The middle-class millennial white man is not his father. He’s more educated, he’s less driven by money, and perhaps for the first time in human history, he has to compete on a somewhat more even playing field to get a job.
“Like many others, I was told that if you do well in college, work for free at unpaid internships and try to start from the bottom, that you can get a job and work your way up,” says 28-year-old Hunter Carlin. “The problem is, that isn’t possible for everyone in those positions. On paper, coming out of college, I should’ve been fine: Good grades, internships, right city for the jobs I was looking for, etc. But there are just so many people in that exact position.”
Since graduating from college in 2012, Carlin has had a string of short-lived jobs. He’s worked in retail; he’s interned without pay at various production companies; he’s worked at internet startups; he’s even gone back to school to get a degree in web design to improve his career prospects. And yet, in the seven years since graduating college, he has spent more time unemployed than he has with a full-time, paying job.
How then does Carlin manage to survive financially?
“[Investing in] crypto played a big part in having any actual money to survive,” he says. “Another thing I started working on two months ago is a small online drop shipping website. It’s basically back-door sales — products that I find cheaply through Chinese retail websites and then market on Facebook and Instagram to people here in the U.S.”
In other words, Carlin, at least for the time being, has withdrawn from the traditional labor market and endeavored to find alternative means to make money, which according to Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, is at least one reason why today’s unemployment numbers, touted as being the lowest in half a century, is misleading. “Historically, the survey data from people who are self-employed or independent contractors is considerably less reliable than the survey data of people who punch a clock 40 hours a week,” he explains. What he’s essentially saying is that unemployment rates may seem low, but that’s because millennial men have taken themselves out of the game.
In 2018, Bloomberg reported something similar. “Though employment rates have been climbing back from the abyss, young men never caught up again,” writes Jeanna Smialek. “Millennial males remain less likely to hold down a job than the generation before them, even as women their age work at higher rates.”
Admittedly, the focus of Smialek’s article and the data she cites is mainly around men without a college degree. But the explanation that Nathan Butcher, then a 25-year-old high school graduate, gave her — “I’m very quick to get frustrated when people refuse to pay me what I’m worth” — is strikingly similar to the one Carlin gives me. “There’s sort of survival, like financial survival, but then there’s also survival like mental health survival,” he explains. “I could take a job and make a tiny bit of money to survive off of, but it would be so soul-crushing.”
Madowitz, for one, isn’t surprised that millennial men like Carlin are finding themselves increasingly at odds with the traditional model of work. “There’s been a pullback from traditional jobs amongst men,” says Madowitz. “You’ve had a long-term decline in men having formal attachment to the labor force.”
While there’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, Madowitz says it has little to do with the common narrative that millennial men are too busy playing video games. Instead, he argues that millennials like Carlin, who entered the labor market at a time when it was less likely than ever to adequately reward them for their work — “I couldn’t get any interviews and I tried doing some freelance stuff, but I could barely find anything, so I took an unpaid internship at a design agency,” says Carlin — were simply less likely to feel the upside of working.
“The intuition is logical, right?” says Madowitz. “If my internal perception was that I’d be paid 10 percent higher than I’d actually be paid, I’d probably be more motivated to look for jobs. But if that number went down, I’d probably be less motivated.” And in the case of young people who graduated at a time when the economy was still recovering from a recession, their initial interaction — which informed their general perception of the labor market — left a sour taste in their mouth. “Not to mention those perceptions [millennials had] look increasingly correct because there does seem to be this very long-term, history dependent, lower salary offer situation [for millennials],” Madowitz says.
Further, he adds, “There’s this unemployment idea that the long-term stigma of being unemployed makes it harder for you to get employed. Similar to that is something called ‘cohort scarring’ — if your wages are permanently depressed over your lifetime, that’s always gonna drive down your incentive to live for work in a standard economic model sense.”
Of course, while this feeling may be new to white men, such a particular economic feature of capitalism — unrequited expectations — has long been familiar to everyone else. It’s why, according to Madowitz, Carlin’s reaction to feeling left out of the labor force — seeking out alternative means by which to make a living — is in many ways following the model created by others who have historically dealt with economic roadblocks.
“That’s a reaction you see commonly in other groups — minorities, immigrants, women, people who have traditionally faced much more due to discrimination,” he explains. “Those who traditionally face diminished labor market opportunities are more entrepreneurial and start their own business, or work alternative arrangements at significantly higher rates. The median small business owner is an immigrant who opened a nail salon because they couldn’t seem to get employed with anyone and start with their level of skill.”
While it might sound worrying for the health of an economy that, historically speaking, the most pervasive cohort (white men) are retreating from the labor force, the long-term effects could potentially bring about a positive sea change in the way families approach employment. “I still know too many families where the higher earning, more employable female spouse steps back from the labor market after having a child,” says Madowitz. He believes that men taking on more flexible jobs may help a new generation of fathers become much more capable of taking on domestic responsibilities. “The scourge of having men with flexible jobs may turn into a real opportunity of fathers with flexible jobs,” he adds.
So in the end, it may be the very inflexibility of an economy built on traditional gender roles that ultimately brings down the male-dominated labor apparatus, one stay-at-home dad at a time.