2014-01-21

Men In The Workplace

I have a number of random thoughts going through my mind right now, and I would like to blog about every single one of them. If I do, though, they'll be short posts of little consequence to anyone. The points themselves won't end up being defended very well. That said, I can't bring myself to invest enough time in these things to write the kind of blog posts they probably deserve.

Thus, the next few blog posts will be a small series of short posts laying out ideas that are floating through my mind these days. If I don't conclusively prove my points, so be it. At the minimum, I will try to schedule these posts, so that they are a bit spaced-out, in case I want to write something of actual merit.

First up, men in the workforce.

There have been innumerable articles and blog posts out there reporting on the decline of the American man in the workplace. That is, men are falling being women in terms of career success, education, and workforce participation. Here's a recent post from John Cochrane, for example.

For the most part, all agree that the decline of men is a bad thing. After all, employment is staggering after/during the so-called "Great Recession." If we can get all those lackadaisical men to get serious and get back to work, we can put ourselves back on a good NGDP path, am I right?

Well, I'd like to offer a dissenting point of view here.

80 years ago, before the sexual revolution and the so-called "women's liberation" movement, the workforce was comprised almost entirely of men, and women stayed home. I don't think it's fair to say that women were working themselves to the bone back then. Sure, they had household responsibilities to attend to, and they did it well. But it was nothing like the hard labor and factory work that the average man was doing.

When the US government shipped the majority of its productive male population overseas to fight in the Second World War, women had to make up the difference at home. They discovered a few things: (1) work is hard, (2) work is satisfying, (3) they could do work just as well as men could. It is not surprising that women decided they'd like to continue working, even after the men came home. So they did, and it was to society's great benefit on many different levels.

It didn't happen overnight. Female workforce participation gradually increased over time, and it continues to do so. It is not yet on par with that of men, but it's getting there, and wages are equalizing, too. Whether or not you view these trends as "favorable," they are a fact. Those of us who support the equality of women are happy with this development.

There is just one small detail to account for: now that households receive a greater proportion of their income from female family members, they (by mathematical definition) receive a lesser proportion from males.

Another way to look at this is to note that, given that a household does not necessarily need two full-time workforce participators to operate, we should not be surprised that fewer men wish to work at all. Furthermore, it's not a bad thing. Work sucks. There is a reason economists call it "the disutility of labor." We only work because we have to. If we get a big boost of utility from our income, then we will work more; if work starts to suck, we will work less. We navigate this trade-off until we find a good, personal equilibrium at which we are working enough that going to work doesn't totally suck, but not so much that it becomes unbearable. Then we go home and live the rest of our lives.

It's tempting for economists - especially macroeconomists - to view human beings as "productivity machines." Even business managers buy into this concept. But, at the end of the day, we work to live, not live to work. If women decide they want to work more, that's great. If men decide they want to work less, so be it. What will likely happen is that households will find a point where they can "split the difference" and enjoy as much leisure and as little labor as possible.

My opinion - backed by no data whatsoever - is that this is what we're observing. Society is changing. Work isn't the be-all, end-all for everybody. If you could get away with one fewer hour of work if it meant gaining one extra hour at home, wouldn't you take that deal?