Economists are concerned that young men are turning away from work to play video games. A new working paper from Erik Hurst, Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils and Kerwin Charles argues that recent advances in video games have made them so enticing, so completely addictive that young men would rather play video games than work.
Well, I mean. Sometimes I’d rather play video games than work, but have Hurst, Aguiar, Bils and Charles really proved a connection between the comparative dip in employment that Millennial and Gen Z men experience? Not… really.
What got them thinking along these lines is the first place is that young men are working a bit less on average today than same age young men did only a few years ago. As Quoctrung Bui puts it in the NY Times,
By 2015, American men 31 to 55 were working about 163 fewer hours a year than that same age group did in 2000. Men 21 to 30 were working 203 fewer hours a year. One puzzle is why the working hours for young men fell so much more than those of their older counterparts. The gap between the two groups grew by about 40 hours a year, or a full workweek on average.
Most economists put this difference down to wider economic trends, like the expansion of precious labour at the expense of full time jobs and the increasing reliance on contingent workers. The problem is understood as being with the job market, not the job seeker – these young men would probably work but a combination of economic factors have made that difficult. Hurst, Aguiar, Bils and Charles turned that around to ask: what’s wrong with these young men that they don’t have jobs? And their answer was: video games.
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The team was able to show that young men are spending more of their time on leisure today than they did 10 years ago, and the percentage of that time spent on video games is indeed slightly higher. However, their paper can’t speak to motivation. They can show that young men in America are gaming more but it doesn’t necessarily follow that is by those same young men’s design – what they can’t show, is that they want to be gaming and not working.
Like I said above – sometimes we all want to spend the day on gaming (or the leisure activity of your choice). But games didn’t get better – more immersive, more social, more responsive – over night, and that labour force participation dip doesn’t correlate to introduction of video games in America or anywhere else. In fact, the depressed employment numbers for young men that inspired the working paper in the first place can’t be reproduced anywhere else – nowhere but in America is there a (slight) correlation between more gaming and less working.
What seems more likely is that the correlation between gaming and work is just a correlation. Not proof of a new form of social decline. It’s also possible that young men are filling the time spent unemployed with games that give them a sense of productivity and accomplishment – but to prove that we’d have to conduct an entirely different kind of study.
In the meantime, let’s stick to what we do know and can prove about youth and early career employment.