Even before the Great Recession, there was a downward trend in the number of hours American men were working, particularly young men. From 2000 to 2015, labor hours fell about 8 percent for men aged 31–55 and 12 percent for those aged 21–30.
Wages fell during this period, but falling pay is not necessarily the only thing that kept young men from working, research suggests. Rather, for some people, especially men in their 20s, an hour of free time became more valuable, according to research by Princeton’s Mark Aguiar, University of Rochester’s Mark Bils, University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Kerwin Kofi Charles, and Chicago Booth’s Erik Hurst. And a significant fraction of young men essentially decided to trade in a few work hours for a little more time on the Xbox.
The researchers analyzed labor data and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey to create a leisure demand system. The resulting model predicts how a person will use an increase in leisure time—which could be by sleeping, watching television, or playing video games, among other choices.
Comparing the periods 2004–07 and 2012–15, the researchers find that young men increased the number of hours dedicated to leisure by about the same number of labor hours they lost, or 132 hours over this time span. They used three-quarters of these hours for gaming and other computer leisure activities, significantly more than did women or older men.
The researchers estimated that a 1 percent increase in leisure time for young men would translate into a 2 percent rise in time dedicated to recreational computing. But they find that from 2004 to 2015, the group’s leisure time expanded by 4 percent and the number of recreational computing hours jumped 45 percent, or more than five times as much as projected.
The disparity, they say, reflects advances in computer gaming technology over the 2004–15 period. Graphics became more sophisticated, and games once played alone or with a friend could be played online with large groups from around the world. Improvements in computer gaming could explain a decline of between 1.5 percent and 3 percent in the number of working hours among young men, the researchers calculate.
“We can attribute the much greater increase in younger men’s computer time to a sizable improvement in technology for computer and video gaming,” they write. And unfortunately for these players, they weren’t making money from their gaming.
Some young men may have little at stake when trading work time for gaming. While few are benefiting from government aid programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unemployment compensation, or disability payments, the research indicates that many are getting help from family to make ends meet. In 2000, about 46 percent of nonemployed young men lived with a parent or close relative. By 2015, the proportion increased to 67 percent.
One of the researchers, Erik Hurst, discussed preliminary findings of the research in a June 2016 commencement speech at Chicago Booth. (See “Video killed the radio star,” Fall 2016.) He voiced concern about what would happen as the young men who were substituting video games for work entered their 30s and 40s. “Playing video games does not put food on their tables,” he said. “It’s a bad combination: low labor demand plus the accumulated effects of low labor supply makes economic conditions for these aging workers pretty bleak.”