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In a paper last year on the disappearance of many prime-age men from the US workforce, Princeton economist Alan Krueger presented the unsettling finding that 44 percent of working-age men who were not in the labor force reported taking pain medication on a regular basis, and two-thirds of these men were taking prescription pain medication. While improvements in video game technology may be contributing to these men’s lower workforce participation by making long-term unemployment more bearable, Krueger wrote, their high rates of poor health and use of narcotic painkillers are much more disconcerting.
In the Fall 2017 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Krueger publishes an update of that research with new data, homing in on the impact of opioid epidemic on the labor market. That impact, he finds, is even more significant than previously thought, accounting for some 20 percent of the decrease in men’s labor force participation between 1999 and 2015, and 25 percent of the decrease among women, Brookings editor Fred Dews explains:
Krueger’s paper suggests that, though much of the decline can be attributed to an aging population and other trends that pre-date the Great Recession (for example, increased school enrollment of younger workers), an increase in opioid prescription rates might also play an important role in the decline, and undoubtedly compounds the problem as many people who are out of the labor force find it difficult to return to work because of reliance on pain medication.
One of the most challenging and puzzling trends in the US labor market since the Great Recession has been the persistently high number of long-term unemployed Americans of working age. Even as the economy has improved and the labor market has tightened, labor force participation remains at a lull, and many of those who dropped out of the workforce in the past decade appear unwilling or unable to re-enter it. That’s particularly true of prime-age men without college degrees, who have lost ground in the job market as traditional blue-collar jobs have disappeared or become less lucrative—and will most likely continue to disappear in the coming decade as roles mostly held by women grow in availability and importance.
Employers and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to get these men re-engaged in the workforce, whether through earning college degrees or transitioning into traditionally female-dominated professions like health care. There is, however another possible explanation for the decline of work among young men: What if they’re not working as much because they don’t want to? What if they’d rather be playing video games? That’s the provocative conclusion of a new paper by economists Erik Hurst, Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, and Kerwin Charles, released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The New York Times‘ Quoctrung Bui goes over the paper’s findings in detail:
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. …
Hurst and his colleagues estimate that, since 2004, video games have been responsible for reducing the amount of work that young men do by 15 to 30 hours over the course of a year. Using the recession as a natural experiment, the authors studied how people who suddenly found themselves with extra time spent their leisure hours, then estimated how increases in video game time affected work.