I Am David Brooks' Lazy, Unemployable "Missing Man"

Hey, David Brooks wrote a column about me! I am one of the 20% of American men of “prime” working age who does not have a job. And apparently we are destroying America by not “getting up and going to work.” Oh yes: “In 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.”

The real menace here is that we are apparently draining Social Security, which is headed for a complete state of brokeness in the not very distant future. (I personally am not. Yet.) Because you know how people love to be going to disability hearings all the time to get that sweet, sweet thousand bucks a month. But also… hey, he has pretty much imagined this crisis of malehood and American vitality.

Sure, for starters, the number of heterosexual, married “stay at home dads” (ugh, I know, horrible phrase) has tripled in the last 15 years?. They alone are raising about 1/4 of a million children. That’s not too many of the “missing men” though, though it’s a chunk.

But is it men who are draining Social Security? Hmm.. “between 1988 and 2008, the fraction of middle-aged men and women ages forty to fifty-nine receiving SSDI benefits rose by 45 percent among males (from 3.9 to 5.6 percent) and 159 percent among females (1.9 to 5.0 percent).” So… it’s really not the men on disability that are the “problem,” it’s those lazy, “missing” disabled women too. I bet they are eating lobster with their Social Security checks!

And in fact… in 2006, the Times estimated that just “about 25 percent of the missing men”—about 4 million men then not in the workforce— “are collecting this insurance.”

So really, of the “missing fifth” of working age men that Brooks is talking about, some number that is definitely much fewer than half of them are collecting disability. And those are quite possibly… what’s the phrase… right! “Disabled.”

(The Social Security Administration itself says this: “Studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 3 in 10 chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement age.” You do the math on that.)

What the academics and reporters do most often in looking at the rise of disability claims is contrast them with the official employment numbers, to see if they track. But what they don’t count for comparison is the underemployment numbers, the people who’ve never gotten on or have rolled off the unemployment insurance rolls. (Hi, here I am!) So then there’s no correlating between the unemployed and the left-behind. We’re just, you know, “missing.” (And apparently not “getting up” in the morning.)

So what we don’t get a good picture of is: who are these “missing” men? Well, for one, we know that “nearly 60 percent are divorced, separated, widowed or never married.” (A rather wide swath. Also, hi!)

Ooh, who else? “Roughly two million men in this group [of non-working men] have prison records.” (People in prison, naturally, aren’t counted among the unemployed.) So, hmm, maybe one thing we could do to deal with the “missing fifth” is undo the country’s perverse insistence on making felons of drug users and also black men in general?

Who else are they? For one: “Seventy-five percent of those on disability have a high school diploma or less education.” (Oh, hello.)

And some of them just don’t need to work: “About 8 percent of non-working men between 30 and 54 lived in households that had more than $100,000 of income in 2004.” So that’s, what… nearly 400,000 or so of the “missing fifth”? I dunno, I don’t have a job, I’m not good at math!

In light of all that, here’s Brooks’ big thesis:

There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical. These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them. The country will not benefit from their potential abilities.

By “not cyclical,” he means that it’s not because of the ongoing cycle of recessions. But I don’t think he can assert that. The country doesn’t want their potential abilities, or did I misunderstand that moment recently when millions of workers were cast to the wayside? And, apparently, according to Brooks, the sacred institution of marriage also can’t save them… which… I don’t know, I guess, then they get bad habits, something something, corrosive…??? THIS IS A MESS.

But I think he basically just called us all drugged out waste-cases who’ll never get married. Actually, yes he did: regarding the lack of college education among many of these men, he writes: “More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute.” Um, I may be “missing,” but I can still read the Times and that’s kind of mean?

And yes, that is so weird, that the word “recession” does not show up here. And that the word “unemployment” shows up one time.

What’s most annoying is that he’s somewhat right about the solutions to putting people back to work, if indeed that is the goal. (Whose goal? It’s not the goal of big business; it may not even be the goal of the potential worker. These articles about people “returning to work” always make an example of the man who says “Heck no, I’m not going to make $8 an hour shoveling chicken and support my family, why should I bother?” That not permanently entering the garbage labor force is almost always the right choice for the future seems unfathomable to reporters and academics and op-ed columnists.) Anyway, yes! “Apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses” are a great idea! Those are things that will also never, ever happen in America.