Jobs and the Future of Work

Young American men are choosing video games over work in staggering numbers

A gamer wears headphones while playing a game at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, in Los Angeles, California June 10, 2014.  REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn   (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS) - RTR3T4ON

As of 2016, 15% of men between 21 and 30 were not working or in full-time education. Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

David Z. Morris
Technology Writer, Fortune
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Future of Work

New research has found a surprising culprit for the serious decline in working hours among young American men over the last 15 years: video games.

The decline of young men’s working rate has been steady and substantial over nearly two decades. As of 2016, 15% of men between 21 and 30 were not working or in full-time education—nearly double the 8% rate in 2000. Aggregate hours worked for men in that group fell by 12% between 2000 and 2015, higher than the declines for older male workers.

Image: Statista

A research team including faculty from Princeton and the University of Chicago now argues that “innovations in gaming/recreational computing”— and not, say, lower demand for less-skilled workers—explain as much as 79% of the difference in working rates between younger and older men.

From the outside, the lives of the young men in question may seem grim. The researchers found that 67% of non-working young men now live with a parent or close relative, compared to 46% of the same group in 2000, suggesting that many are relying on family to support them long-term. They average 520 hours a year on their computers, and 60% of that is spent on gaming.

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But the paper further cites survey data showing that these men reported increased happiness overall despite their reduced circumstances, suggesting that advances in gaming are making imaginary worlds more enjoyable than the real one. That sense of satisfaction with giving up on work might be the paper’s scariest finding for those concerned about the health of the U.S. economy.

The overall decline in the total labor force participation rate since 2000 has been described by Federal Reserve researchers as “nearly unprecedented in the postwar experience.” While the unemployment rate has dropped to a very healthy 4.3%, that only includes active job-seekers. Depressed labor force participation has often been blamed on the continuing fallout of the Great Recession in 2008, with its long tail of reduced opportunity and low wages.

But the new research points to the possibility that it also reflects permanent lifestyle changes for some. Lower labor force participation is a serious headwind for the economy, meaning video games could ultimately cause a permanent downshift in U.S. growth—particularly since the advent of virtual reality is making permanent escape even more alluring.

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