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The rise of the slacker aristocracy American men are giving up on work

'Men, despite growing wealthier, feel increasingly alienated by a society that still views a job as an admission ticket to polite society.' (Credit: Pineapple Express)

'Men, despite growing wealthier, feel increasingly alienated by a society that still views a job as an admission ticket to polite society.' (Credit: Pineapple Express)


May 2, 2024   5 mins

One is an amateur filmmaker and stay-at-home-dad whose wife is an executive at a financial services firm. Another founded two technology companies and is taking some time out after selling each for millions of dollars. The third supports himself with proceeds from investments. Each of these men is a friend of mine. Viewed as economic statistics, however, they have two other things in common. First, each is wealthier than is typical for men in their early 30s. Second, each is part of a growing population that many experts think are undergoing an existential crisis: men who are in the prime of their working lives, but who neither have a job nor want one.

Many view the co-existence of these two economic characteristics as, if not a paradox, a cause for concern. Indeed, a number of observers, from Left-leaning policy wonks like Larry Summers and Richard Reeves to Right-leaning US senators such as Josh Hawley, appear terrified of its implications. In March, for instance, as the Nasdaq soared to new records, the rate of prime-age labour force participation fell for men, despite rising for the population as a whole. So, what’s driving this, and how is it remaking the relations between the sexes at a time of escalating gender conflict?

Here, my friends could spare the social-policy establishment some man hours: they are a microcosm of a cause-and-effect relationship that ties together two trends. Among the surest ways to cause people to work less is to make them wealthier. When you have wealth — accumulated money and assets — you can afford to rely less on income from paychecks. “A larger bribe,” as one Harvard professor puts it, “will be required to convince a wealthier person to enter the labour market.” And a defining characteristic of the US economy in the 21st century has been an explosion in household wealth. In 1999, on average, the American household had $661,000 (in 2023 prices). By 2023, this had exploded to an average of $1.15 million. By historical standards, this is a mammoth gain: in the four decades before 1999, the increase in average household wealth was just $358,000.

Much of this wealth, it turns out, has accrued to men. “Although the gender income gap has narrowed,” according to a 2022 publication by Harvard’s Angela Lee, “the gender wealth gap has widened from the mid-Nineties to the mid-2010s.” The numbers are stark. “Women’s median wealth as a percentage of men’s median wealth dropped from 90% in the mid-Nineties,” Lee reports, “to 60% in the mid-2010s.” Why was this? The straightforward answer is that men were probably bigger asset-holders to begin with, and have historically tended to earn more money from their jobs and to work longer hours than women. Financial markets also reward bigger risks with bigger rate of return and, on average, men have tended to make riskier investments.

Other sources of wealth data tell the same story as Lee’s study. According to the US Census Bureau, the average man aged 25-54 who’s left the labour force now reports 21% more in income from investments than one with a job. The surprise, then, would be if America’s men were not choosing to work less.

So deeply has this trend become entrenched that it appears in one of the oldest and easiest to measure vectors of privilege: height. A population’s average height is a barometer of its economic status: it is economics’ equivalent to psychology’s “the body keeps the score”. The skeletons of the mummified elite in ancient Egypt are, on average, 3.6 inches longer than those of its commoners. The aristocrats of late-18th century Germany were 5.2 inches taller, on average, than its peasants. Data from the 20th century confirm this isn’t down to genetics. When South Korea grew rich while North Korea fell into the abyss, despite sharing a genetic pool, men in the south became three inches taller.

In terms of average height, America’s non-working men were once the commoners to its working pharaohs. For all intents and purposes, they are now eye-to-eye. In 2017, America’s prime-age men out of the labour force were 0.1 inches taller, on average, than those with jobs. This was the first time since the relevant CDC data begin in 1976 that they could look down on the working men. Back then, America’s prime-age men with jobs were 0.7 inches taller. That difference trended up until 1985, peaking at 0.9 inches before dropping back towards the convergence that prevails today.

Such biological analysis might suggest a wholesale economic revolution for American men. But, despite all the fretting about the number of drop-outs and a crisis of masculinity, this isn’t a society-wide issue. It is barely in the double-digits: the percentage of prime-age men who have left America’s labour force now sits at only 11%, up from 5% in October 1975. And this is because this isn’t a story about the male population, but about a sub-population of men: a class we might call the petit-aristocracy.

Like the aristocrats of the pre-industrial world, this group’s economic existence relies on assets. In this case, they were produced during the 21st century’s wealth explosion. And this species of aristocrat is petit not in height, but in consumption. Many maintain relatively modest lifestyles to be able to live without a steady paycheck. Some will work jobs for brief spells, however, if necessary. Their ephemeral imprint in the jobs numbers has even led to “in-and-out” becoming a term of America’s labour economics jargon as well as its fast food.

Though currently small, like America’s gross wealth and the number of people who own part of it, this petit-aristocracy is set to grow. Neither the dot-com bubble nor even a financial crisis changed the upward trend in the US wealth-to-income ratio that started around 1999. Because modern assets are not finite like land, today’s petit-aristocracy can grow its ranks in a way that land-based aristocracies couldn’t. Nor is the decision to drop out of the labour force purely a function of wealth. The allure of leisure relative to work matters, too. And if past is prologue, improvements in leisure technologies, such as video games, will increase leisure’s allure in ways that appeal particularly to men.

Where does this leave America’s women? Thanks to the liberating effects of household technology and changing gender norms, a “quiet revolution” has taken place, to the point where women now almost outnumber men in the workplace. And their readiness to work is what has facilitated men’s exit (without women, the gross national product would have collapsed). But they do not enjoy the same benefits of this position that men did in the 20th century. Women lack the financial power over men, now wealthy, that men once had over women, when gender norms locked women out of the labour market. And as they take over the job market that men are vacating, they’re not finding that jobs pave a path to happiness. “Female well-being appears to be compromised (or male well-being enhanced),” according to one representative study, “by high female involvement in gainful employment”.

The effect of this is to tee-up a clash of biblical proportions between men, women and norms about work. In Genesis, as humanity’s original punishment, God effectively hands the labour market over to Adam, and condemns Eve to live in the household. At least some men and women have long wanted to escape each of these settings. Now, each finally can. But will humanity’s technological and financial escape leave anybody, men or women, happier than they were in the divine prison? It’s unclear.

“The effect of this is to tee-up a clash of biblical proportions between men, women and norms about work”

As Oscar Wilde said, there are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting what you want. The challenge is that the social norms about the importance of work that increasingly satisfy men or women increasingly dissatisfy the other. Men out of the force would benefit from norms that facilitate their finding of purpose, identity, and flourishing, without jobs. The ancient Greeks, who viewed the enablement of leisure as the purpose of work, offer examples. And the obsession of manosphere activists with the Stoics, who lived before Christianity dominated the Western mind, is revealing in this regard. Women, meanwhile, would benefit from the social veneration of paid jobs associated with Weber’s Protestant Ethic. After all, abandoning the Protestant Ethic now, once women have finally entered the labour force, would be devaluing a social currency as soon as women start to acquire it.

This is the economic backdrop that today’s gender wars are playing out against. Men, despite growing wealthier, feel increasingly alienated by a society that still views a job as an admission ticket to polite society. Women, despite breaking ground in the labour market, sense that their gains have failed to turn into the lives of empowerment that they expected them to. What comes next is unclear — but it will certainly open a new chapter in the social history of Adam and Eve’s descendants.


Joseph W. Sullivan is a former White House economic official who now works at a global macroeconomic consultancy

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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
15 days ago

I think this article highlights another difference between men and women: men are better at leisure. Women always seem to want to be doing something, instead of just being able to chill, even when they have the opportunity.
The old saying “A woman’s work is never done” is probably due in equal measure to the amount of domestic/childcare work they undertake as well as paid employment, and that they also go looking for work. I am, of course, generalising here and personality also plays a part but – would you Adam and Eve it – the workforce data presenting in Western 21st century employment stats seems to back it up.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
15 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Upticked you. This is definitely the case with my wife and me.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
15 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Definitely think men and women are different at leisure. I wouldn’t characterize either as better. Women have better tribes, men maybe have better individual coping functions. Unless of course you count vacuuming as leisure. If so women are demonstrably superior.

David Morley
David Morley
14 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

I’d never thought of doing things you enjoy as a form of “coping” before.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
14 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Do alcoholics enjoy drinking?

David Morley
David Morley
14 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I think almost every man has noticed this. For women it definitely seems to be true that work expands to fill the time allocated for it. Indeed, it overflows into demands for men to do the same.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
13 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes, I have developed a finely-tuned in-built detector toward this and know when to make myself scarce.

J Bryant
J Bryant
15 days ago

I guess I’ve missed the point of this article. I understand that some men have acquired sufficient assets to leave the working world at a relatively young age. But, as the author notes, the percentage of men in that situation is quite small. He hints, but never quite states, this is a growing trend, although I’m not convinced. For now, though, relatively few men enjoy the ability to quit full-time work, so will this phenomenon ever be more than an economic oddity?
At the same time, more women are entering the workforce and finding their careers unfulfilling. This is an older and more significant story, and it’s unclear to me it’s related to the departure of a few men from the workforce. Women’s disappointment with a full-time career is entirely predictable: they were fooled by a mirage. Most men in the modern world don’t enjoy their jobs that much either. Perhaps there was a time, in the post-war boom years, when fulfilling, enjoyable careers were easy to obtain for men. But the rise of neoliberalism and globalization reduced all of us, despite our formal legal designation as full-time employees, to independent contractors fire-able at will. Our careers are more like random walks.
Then there’s the author’s suggestion that voluntarily retired men find their non-working status unsatisfying. Is that true? Like the author, I know relatively young men who exited the full-time workforce at the earliest opportunity. In my experience, those men don’t regret their decision and are willing to occasionally work but only on their own terms.
In my opinion, a small, privileged group of men renouncing full-time work in the modern, thankless economy doesn’t constitute a social trend. Most men still don’t have that option, and as women increasingly take on the best paid jobs, and accumulate assets, we’ll likely see a similar phenomenon among them.
As an aside, the author’s career summary next to his name is given as: “a former White House economic official who now works at a global macroeconomic consultancy.” I don’t know if it’s the author’s intention, but he sounds like a card-carrying member of the Deep State.

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
14 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think there has always been a lucky minority of young men & women (who most likely inherited wealth), who don’t need to work and only do so if they want to, or cash flow becomes an issue.

Matt M
Matt M
14 days ago

Indeed these slacker aristocrats sound like badly dressed members of the Drones Club.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
14 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Indeed well paid women already have a tendency to work part time or retire early to bring up their children. One of the problems for GP practices is that women GPs are much more likely to work part time.

David Morley
David Morley
14 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Women’s disappointment with a full-time career is entirely predictable: they were fooled by a mirage.

I think this always struck men as a bit odd. Feminists sold women on the idea that a burden was a benefit. Of all the things feminists might have focussed on, sending the majority of women out to do unfulfilling jobs and thus undermining the labour market for everyone not highly skilled, was just about the most foolish.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
14 days ago

The trend described is hardly surprising given that the prevailing ethos is to both increase taxes on income and depreciate as toxic masculinity economic striving on the part of men.

The economic Stanconovite in this phase of capitalism is neither celebrated nor rewarded on a post-tax basis. Once a reasonable average income can be secured through wealth accumulation what incentive does a man have to strive further to become a taller poppy?

Particularly since the rewards of paid employment are subject to discriminatory practices designed to reward women and minorities? Why participate in a rigged game once you can sit the game out?

David Morley
David Morley
14 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

And it’s really only feminists who have ever seen work as some sort of privilege which men have monopolised for themselves. Some work is relatively fulfilling, but an awful lot isn’t. Hardly surprising if people opt out if they can.

More concerning if this turns into a full blown aristocratic leisure class who effectively live off the rest of us.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
14 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Feminists want the money from work, that gives them freedom from relying on men.

That doesn’t mean they want the work itself.

David Morley
David Morley
14 days ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

The result is that most families are now locked into being dual earning.

I think it’s both. Feminists portrayed work as fulfilling and raising a family as not. On the issue of financial independence I have sympathy. Though as others have pointed out work just makes you financially dependent on your boss rather than your husband.

T Bone
T Bone
14 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The meat of article actually suggests there is no trend at all. Its all over the place. All it suggests to me is that some people have always known how to get ahead and the majority is bitter about it.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
14 days ago

I’m right in the middle of the demographic being discussed. I’m not convinced it’s a massive problem as I don’t know anyone else in my position. So I can only talk for myself. Although my job was certainly fulfilling it was so stressful it took a serious toll on my health that consequently ruined my social and love life to the extent the only benefits I actually seemed to get from it was to be able to afford more expensive wine that still gave me a hangover a swisher car that still got stuck in traffic, and nicer hospitals with prettier nurses to shove their fingers up my ass. It was a very poor trade. You reach the point with wealth where the more you have the more stressful it becomes as you tend to buy assets that require management on top of your work.
The difficulty with work as a source of purpose seems to me that either you’re working for someone else, which might allow you to maintain reasonable levels of stress and hours but you know your effort is really benefitting someone else, or you work for yourself and you basically never stop working. Neither are really attractive in the long term if you find a way not to do it. I suspect when work was generally more community driven it would have been more rewarding, but economies of scale are impossible to deny, so now you tend to be far removed from both suppliers, customers and even colleagues so the social benefits are much less obvious.
And certainly as alluded to in the article, it doesn’t help that there’s a constant diatribe about the patriarchy and inequality that devalues anything you might achieve and that women – probably for the better – don’t need you in order to survive. We seem in complete denial that a lot of what drives a man to any sort of action is the potential to increase his sexual market value. Women are at liberty to choose men based on their physical characteristics more than their wealth, so it makes more sense for a man to spend his time building his health and strength than it does earning another unimpressive dollar.
And with easy travel facilitating the ability to go wherever you need to follow your passions and technology like power tools and home recording equipment making once exclusive hobbies available to anyone, leisure time, for anyone with even a small amount of disposable income, has never been so fulfilling to anyone with a modicum of creativity. I worked in energy from food waste, a very socially beneficial enterprise, but faced with the choice of another decade stinking of decaying food, working every hour of the day and suffering the consequences or traveling the world surfing the best waves, building my house, and recovering my health there wasn’t much of a contest. Just my experience but I suspect many in this category are a variation on my theme.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
14 days ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

I’d agree entirely with all of that except for one detail: it’s definitely worth having prettier (female!) nurses stick their fingers up your ass (or arse, as we in the UK invented it… a good old Anglo Saxon term).

John Riordan
John Riordan
14 days ago

This phenomenon is not a problem primarily around the issue of gender. The primary problem is that a growing class of wealthy layabouts espousing luxury political beliefs will increasingly do enormous damage to society.

This is not a new thing of course: the typical climate activist that causes havoc on London’s streets, for example, is young and either unemployed, or possesses a “job” that permits them to spend days not actually working. The main reason they can do this is that the explosion in housing wealth in the 21st century means their family wealth helps them avoid the harsh reality of getting a proper job as soon as possible.

I am pretty sure it was actually an Unherd columnist who made the link between the rise of luxury politics (otherwise known as wokeism) and the asset bubble caused by the western response to the banking crisis, but either way it was a very perceptive point. Briefly, the theory is that wealthy people are attracted to luxury political belief systems because those ostensibly-progressive beliefs now possess the ideal property that wealth is not targeted or taxed as a consequence of implementing the beliefs, and there are a great many more people whose wealth has derived with little personal effort from the vast money-printing exercise that has been ongoing since 2008.

There are of course costs to the implementation of such belief systems, but those costs are borne by people on average and low incomes through loss of liberty and economic scleroticism, not wealthy people through taxation. I, personally, am a free marketeer tax-sceptic who will usually defend tax avoidance on principle – which makes me somewhat unpopular in certain conversations – but I would never support anything as scummy as something like that.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Some very good points

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
14 days ago

If you’re going to use a guy who sold companies millions and one who can live off of investments, then “slacker” is a disingenuous term to use. Perhaps a better view of “the economic backdrop that today’s gender wars are playing out against” would be the effects of a few decades worth of trying to create opportunities for women at the expense of men.
It was treated as a zero-sum dynamic for no rational reason. Christina Hoff Summers wrote “The War Against Boys” in 2000, outlining how boys were struggling in the new classroom atmosphere. Whether devalued or drugged into compliance, it didn’t help them. Women outnumber men on pretty much every US college campus, which is great for women until we get to the author’s question of, “Where does this leave America’s women?”
As one story after another shows, it leaves them alone and not feeling very good about it. Their potential mating pool has been artificially distorted as a result of what happened before college. While it does happen, the typical professional woman is NOT looking for a tradesman to marry, even though the skills shortage in the US means guys working in the trades can earn serious money. So, yeah; there is a problem, but it’s not one of guys who cashed in early.

Alan B
Alan B
14 days ago

Gee, who’d have though that mainstreaming the sado-masochistic imagination would result in something like the systematic enslavement of women, cloaked in the rhetoric of liberation?

On a more serious note, I’d take Polanyi (whose work was featured here earlier this week) over this sort of “analysis” any day

Georgivs Novicianvs
Georgivs Novicianvs
14 days ago

The key phrase of this article is “this group’s economic existence relies on assets”. Thing is the value of these assets may be ephemeral.
Let’s imagine, a guy buys a house from another guy for one million of something with a loan from a bank. The seller gets 1M in cash, the buyer gets a house worth 1M, and the bank has a loan that is projected to bring it 1.5M or something. That’s 3.5M worth of assets. Then an economic crisis hits and the housing market crashes. The buyer has the house foreclosed and loses everything. The bank has a bad loan on its books and the house now worth .2M or something. And then if the seller gets “lucky”, his bank crashes, too, but is not bailed out by the government. So he loses most of his cash, too. The end result is a bit less than 3.5M. But that initial estimation of the value of assets has already made it to the official statistics. The government officials and university professors keep operating with it and talking about the “explosion in household wealth”.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
14 days ago

It is all inflation, there is no real added value. You are spot on.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
14 days ago

Well then how do I become wealthy enough through investments to give up my job? Information sadly lacking in the article.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
14 days ago

Jeez, seems like men just can’t catch a break from the radical feminist point of view.

Simon James
Simon James
13 days ago

There’s an inescapable tragic arc to all this. Modernity forces women to be like men, but the male norms women are chasing change when they get close to attaining them.

Matthew Freedman
Matthew Freedman
12 days ago

Some people inherit buy to let properties and then do nothing the rest their lives. It’s hypocritical to complain about economic immigration when you stop working and thus create the requirement for the government to get more labour from the world.

Stevie K
Stevie K
11 days ago

This piece is written by somebody with an amazing lack of self awareness about their elite social setting. Only a tiny minority of men have the choice to be able to live well while not engaged in wage labour. Yes, a growing minority of men are either pushed into or choose to join the precariat, working in flexible and insecure fields less prone the rigged jungle warfare of the gender wars in the corporate sector. The statistic on male versus female wealth is I suspect being presented out of context. The revealing long term phenomenon across the whole western world is that women are the decision-makers for the majority of spending (just ask any market research company), which is why most advertising is explicitly targeted at them as the actual buyers, so who should we attribute the wealth to? It’s complicated isn’t it.