America’s Lost Boys

Where have America’s young men gone? According to Erik Hurst, an economist from the University of Chicago, they haven’t gone anywhere — they’re just plugged in

“Young men, significantly more so than young women, are stuck in life. Research released in May from the Pew Center documented a historic demographic shift: American men aged 18-30 are now statistically more likely to be living with their parents than with a romantic partner.”

 

Where have America’s young men gone? According to Erik Hurst, an economist from the University of Chicago, they haven’t gone anywhere—they’re just plugged in. In a recent interview, Hurst says that his research indicates that young men with less than a four-year degree (according to virtually all data, that’s an increasing number) are spending their days unemployed and unmarried, but not un-amused. “The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one-for-one with leisure time,” Hurst reports. “Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of twelve, and sometimes upwards of thirty hours per week.”

Hurst goes on: “These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, [such as that] they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.” In other words, the time these young men spend on Xbox and Playstation does not offer them relief from the stress of joblessness and existential inertia. On the contrary, for them it’s part of Living the Dream.

Video games have often caused consternation among older adults and cultural critics, an angst that is usually disproportionate to the games’ real consequences. In most cases, gaming is not especially different from other amusements, such as watching Netflix or logging on to social media. Concern about video-game content, especially violent content, can be valid, but it always runs into the problem of numbers: A great many gamers play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, and violent crime has been going down at the same time those games have been most popular.

But if Hurst’s research is accurate (and profit margins from the video-game industry suggest that it is), then the issue becomes much bigger than video games themselves. The portrait that emerges of the young American male indicates an isolated, entertainment-absorbed existence, with only the most childlike social ties (such as with parents and “bros”) playing a meaningful role.

Young men, significantly more so than young women, are stuck in life. Research released in May from the Pew Center documented a historic demographic shift: American men aged 18-30 are now statistically more likely to be living with their parents than with a romantic partner. This trend is significant, for one simple reason: Twenty- and thirtysomething men who are living at home, working part-time or not at all, are unlikely to be preparing for marriage. Hurst’s research says that these men are single, unoccupied, and fine with that—because their happiness doesn’t depend on whether they are growing up and living life.

This prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood. But in the comfort of their parents’ homes and their gaming systems, young men get to live out their fantasies without the frictions of reality.

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