The impact of technology on the availability of work is much debated these days. It is widely feared that half the jobs in the economy might be eliminated by innovations such as self-driving vehicles, automatic checkout machines and expert systems that trade securities more effectively than humans can.

As with almost everything economic, there is controversy. Those who are less alarmed argue that such debates go back at least to the Luddites and that the tendency has been for jobs destroyed by technology in one sector to be replaced with new jobs in new sectors. They also raise what might be legitimately called a paradox: if jobs are being destroyed at an extraordinary rate by machines that can do the work of humans, why is productivity growth abnormally slow rather than abnormally fast?

The debate rages. Now comes Nicholas Eberstadt’s persuasive and important monograph Men Without Work, demonstrating that these issues are not just matters of futurology. Eberstadt, a political economist based at the American Enterprise Institute, marshals a vast amount of data to highlight trends that have been noticed but not adequately emphasised before in the work experience of men in the US. The share of the male population who are neither working, looking for work, in school or old enough to retire has more than doubled over the past 50 years, even though the population has become much healthier and more educated. Today, even with a low overall unemployment rate, roughly one in six men between the ages of 25 and 54 is out of work.

Eberstadt goes on to show that, as one might expect, non-work is a larger issue for those with less education, without spouses or dependent children, for African-Americans and for those who have been convicted of crimes. He finds little redeeming in what those without work are doing, noting that the primary contrast in time use between those in and out of work is in time spent watching TV.

Finally, he highlights that men in the US are doing considerably worse than men in the rest of the industrial world, where even countries with notoriously sclerotic labour markets and bloated welfare systems such as France, and even Greece, enjoy higher rates of prime age male labour force participation.

One can cavil with Eberstadt’s emphasis on labour force withdrawal as distinct from unemployment in looking at the data, particularly when it comes to international comparisons, but overall the evidence he marshals that non-work is currently a crisis is entirely persuasive. As he notes, the impact of non-work on economic growth is the least of it. A society where large numbers of adults in the prime of life are without vocation is unlikely to provide opportunity for all its children, to maintain strong communities or have happy, cohesive families. As we are seeing this fall, such a society is prone to embrace toxic populist politics.

Indeed, Eberstadt understates the significance of what he studies by not highlighting the fact that, if current trends continue, a quarter of men between 25 and 54 will be out of work by mid-century. I would expect Eberstadt’s sorry trends to accelerate as IT accelerates job destruction on the one hand, and developments such as virtual reality make non-work more attractive and addictive on the other, so I can imagine scenarios in which a third or more of men in this cohort are out of work in the US by 2050.

Why is this happening? Eberstadt is sensibly eclectic in recognising a range of factors on both the supply and demand sides. His emphasis, though, is on the kinds of arguments that he and his AEI colleague Charles Murray have been making for many years in emphasising government benefit programmes and their effects on both incentives and mores. He is especially critical of disability insurance and sees the welfare reforms of the 1990s that introduced work tests into support programmes for mothers with dependent children as a model for what needs to be done.

My guess is that Eberstadt overstates the damage done by disability insurance and social insurance benefits more generally. I have been impressed by the data on applicants rejected for disability insurance. They are presumably more able to find work than those who get benefits. Yet most do not find work. It is also hard to believe that the US has unusually generous support for non-work relative to the rest of the world.

On the supply side, there are possible causal factors that Eberstadt does not closely consider. Increasing numbers of men owe child support and the government has become much better at collecting it. While enforcing child support is clearly social progress, it does impose a tax on earning income in above-board ways. There is also much more amusement to be had sitting on one’s couch than was the case in the days of no video games and only three TV stations.

More important, I believe Jared Bernstein and Henry Olsen, who have brief essays in Eberstadt’s volume, and the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisors, in a separate study, are right to emphasise the demand side and to identify diminution in attractive work opportunities as the key causal factor in explaining the rise of men’s labour force withdrawal. Technology and the rise of international competition are both reducing the demand for less skilled labour.

Evidence for the importance of demand factors comes from the decline in wages for less skilled workers, the long-lasting effects of recessions on the willingness to work, and the shift in the composition of the economy away from sectors such as manufacturing that heavily employ less skilled men. Of course, demand and supply interact. No doubt the availability of benefits and the reduction in any shame associated with not working when non-work becomes pervasive make it easier to settle into such a life.

Debates about demand versus supply factors will continue. However they are resolved, we are left with the fundamental question of what is to be done. Tight labour markets driven by aggressive macro policies and support for a dynamic private sector will surely help, and need to be a priority. And we need to work at transforming some of our social programmes from safety nets into springboards. In this area as in many others, we need to move from adopting the recommendations of neither liberals nor conservatives to adopting both sets of recommendations.

I am confident these steps would help. But they might well do no more than slow a trend that technology threatens to accelerate. Even if solutions are not clear at this point, Eberstadt has put his finger on what may be the most important socio-economic question the US will face over the next quarter-century. His book should spur much further research, debate and policy innovation.

Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, by Nicholas Eberstadt, Templeton Press, RRP$12.99, 216 pages

Lawrence Summers is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary

Photograph: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Network

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