Not God’s Design: Men Falling Out of the Workforce (Part I)
This post was written in conjunction with Neal Cushman’s appearance on The Steve Noble Show on Oct. 7.
“$7500 Signing Bonus.”
“Starting Pay: $14 per Hour.”
Who hasn’t seen messages like these on billboards and in windows of stores and restaurants these days? Struggling to find help, companies find themselves providing fewer products and less service (and I less pork at dinner these days).
While society’s ongoing pandemic response is partly at fault, a quiet trend has actually developed over seven decades: men leaving the workforce with no intention of returning. The share of working-age men in America (ages 16 to 64) employed fell from 87.4% to just 67.7% between 1949 and 2021.i
God Designed Men to Work
Why are fewer men working? Another contributing trend: men lag female students by 19% in college enrollments, and of a drop of 1.5 million students over the last five years, more than 70% were men.ii Meaning fewer jobs and lower earnings.
Moreover, with unemployment insurance, disability, early retirement, trading stocks and living with family, many men don’t need or desire to work.iii
The problem: the creation narrative suggests God has “wired” males to be providers.
Genesis 1’s summary of God’s six days of creative work culminates with man’s unique position as image-bearer and his primary duties of “multiplying” and subduing and having dominion over the earth.
Genesis 2 then elaborates, with “work” as a prominent theme. God sets a pattern for his image-bearer by “working” these six days of creation and on the seventh day “resting” (2:2) and blessing this Sabbath as “holy” (2:3). iv
Though God had created vegetation, plants requiring cultivation had not yet sprouted because of a lack of water and no man to work the ground (2:5-6). After providing a mist from the land, the Lord formed Adam and immediately planted a garden with him as caretaker. In short, Adam was designed to work (2:8, 15). (The woman works too, but in the context of her creation as Adam’s helper.)
The consequences of the Fall provide further insight. For her disobedience, Eve’s task of cultivating a family becomes more difficult. (Gen. 3:16, 20). But Adam is judged in his domain of work, one now also much more taxing, as the ground is cursed (3:17) with thorns and thistles, requiring endless, lifelong hard labor from him (3:19).
Men and Work in the 21st Century
The perception that men are “wired” to work is still evident today. Men instinctively want to know what other men “do.” Moreover, a 2017 Pew poll found 71% of respondents consider it important for a man to be able to support a family, versus 32% for a woman. No amount of societal conditioning has altered this phenomenon.
I recently spoke with a 63-year-old man who stopped working two years ago with sufficient wealth to support himself and his wife in retirement. Yet after a few months, he went back to work, having not realized how much affirmation he received from employment.
In fact, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gallup reported the lowest U.S. happiness scores since 1949.v Is it a coincidence that this date coincides with the disappearance of millions of men from the workforce?
Consider commentator Nicholas Eberstadt’s observation a few years back:
“(N)early half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts — an army now totaling roughly 7 million men — currently take pain medication on a daily basis … . Their routine … typically centers on watching — watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc. — and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job … . In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens — stoned.”vi
This “mind’s eye” picture is hardly the model presented in Genesis and continued by Paul, who exhorts believers to “work with your own hands” (1 Thess. 4:11) and directs: “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10)
The church, uniquely understanding of God’s design for men even in today’s broken and confused culture, cannot compromise the message that males bear primary responsibility as providers (and household leaders). We must uphold not just the dignity but the necessity of men’s working to find fulfillment as God’s image-bearers.
It’s a message requiring conviction and courage in a society practically commanding men and boys to take back seats. But we must not shirk from it, and at BJU Seminary, we’re committed to producing leaders who will not.
i “7 Ways Men Live Without Working in America,” Andy Serwer and Max Zahn https://news.yahoo.com/7-ways-men-live-without-working-in-america-092147068.html (accessed September 19, 2021); see also FRED. Economic Data, “Women in the Workforce,” https://fredblog.stlouisfed.org/2021/03/women-in-the-labor-force/ (accessed September 19, 2021).
ii Tim Gruber, “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost’” https://www.wsj.com/articles/college-university-fall-higher-education-men-women-enrollment-admissions-back-to-school-11630948233?reflink=share_mobilewebshare (accessed October 3, 2021).
iii Serwer and Zahn suggest seven societal realities that could make this possible: unemployment insurance; early retirement; trading stocks; cash only jobs, living with family; illegal work; living off the land.
iv Gen. 2:15; 5:29; 8:4; 19:16; Ex. 20:11; Deut. 5:14; 12:10; 25:19.
v Justin McCarthy, “Happiness Not Quite as Widespread as Usual in the U.S.” https://news.gallup.com/poll/276503/happiness-not-quite-widespread-usual.aspx (accessed October 3, 2021).