Charles Murray and the NEETs
Charles Murray is the author of “Belmont and Fishtown”, a book that delves at some length into a collection of social mores that have emerged since the 1960s. Among these are the decline of marriage in lower income white males, working age males that are fit to work but choose not to, and the geographical and social isolation of various income groups. I have not read this book, what I have read is a shorter synopsis written up in the Wall Street Journal. There was also a follow-on column that was his response to certain assertions made by liberals about the decline of income stability due to outsourcing and offshoreing.
The term NEET means “Not in Education, Employment, or Training” and refers to someone of working age who has dropped out of the workforce by choice. Mr. Murray asserts that as many as 25% of working age males could work but don’t, and its his opinion that these people should be castigated as “bums”. In short, social stigma should be used to drive or coax these people back into the workforce. It’s my feeling, as described here, that this is why a lot of these people are out of the workforce in the first place. Some of the arguments below will appear familiar, since there is the usual subtext of drug use and abuse regarding employability. Certain other assertions may not be so self-evident.
Mr. Murray was also an author in “The Bell Curve”, an attempt to “prove” that IQs were different in various racial groups. This created a huge backlash as academics started trolling through their databases to find the real facts. A surprising pattern emerged, that IQs tended to rise by 10% in each generation. If the original book had not been published, it’s doubtful that any research would have been done to refute it. Cranks have their uses.
Mr. Murray’s assertions in his book have deliberately excluded minorities and ignore the rest of the world. He focuses on whites in the various income and social scales to point out that marriage and the work ethic is declining in the ranks of lower income whites. My anecdotal experience supports both these assertions. I graduated from high school in 1972, and my experiences and what I’ve observed from my peers agrees with his statements. If one looks beyond American borders, at Europe and Japan, one sees similar behavior. This “disease”, if you will, infects most of what we describe as Western Civilization. The situation in Japan, from what I can tell, is the absolute worst.
I have pointed out in forums elsewhere that much of the American attitude to work and marriage leading into the generations alive today was forged in the Depression and WW II. These were, in their various ways, influential in Europe in Japan as well. Those born in the 1950s did not, for the most part, live with the deprivations and threats to their lives their parents did, and those born to the boomers in from the late 1970s onwards grew up where public institutions had, in theory, discarded gender and racial bias.
As women and minorities moved into the technical, managerial, and professional ranks they frequently discovered the atmosphere was “hostile”, and saw to it that laws were passed and lawsuits won to “equalize” the social context as well as the initial steps of simply being hired on qualifications. The last few decades of the 20th century were rife with such stories, and it didn’t take much in the way of number crunching or direct observation to validate the complaints. However, this may have created a side effect - people who don’t like playing by these rules simply drop out of the workforce.
One could pick four dimensions, at the very least, of motivations for abandoning full-time or even any employment at all - drug abuse, ‘chauvinist attitudes’, unpleasant personal habits, and oppressive working environments.
For the most part, employers now test for marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. People that hang out in nightclubs end up being exposed to this stuff and partake of it, and fail their drug tests. Plenty of people are habitual users and aren’t fit to work in a regularly scheduled 8 hour shift. They might do great as football players or musicians, or more to the point high-risk, high reward, talent driven activities that pay a lot of money for periodic but short appearances. Athletes and musicians practice, but these are done ‘in season’ or as circumstances require, which often proves to be minimal. Those that don’t have these talents are more or less out of luck.
There are people with attitudes that convey racial or gender bias (as well as others), and there is more overt behavior. The former is talk, the latter is action, and either one of them can leave someone in a position where they are persona-non-grata. At some point someone realizes they are fundamentally not fit to work in environments where they are around people ‘not like’ themselves, and simply decide there’s no point in getting hired again, only for their habits to catch up with them. Often members of their family understand this, whether it’s parents or spouses, and let them “bum” off the family. What is far more likely in these situations is that there is some economic activity, which might be selling stuff on web sites, mowing lawns for neighbors, shade-tree mechanic, or other activity that is largely invisible to government. For this reason, the real and the actual “unemployment” numbers are likely to be highly divergent.
Smoking is generally the personal habit that creates social friction at work, along with personal hygiene. The more this becomes a barrier to working effectively, the more some people simply choose not to bother. Again, this is a situation where families and friends are often forgiving, since they may be in the same boat, and it’s also a situation where working at home is a big part of the coping strategy.
One of my periodic weaknesses is a chocolate milkshake - preferably large. I can buy a ‘cheap’ one at a chain store for about $3. I can buy a bigger and more expensive one in a higher end burger joint for $4, and I can buy an ‘Austin Weird’ version for $5. So what is it I get for the extra $2?
The chain store is located on a bus route - a high traffic area where people can drive through, dine-in, or carry-out. The combination of cheap food and pedestrian traffic means that there will be people that show up, and perhaps hang out, that might drive away other customers. So certain things are done to make sure people don’t stick around. One of these is to pipe a particularly obnoxious radio station into the dining area, and place speakers so that one cannot escape the onslaught. The signal is unmistakable - you have your treat, we have your money, now GET OUT.
The side effect of this, needless to say, is that if you can’t stand eating there, you’re not going to work there either. Does it really need to be pointed out that restaurants these days are full of TVs, video games, and other background content that tends to drive some people up the wall? In some contexts this is simply a fact of life - retailers have to strike a balance that creates optimum traffic levels, and employee comfort is, unfortunately or not, secondary. So these locations have ‘help-wanted’ signs out all the time, even when the rest of the economy is abysmal.
To the extent that these things are true, stigmatizing non-workers is just adding insult to injury. Social pressure does not make better people. What happens more generally is that people find a ‘gig’, so to speak, and learn to get by on an a-la-carte basis.
The technology portfolio available at this point has created more opportunity then there are deadbeats to fill it, although this may not be so evident on the surface. Again, as pointed out elsewhere, within the US there are 300 million people and at least 300 million computers. In olden times there were TV repair shops. These days you can take your pick: PC, laptop, printer, network, and cell phone repair. If you can survive two years at junior college there’s network and/or server administration. This is before the website design, programming, database administration, or technical writing activities that involve some experience and sophistication. And there is the endless array of Internet storefronts, often selling stuff you could go pick up at your local big box retailer for nearly the same price.
And there are still plenty of people that making a living out of the backs of their pickup trucks, a mode of survival that technically runs back to the emergence of hand- or horse-drawn wheeled vehicles.
In short, the fact that a ‘large number’ of working age males are not evidently in the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ‘bumming’, although some are. It does imply a more nebulous economy that, in many respects, is becoming both more attractive and more prevalent.
Of course, this kind of ad-hoc existence is not good for families. Traditionally one would struggle to provide for one’s kids, these days the ‘solution’ is ‘if you don’t have them you don’t have to pay for them’. Birthrates in Japan and Europe tend to run 1.5 children per women, suggesting that a large number of people have given up on the idea of ever raising a family. Many components of American society fit this description - it is balanced out by other religious or cultural groups that have no inhibitions about filling their houses with lots of kids.
There is a lot of outrage on both the left and the right about the decline of economic security or morals, respectively. The left’s solution is redistribution, the right’s is social and cultural pressure. Both are simply destructive. As hinted above, people have to make sure that what government records say and actual experience on the ground agree - lots of evidence suggests they don’t. Since businesses are not going to hire smoking drug user bigots, they will have to deal increasingly with business-to-business contracting. Much of this work will be done at some distance, so that co-workers don’t have to live with the smoke, stench, or bad-mouth. It’s a modern day management challenge - deal with it.