collapse of the housing market in 2005-2009 destroyed a lot of good-paying blue collar jobs. And then in 2008-2010 and in 2014-2016, the collapse of the oil and gas market. Many blue collar jobs are much more cyclical and location-dependent, such as trucking, which means men have to constantly move instead of staying put and raising families. The fact there is a lot of demand for such jobs, such as dangerous oil jobs that have a high rate of occupational injury, is evidence against the hypothesis that  changing societal gender standard is dissuading men from working, but rather these jobs pay well.

Regarding incentives, young men are turning to video games because the marginal returns to low-paying labor are low, as discussed here. Video games are very cheap relative to the enjoyment one derives from them. If someone is making close to minimum wage, then any additional labor beyond the bare minimum to get by, is not worth the effort. Making an extra $10/hour by working a double job or overtime loses out to an extra hour of video games.

But this state of permanent joblessness and minimalist living among men, contrary to the media narrative, is not a crisis, but rather a rationalization that work is not worth the time and effort, when either living with friends or family, going on public assistance, or doing side-hustles, is, rationally speaking ( in an economic sense), a better alternative. This is probably part of the transition to post-scarcity economy in which a smaller percentage of the population is working yet there is enough for everyone. A lot of men are content with a low-maintenance, low-key lifestyle. As the economy becomes increasingly centralized among a handful of multinationals (such as Google, Visa, MasterCard, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Walmart, Amazon, and Facebook), so too will the labor market, in which a handful of super-productive individuals will contribute an increasingly disproportional share to the economy.

But this is not to dismiss culture altogether. A good counter-argument by Jim is that low-income Hispanics and Blacks are able to form large families in urban settings, so why can’t low-income whites? There are a couple possibilities: cultural factors (whites may be less collectivist and prefer to live alone  or child free than form nuclear families), but also due to generous aid and other programs available to immigrants.

Cultural factors can explain the trend of men who are well-off, who have the financial means to support a family, delaying family formation. An explanation is not changing gender roles, which is why I disagree with the article, but rather a culture that celebrates individualism and the attainment of wealth as begin the only measure of a man, rather than, say, virtuousness. The fact that athletes such Lebron James, for example, who embodies masculinity yet is extremely popular among young men who aspire to be like him, is evidence against the changing gender roles hypothesis or that men lack masculine role models. If you look at the men who are most revered by mainstream culture and society, such as in business or entertainment, they are revered for their individual accomplishments and wealth, not for being good family men or fathers. However, this does not explain low fertility rates and delayed family formation for wealthy Northern European countries, which have generous social safety nets and lack America’s culture of hyper-consumerism, wealth obsession, and atomistic individualism. Possibly the rise of secularism, especially in Northern and Western Europe, is to blame. Mormons, for example, have large families. It’s a complicated issue that necessitates more investigation.