Status and Joblessness

· March 6, 2019

Eugene Wei’s excellent Status as a Service post rang a bell for me in terms of the puzzle of the jobless prime age men in the US. The difference from just unemployment is that the folks in the jobless cohort have opted out of even trying to get work. They’re most white and in mostly former manufacturing heavy areas. They score lower on optimism than their counterparts in most of the world, and interestingly even lower than US black and latino men in similar states (See Graham and Pinto’s recent work). They view their life as worse than their parents, and don’t expect it to get better.

One nugget I heard was that many other groups of people will take on care work (which has boomed most everywhere), but that the men in this group are somewhat resistant to it, even when available. Care is, in my read of society, a somewhat lower status industry. The manufacturing jobs that these folks, or their fathers, had possessed a strong image as an industry, supported by some of the most significant unions, that helped make them broadly respected.

As well as social status, those jobs provided reasonable wages and a social environment, but my impression is that without a reasonable status reward people are going to be be hesitant to re-enter the job market - if they can be comfortable enough, and get their status another way. For example, time use studies show that games have become a significant part of jobless men’s days, which can be a great provider of status.

One of my takeaways from Wei’s piece was that everyone needs a place in their lives to have high status, and that people will prioritize status over economic advantage, at least partially. I suspect even if you could inject a good employer that required a similar qualification/education level (say a forward looking call center) into an area hit with high joblessness, you’d still fail at making a dent in those statistics because of this.