Young male economic participation, existential questions, and the failure of the social sciences

Why should we bother to exist? What gives life meaning? Why shouldn’t we all just give up and go off into that good night?

I doubt that you want to hear my answers to those questions. And frankly, I am not at all sure that I would be edified to hear your answers to those questions. But in spite of our reluctance to talk about such existential issues, we should always remember that those questions are foundational to the social sciences. To forget this is to render the social sciences worthless.

In the past, such a reminder would not have been necessary. To even raise the issue would have had all the relevance of pointing out that the sky was blue. After all, most of originators of the social sciences were philosophers who dealt with existential issues as a matter of course. For example, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

But these days it seems that the social sciences would rather forget the existential questions. They envy their comrades over in the hard sciences. They want to spell out the laws that govern men with same precision that the physicists have when they lay out the laws that govern rocks.

It is only natural, then, that the social sciences would seek to emulate the way that the hard sciences ignore the existential questions. After all, it would be kind of silly for a physicist to explore the purpose of a rock’s existence. A physicist can never answer such a question. Thus, pondering such questions would only distract the physicist from the questions that they can answer.

Similarly, a social scientist cannot really answer the question “what is the purpose of human life” with a scientific answer. Hence, any social scientist who desires to be “scientific” will seek to avoid dealing with those questions.

The problem is that people are not like rocks. They can ask “To be or not to be?” The answer they give to that question has profound implications for how they behave. Those changes will not be predicted or understood by theories that assume that peoples’ answers to existential questions remains constant amongst all people and all cultures at all times.

In other words, you can build up these huge complex theories about the forces that shape human activity that seem to explain how people act. But a change in a society’s (or a sub group in a society) existential viewpoint can render those theories moot almost overnight.

A good example of what I am talking about would be the shift in employment patterns between men and women. Often, this is talked about in terms of the growing gap between the number of men going to college and the number of women going to college. But this data point is simply a manifestation of a broader phenomenon. The real story is that there is a growing number of young men who simply don’t care about their economic status and don’t care about much else, either.

This is a historic change. All throughout history more men than women have pursued higher education. More to the point, more men than women have historically sought to climb to the top of the economic ladder regardless of the educational path current in their day. Why, then, this shift?

I mean, increasing participation by woman is understandable. But why are the men dropping out in increasing numbers?

I don’t think the social sciences have any real answers because they want to interpret what is happening within past existential frameworks. Everything that they suggest might be causing the problem just does not mesh well with reality as I perceive it. They seem to be trying to use the reasons that kept women out of the workforce in the past to explain why men are not participating today.

For example, some people suggest that the problem is that schools are failing to treat boys properly. But they fail to offer a convincing explanation of what has so dramatically changed about the way that schools educate boys. Moreover, there seems to be lots of evidence that indicates that men still have the deck stacked in their favor when they choose to play the game. So I don’t buy the poor little boy theory.

Other people lay the blame on the changing structure of employment in America. Supposedly, men just aren’t as well suited to service jobs or something like that. The problem with this idea is that people willing to do traditionally “manly” jobs are in short supply even though their wages are higher than your average service job. It is not that a lot of young men can’t economically better themselves; it is that they don’t want to.

Both of the above explanations for why young men are dropping out of the economic race were legitimate explanations for the lack of female participation in the past. Social forces did work against female economic achievement in the past. And back when more work depended on muscle power, the structure of employment did work against female participation in the paid economy. But there is no real evidence that the current decline in male economic achievement is in any way comparable to historical lack of female participation.

The only reason the social sciences try to fall back on those explanations is because they lack the framework to deal with existential problems. When they are forced to face up to an existential problem, they are at a loss as to how to go about understanding it.

As I see it, the real reason for the increasing numbers of young men who are dropping out of the economic system is that they are asking existential questions and not getting any good answers. Why should they care about society? Why should they care about their economic futures? Why should they want to live?

I am confident that the problems affecting young men are not caused by social or economic forces as the social sciences traditionally talk about them. There is nothing stopping them from following young women into college. If they don’t want to go to college, positions in the trades are increasingly in demand. Moreover, the social pressure from the older age groups to be “successful” is still very strong. I don’t know a single under-achieving male who has not been hounded to do more with his life.

But all this social pressure and economic opportunity is irrelevant because increasing numbers of young men can’t find satisfactory answers to existential questions. They don’t know why they should care. They don’t know what has meaning.

I should point out here that I know whereof I speak. I am part of this group of underachieving young men. Admittedly, I have managed to acquire a halfway decent job almost by accident. But I am far below where I could be if I had chosen to leverage my intellectual assets in a more conventional manner. Moreover, most of the young males that I come into contact with on a regular basis are similar underachievers (to put it mildly). So I feel confident in saying that existential issues are a driving force behind growing numbers of underachieving males.

Now I differ from most of my fellow male underachievers for reasons that I alluded to in my essay “The Aesthetic of Despair.” I have an answer to the age old question of “why?” I know why I work. I know what kind of society I care about and why. I know what I want to live for and what I would be willing to die for.

But I resemble my fellow male underachievers in that I don’t believe that chasing the goals that this culture sets will get you anything meaningful. This is why I don’t live in ways that economic or social theory would suggest are optimal.

You can use a calculator and economic theory to show all of us young men how much more we would make if only we would care. You can use psychology and sociological studies to show us that we would get a hotter chick if we only played the economic game. But you can’t tell us why we should care. You can’t tell us why those would be meaningful goals.

I don’t think that the points that I have been making about existential issues apply only to me or to young men like me. I think modern society as a whole is headed towards a broader existential crisis. The problems that increasing numbers of young men are having are just one of the warning signs.

I think that the effects of this crises will stun economists, demographers, sociologists, and psychologists because they persist in thinking that existential question are already settled. They think that everyone basically knows what they want and that we only need to figure how to meet those wants. They interpret all problems through the lens of what they perceive “real” human wants to be. By imagining that they already understand what “real” human wants are, the social sciences are blinding themselves to a growing hunger.

For previous posts on this topic read Songs of Community and Does anyone care if the culture of Quebec dies?

One Response to “Young male economic participation, existential questions, and the failure of the social sciences”

  1. […] This week’s rant of the week is from the Ape Man. He has a bone to pick with the social sciences. […]

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