Young Men Give Up Work for Video Games? Be Skeptical

It's a stretch to assume that guys are choosing electronic entertainment over employment.

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In our debate about unemployment last September, my Bloomberg View colleague Tyler Cowen put forward the hypothesis that many young American men are staying out of the workforce in order to indulge in electronic media. Tyler was probably referring to research by Chicago Booth School of Business economist Erik Hurst. Hurst, along with a number of co-authors, has been promoting the theory that advances in video games have made joblessness more enjoyable, inducing young men to go from workers to couch potatoes.

Now, in a new paper with Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils and Kerwin Kofi Charles, Hurst argues forcefully for this thesis. Using data from the American Time Use Survey, they show that young men are spending more of their time playing video games compared with a decade ago:

That’s probably not too surprising. Most forms of entertainment -- watching TV, playing sports, dating -- are at most only marginally different than they were decades ago. But video games have improved by leaps and bounds, driven by better graphics technology and faster internet connectivity. Sprawling multiplayer online games such as "World of Warcraft," e-sports like "League of Legends," and many other products have turned gaming from an occasional pastime into a lifestyle. It’s unsurprising that video games are replacing other leisure activities.

But Hurst et al. are making a much bigger claim. They are saying that video games have gotten so good that they’re actually causing workers to stop working en masse -- in other words, that unemployment has now become funemployment. The authors claim that about 23 percent to 46 percent of the reduced work time of younger men between 2004 and 2015 can be explained by awesome video games.

That’s actually less astonishing of a claim than it sounds. Because the economy had already recovered substantially from the Great Recession by 2015, Hurst et al. are not claiming that the downturn represented a “great vacation” -- instead, they’re saying that after the smoke from the recession cleared, young men weren’t working quite as much as they did in the past, and that a substantial minority of this long-term change was due to better video games (which they estimate that young men enjoy more than other groups).

If the authors are right, it means that economists and policy makers shouldn’t be freaking out so much about the decline in young male employment. If men are leaving work to do things they enjoy, it means that society is beginning to transition to the leisure society that economists such as John Maynard Keynes have long predicted. Keynes probably didn’t anticipate that the people of the future would spend their time blowing up candy-colored monsters on glowing screens, but the idea of humans laying down their burdens and enjoying an easy existence is a very old dream. It’s possible we’re now inching toward that state.

That said, there are reasons to be skeptical of Hurst et al.’s result. First of all, the authors find that men without jobs are actually spending less total time in leisure activities:

Young non-employed men -- who could be looking for work, in school or just wasting time in their parents’ basement -- are spending more time playing video games than before. But they’re also spending less time watching TV, socializing and engaging in other leisure activities, and a lot more time studying and looking for jobs.

That doesn’t fit at all with the authors’ theory. If video games have been luring employed men out of work, it makes sense that the games also would be reducing the time non-employed men spend on looking for work or getting an education. Instead, the opposite has happened. That implies that the authors’ model is incomplete in some way.

The authors also don’t investigate an important possibility -- that unemployment results in men liking video games more, rather than vice versa. Finding themselves with nothing to do after losing their jobs amid the Great Recession, many young men might have developed a video-game habit. This effect could dissipate as the labor market recovers, or it could cause a lasting decrease in young men’s work ethic -- a phenomenon known as labor-market hysteresis. A decline in work ethic sounds a lot more worrisome than an improvement in video-game quality.

Finally, Hurst et al.’s result depends on a very simplified model of human behavior. For example, their model doesn’t allow for workers to look into the future and anticipate the negative result that funemployment will have on their long-term careers. Some economists have made models of this, and concluded that reduced working hours could be due to diminished chances of promotion, rather than to increasingly fun leisure time.

So don’t be too quick to relax about reduced working hours. They could be the beginnings of a leisure society, or they could represent a dysfunctional economy. It’s just not clear yet what’s going on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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