Sunday, July 09, 2017

Gaming. Why young men are walking away from work?

A team of researchers in the United States might have just cracked one of the biggest mysteries in economics. It's why young men are vanishing, in Australia as well as overseas.

A decade or so back we had a good idea of where they were. Of the Australian men aged 15 to 24 who weren't in school or higher education, an impressive 85 per cent were working.

That was back in May 2007. By May this year it had fallen to 78.6 per cent. That's one in every five young men not in education now not working, up from one in every seven a few years back. An extra 51,000 young men have "gone dark", slipped under the statistical radar.

And hardly any women. Young women not in education are about as likely to work as they used to be.

No-one's too sure what the young men are doing. Tragically, our Bureau of Statistics hasn't run a time-use survey since 2006. We don't know who supports them - is it girlfriends, is it parents? And we don't know why they are not working or if they'll start. Might they have suddenly found work hard to get? It's possible. These days there are fewer (traditionally male) manufacturing jobs and far more (traditionally female) healthcare and social services jobs. Might the minimum wage have priced them out of work? It's unlikely, because young men are also falling out of work in the United States.

etween 2000 and 2015, the hours worked by American men in their 20s slid 12 per cent. The slice of those not in education who'd been out of work for at least a year jumped from 8 to 15 per cent.

It isn't showing up in the unemployment rate. America's unemployment rate is very low, lower than Australia's. That's because most of these men aren't looking for work. They're doing something else. And, in America at least, we've a good idea of what it is.

In the US, they still conduct a time-use survey. Every year they ask thousands of Americans where they were at each moment of the day, who they were with, and what they were doing.

Young men cut back on work by an average of 2.5 hours per week between 2004 and 2015. All of it became extra leisure time, an astonishing 1.9 hours of it extra "recreational computer time", and 1.4 hours of it "gaming" – using computers to play video games.

Before 2004 gaming was small time. Massive multiplayer online games hadn't been invented. There was no World of Warcraft, the graphics weren't lifelike. Gaming has swiftly become very, very attractive. But mainly to young men, not women. That couldn't be why they are deserting work, could it?

Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, Kerwin Kofi and Charles Erik believe it is. Economists at Princeton University, the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago, they believe the increasing quality of video games explains half of the retreat from work of young men since 2004.

Their study, published on the 4th of July, is entitled Leisure Luxuries and the Labour Supply of Young Men.

Their statistical analysis suggests that gaming is like any other luxury. The greater your ability to buy it (in this case with time), the more of it you want. They find that television (even Netflix) isn't a luxury. When people get more time, they don't spend an ever greater proportion of it watching TV.

As gaming becomes better and better, it's rational for people to sacrifice more and more of other things to do more of it, especially if they can get by financially. They find an astonishing 67 per cent of non-employed men in their 20s live with their families, up from 46 per cent in 2000. And they don't mind it much, either. Men in their 20s are happier than they were in the year 2000. Older men, who aren't into gaming, are more miserable.