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“Every time I see it, that number blows my mind.”

Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, was delivering a speech at the Booth School of Business this June about the rise in leisure among young men who didn’t go to college. He told students that one “staggering” statistic stood above the rest. “In 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men [those without a college degree] aged 21 to 30 had not worked at all during the prior twelve months,” he said.

“Think about that for a second,” he went on. Twentysomething male high-school grads used to be the most dependable working cohort in America. Today one in five are now essentially idle. The employment rate of this group has fallen 10 percentage points just this century, and it has triggered a cultural, economic, and social decline. “These younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives,” he said.

So, what are are these young, non-working men doing with their time? Three quarters of their additional leisure time is spent with video games, Hurst’s research has shown. And these young men are happy—or, at least, they self-report higher satisfaction than this age group used to, even when its employment rate was 10 percentage points higher.

It is a relief to know that one can be poor, young, and unemployed, and yet fairly content with life; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent society is that it can make even poverty bearable. But the long-term prospects of these men may be even bleaker than their present. As Hurst and others have emphasized, these young men have disconnected from both the labor market and the dating pool. They are on track to grow up without spouses, families, or a work history. They may grow up to be rudderless middle-aged men, hovering around the poverty line, trapped in the narcotic undertow of cheap entertainment while the labor market fails to present them with adequate working opportunities.

Here is the conundrum: Writers and economists from half a century ago and longer anticipated that the future would buy more leisure time for wealthy workers in America. Instead, it just bought them more work. Meanwhile, overall leisure has increased, but it’s the less-skilled poor who are soaking up all the free time, even though they would have the most to gain from working. Why?

Here are three theories.

1. The availability of attractive work for poor men (especially black men) is falling, as the availability of cheap entertainment is rising.

The most impressive technological developments since 1970 have been “channeled into a narrow sphere of human activity having to do with entertainment, communications, and the collection and processing of information,” the economist Robert Gordon wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. As with any industry visited by the productivity gods, entertainment and its sub-kingdoms of music, TV, movies, games, and text (including news, books, and articles) have become cheap and plentiful.

Meanwhile, the labor force has erected several barriers for young non-college men, both overt—like the Great Recession and the decades-long demise of manufacturing jobs—and insidious. As the sociologist William Julius Wilson and the economist Larry Katz have both told me, the labor market’s fastest growing jobs are not historically masculine or particularly brawny. Rather they prize softer skills, as in retail, education, or patient-intensive health care, like nursing. In the 20th century, these jobs were filled by women, and they are still seen as feminine by many men who would simply rather not do them. Black men also face resistance among retail employers, who assume that potential customers will regard them as threatening.

And so, at the very moment that the labor market obliterated manufacturing jobs and shifted toward more soft-skill service jobs, diversion became a vastly discounted experience that could provide a moment’s joy at home. As a result, entertainment has become an inferior good, where the young and poor work less and play more.

2. Social forces cultivate a conspicuous industriousness (even workaholism) among affluent college graduates.

The first theory doesn’t do anything to explain why rich American men work so much harder than they used to, even though they are richer. That’s odd, since the point of earning money is ostensibly to afford things that make you happy, like free time.

But perhaps that’s just it: Rich, ambitious Americans are already spending more time on what makes them fulfilled, but that thing turned out to be work. Work, in this construction, is a compound noun, composed of the job itself, the psychic benefits of accumulating money, the pursuit of status, and the ability to afford the many expensive enrichments of an upper-class lifestyle.

In a widely shared essay in the Wall Street Journal last week, Hilary Potkewitz hailed 4 a.m. as “the most productive hour.” She quoted entrepreneurs, lawyers, career coaches, and cofounders praising the spiritual sanctity of the pre-dawn hours. As one psychiatrist told her, “when you have peace and quiet and you’re not concerned with people trying to get your attention, you’re dramatically more effective.”

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