Where have America’s young men gone? According to Erik Hurst, an economist from the University of Chicago, they haven’t gone anywhere—they’re just plugged in. In a recent interview, Hurst says that his research indicates that young men with less than a four-year degree (according to virtually all data, that’s an increasing number) are spending their days unemployed and unmarried, but not un-amused. “The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one-for-one with leisure time,” Hurst reports. “Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of twelve, and sometimes upwards of thirty hours per week.”
Hurst goes on: “These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, [such as that] they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.” In other words, the time these young men spend on Xbox and Playstation does not offer them relief from the stress of joblessness and existential inertia. On the contrary, for them it’s part of Living the Dream.
Video games have often caused consternation among older adults and cultural critics, an angst that is usually disproportionate to the games’ real consequences. In most cases, gaming is not especially different from other amusements, such as watching Netflix or logging on to social media. Concern about video-game content, especially violent content, can be valid, but it always runs into the problem of numbers: A great many gamers play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, and violent crime has been going down at the same time those games have been most popular.
But if Hurst’s research is accurate (and profit margins from the video-game industry suggest that it is), then the issue becomes much bigger than video games themselves. The portrait that emerges of the young American male indicates an isolated, entertainment-absorbed existence, with only the most childlike social ties (such as with parents and “bros”) playing a meaningful role.
Young men, significantly more so than young women, are stuck in life. Research released in May from the Pew Center documented a historic demographic shift: American men aged 18-30 are now statistically more likely to be living with their parents than with a romantic partner. This trend is significant, for one simple reason: Twenty- and thirtysomething men who are living at home, working part-time or not at all, are unlikely to be preparing for marriage. Hurst’s research says that these men are single, unoccupied, and fine with that—because their happiness doesn’t depend on whether they are growing up and living life.
This prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood. But in the comfort of their parents’ homes and their gaming systems, young men get to live out their fantasies without the frictions of reality.
What does that sound like? It sounds like pornography. Could it be that one reason that millions of young American men feel satisfied with their perpetual adolescence is that their sexual appetites are sated by a steady diet of internet porn? No woman they could meet at the coffee shop or on the church camping trip could possibly compete with these perfectly toned, perfectly undemanding models. The mild embarrassment a man might feel at looking real girls in the eye after days of masturbatory absorption in fantasy perfection is avoidable, if he simply doesn’t get out.
A connection between enslavement to video games and enslavement to pornography is not far-fetched. As Russell Moore has noted, the former offers “fake war,” while the latter offers “fake love.” Between the Xbox and the X-rating, a young man can oscillate from the primal thrills of conquest to the orgasmic comfort of faux-intimacy. When these two temptations meet in the lonely dark of Mom and Dad’s basement, what’s not to like?
At a time when our culture desperately needs bold and compassionate models of Christian masculinity, the prospect that an entire generation’s potential should be wasted on an addiction to stimulation is deeply sad. Sin is always double-edged like that—it’s a matter not only of doing what one ought not do, but also of neglecting to do what one ought. What might these millions of young men be doing, if they were not doing this?
These are America’s lost boys. They should matter to anyone who cares about human flourishing, the beauty of family, the sustenance of friendship, and the health of our civic society. Rather than try to attract these millennials by reshaping faith in the image of entertainment, we as Christians should offer a gospel that saves not only from hell but also from meaninglessness. Tolkien reminded us that not all who wander are lost. I would add, not all who are lost, wander.
Samuel D. James currently serves as Communications Specialist to the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His writing has been featured in such places as TIME, World Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, 9 Marks, and more.