Labor Force Participation and Video Games

Here is more from Erik Hurst discussing his new research:

On average, lower-skilled men in their 20s increased “leisure time” by about four hours per week between the early 2000s and 2015. All of us face the same time endowment, so if leisure time is increasing, something else is decreasing. The decline in time spent working facilitated the increase in leisure time for lower-skilled men. The way I measure leisure time is pretty broad; it includes participating in hobbies and hanging out with friends, exercising and watching TV, sleeping, playing games, reading, and so on.

Of that four-hours-per-week increase in leisure, three of those hours were spent playing video games! The average young, lower-skilled, nonemployed man in 2014 spent about two hours per day on video games. That is the average. Twenty-five percent reported playing at least three hours per day. About 10 percent reported playing for six hours per day. The life of these nonworking, lower-skilled young men looks like what my son wishes his life was like now: not in school, not at work, and lots of video games.

How do we know technology is causing the decline in employment for these young men? As of now, I don’t know for sure. But there are suggestive signs in the data that these young, low-skilled men are making some choice to stay home. If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being—surveys that ask people to assess their overall level of happiness—lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s. This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.

It’s hard to distinguish “push” unemployment that is made more pleasant by video games from “pull” unemployment created by video games. I’m not even sure that distinction matters very much, at least if we aren’t talking about banning video games to increase employment. If elderly people started playing a lot of video games (as soon they will) would we worry that this was making retirement too much fun?

I’d be interested in knowing how much video games have displaced television. I watch more television than my kids, who play more video games. It’s not obvious that this is to their detriment.

Perhaps the issue is that video games like slot machines are so enticing that young people discount the future too heavily or don’t recognize the future cost of not being in the workforce. Maybe. Perhaps what we really need is a 3D, virtual reality, total sensory simulation, awesome video game that is so expensive that it encourages people to work.

Overall, the video game worry is a bit too reminiscent of the Dungeons and Dragons panic, or the earlier panics that books and radio were ruining children’s minds, for me to jump on board.


Am I missing out? I'm unemployed and comment on MR all day.

Yes. You could have a job and still comment all day. :)

Ah, but can you level up and comment all day?

If you have a job, you can pay someone in China to level up for you while you comment on the perils of comparative advantage.

O ya, O yah! Defo right on that one. Pay somebody in China or India or WHEREEVER to level up for ya. So true. Let THEM spend hours and days mining adamantine. NP!

Base question is "are video games impacting employment?". The answer is yes.

High skilled workers with access to a computer increased their leisure time by more than 5 hours at work by going to blogs, reading newspapers on line , and reviewing their bank account and retirement account.

A high skilled worker, alone, in an office, is likely on the internet probably more than an hour a day doing recreational activities.

How much time do you spend on the internet at work doing non work related activities?

In my job as a programmer, I'd estimate that I spend 10-15 hours a week on non work related activities.

Keynes thought we'd work 15 hours a week, more likely we'll spend 40 hours in the office but only 25 of those doing anything productive. The blue collar folks don't have the same chance to enjoy being non-productive, even if they're just standing there not doing anything, they're still bored. It makes sense that they are working fewer hours.

Another aspect of the immense divide between the orthographic symbolists and the object manipulators:

Less lack of opportunity than you might think, for many low-end service jobs. I've seen a lot of very bored clerks using a handheld computer to while away the time- you don't need a desk to read blogs!

Andrew makes a good point, when I worked blue collar some days I worked very hard others hardly at all just like programming if anything programming work was more steady. When I worked for the state in college in the university's landscaping dept it was incredible how little people worked. The workers often drove around in their work trucks hiding n the bosses wasting gasoline that got at the gasoline pumps on campus, some of the students would try to get with a guy who would do a little work to escape the boredom. Some would punch others in and out. There beds in break room and people used to sleep for an hour or so after lunch.

Private blue collar workers probably work a lot harder than ones employed by the state. After-all private companies can go bust so are pretty incentivised to get their workers as productive as possible. I did a fair amount of manual labor as a kid (bakery, farming, tire factory) and there was very little shirking going on.

GMU professors are full-time employed and they clearly spend vast amounts of time on the Internet writing blogs like this one.

Out of curiosity, does Alex consider reading The Economist work or leisure?

Professional development.

Right. That is how my father, an economist, responded 30 years ago when I asked him the same question. But I thought it was a little strange that my then 60 year old friend in my astronomy club said he liked to read The Economist even though nothing related to the business he ran. So leisure for one and work for the other... I thought, "That isn't fair!"

Oh, and Tyler "reads" a book a day for professional development, right?

What difference does it make? I can program and watch videos at the same time. It sill passes validation. That is what multiple monitors are for.

I got a palladium award from a former employer during the quarter I was continuously programming and also watched every episode of Farscape.

I think of browsing and commenting while at work as like a computer with idle clock cycles projecting a screen saver, while waiting on more busy periods. I am not working at 100% efficiency all the time, if I was then I would have no ability to ramp up in times when needed.

In my 60 hours of work per week, I spend about 30 minutes related to general internet goofing off. Generally I get my internet commenting now, at 4:30 Saturday morning at SSC and 6:30 at MR.
I need one of these nice white-collar jobs y'all talk about. Still beats what my Dad did for decades, though, so I cannot complain.

So what about the lower female participation rate since the crisis? Thought so. Next hypothesis please!

I suspect that nearly all demographic groups are spending way more time in front of glowing screens. If it's not video games for young men, it's cable news for the over-50s. Yet the latter group seems to be actually increasing participation, even with a massive increase of Fox News consumption. Video games alone don't solve the puzzle.

There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, but it's been going on for 50 years.

In 1965, 97% of prime aged males (25-54) were in the labor force. Now, it's 88%. That's over 7 million grown men on the sidelines compared to 1 million in 1965.

This is a long-term secular trend. Video games are just some gasoline on the fire.

Yay! We're rich! And rich people do what they want to do, not what they have to do. This ought to be cause for a big celebration, not hand-wringing.

Collectively, perhaps. The lazy in a rich society can live off the fat. But let's not pretend the lazy ones are the rich ones.

A very few of them maybe. Drone-like trust fund heirs with no need to work do exist. But they are certainly not a significant factor in the rise on non-work.

Except that labor force participation among prime age males increases with education and the trends among different education groups have been diverging. College-educated males are more engaged in the labor force than those with only high school diplomas, the opposite of what one would expect if this was a phenomenon of the idle rich.

Arguably Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll are bigger issues. How many dudes can't pass a piss test?

Devaluation of brawn + female empowerment are probably the big two.

Note: this is not a normative comment.

For mammals, humans have historically been pretty good at getting mileage out of males beyond them just smashing their heads against each other.

Young men have a lot less brawn than their fathers did. Even if all those blue-collar manufacturing jobs from 1965 magically re-appeared, I don't think modern prime-aged men are masculine enough to do them.

"In a study of Americans ages 20-34, occupational therapists found that men younger than 30 have significantly weaker hand grips than their counterparts in 1985 did."

Yep, as Chuck Martel above shows, they can't even eat lunch without a table cloth anymore without crying about it.

>I’d be interested in knowing how much video games have displaced television.

By tons and tons, according to what I've seen from my own kids, the kids I have coached, as well as everyone they know. And no, it is not to their detriment.

Sitting passively in front of a commercial-filled television program is the height of boredom to them, with the exception of their 1-2 favorite weekly programs. The days of "channel surfing" for hours amongst programs that don't really interest you are long gone.

However, channel surfing has a replacement: Youtube surfing. Kids do many, many hours of this, and it is not usually counted among the "video gaming time" stats.


YouTube has maybe 80% replaced TV for my kids as a fraction of passive screen time, but passive screen time is way down in favor of video games. Much of their YouTube viewing is indirectly about video games.

They still like sports on TV, but they consider American Ninja Warrior to be the height of sports on TV.

And don't forget watching Twitch (gamers watching other gamers game).

I'm sure I'm biased (I used to watch a lot of TV when I was young), but I think the TV of the 60s, 70s and 80s, even though on many levels is very boring/forumulaic, actually teaches a lot of social/life lessons - people do learn social skills by watching others. Video games may be less "passive" (although watching video games on YouTube is not), but they don't teach any of those lessons. Plus, they are way more immersive (and, I think for some, really addictive) so kids can spend more time with them.

You clearly haven't seen a lot of video games. Depending on the type of game, quite a lot of them go into considerable detail about social relationships, and show a great degree of consequence for one's actions both in the short and long term.

And realistically, can we be confident that the 'life lessons' taught by television shows years ago were valuable or even consistently absorbed?

One thing to keep in mind about video games is that on a cost-per-hour basis they are very inexpensive forms of entertainment. If you consider the entertainment value of video games to be roughly comparable to movies or TV, then consider:

- Going to the theater to watch a movie will run you $10 at the cheapest, and likely more like $14-16 for 2 hours entertainment, so $5-7/hour
- Cable TV operates at zero marginal cost, but runs from $60 bare-bones to $120ish with better packages & a DVR to $180ish if you go all out. If you watch 2 hrs/day, this works out to (at the 120 midpoint) $4 per day or $2 per hour
- Gaming involves a $250 console with a 4-5 year lifecycle and then purchasing 4-6 discrete games a year that run $50-$60 apiece (if you're an enthusiast you can spend much more, and if you're cheap you can spend much less via trade-ins). Average monthly expense runs at about $30/month, or $0.50/hour at 2-hours/day.

You can play around with the assumptions somewhat, but the bottom line is that video games as a form of entertainment are just about the best per-dollar value (obviously conditional on the person actually liking video games). If one wants to be frugal about it, it's pretty easy to get the costs down to $0.25/hour or less.

And you don't have to go outside, mess with other people, or get sweaty and icky. You can also eat while playing.

Low hourly rate of entertainment in gaming is starting to get baked in with the increase in free to play model monetization. Console is coming around more and more finding ways to raise the average spend on what used to be a $60 game up to the 80-100 range with assort s DLC and micro transactions in games. I would expect savvy game companies to lean on f2p more and more to exploit willingness to spend from the most dedicated fans of their content.

If Mum and Dad are paying for the broadband, you can download all the movies, music, tv and porn you want for nothing. Video games (as distinct from online interactive games) are probably the most expensive entertainment available. I'm surprised that so many kids aren't in the basement!

we really need is a 3D, virtual reality, total sensory simulation, awesome video game that is so expensive that it encourages people to work. Take out virtual and video.
Yeah, it's called Life.

How awesome is Life?

For a lot of folks, the answer is "not very." I think much of the appeal of video games is because it gives you a feeling of accomplishment. Spend 25 hours on a video game, even if you're a mediocre player, and you're likely to have made significant progress. Spend 25 hours at work, and you probably won't.

You're probably right, and that's why I avoid video games, though I just bought a PS4 for my hot Filipinno gf half my age. I prefer chess, where a mere 25 hours of play will not get you to the next level. You need at least a few years, preferably 10 years, to really start playing well (unless you are a budding genius, in which case in ten years you'll be a grandmaster).

Ray, There are video games that would appeal to strategists. Try Sid Meier's Civilization series for example, or some of the space-based games like Endless Space, Galactic Civilizaiton, or Stellaris if that's more your thing.

So you're in Greece. Is your teen-age gf there with you or is she home playing mattress chess with some lothario from down the street?

Some may say Chuck is being jealous here. He's not. The older Taiwanese factory owner with a Chinese mistress half his age was swindled out of a house, and the younger "true love" moved in.

Dude, he just said he bought her a PS4.

"Spend 25 hours at work, and you probably won’t. " - Depends on the work and the 25 hours I guess...but, yes, "process these invoices" for 10,000 hours is not going to lead to any major innovation. Some of that time should be spent figuring out how to steamline and automate the process, but your boss will likely smack you down. You aren't paid to think, you're paid to process invoices!

>...that is so expensive that it encourages people to work.

Are you new to this planet?

High living costs are a reason to clamor for Government subsidies, not a reason to get a job.

It's long been known that PvP only MMOs are a decidedly niche market, so it's not suprising that Life has struggled to maintain popularity.

It also suffers from sever class balance issues; I can't see it becoming a big thing until the developers get better at balancing.

And that's leaving aside the obvious Pay2Win aspects of the in game cash shop...

I like the permadeath 'ironman' feature, but I can understand people would like to turn it off.

In Life, way way too much grinding, servers are overcrowded, only available in hardcore mode, no save/load, too much team work required to accomplish anything, character customization is weak, controls don't make any sense some times, can't quit....

Worst video game ever.

That was good. Thanks for the chuckle. ;-)

let's give Alex some credit here. That's clearly what he was talking about---not just Life, but Life with Plenty of Money

As it has become easier for young women to become promiscuous (less slut shaming due to feminism, tinder and other mechanisms for anonymous sex), low status young men have less of a reason to try. All of the girls they'd like to date look down on them. Why bother to suffer through a dead end service job if it doesn't grant young men enough status to attract women?

The guys who are dropping out of the dating market can be divided into the A) the utterly destitute B) the seriously ill and disabled and C) the introverts (who may in fact have a good income but just don't enjoy being around other people). We've always had these people with us of course, though the latter category was often pushed by social expectations into finding a mate, which social pressure is less common now. Meanwhile low income (but not destitute or ill) young men are not necessarily bailing on sex though they are on marriage. There's a rootless cloud of such men, in both urban and rural communities, who drift from girlfriend to girlfriend, shacking up for a while, maybe fathering a child, then moving on when things go bad. Increased female promiscuity enables this behavior.

There also seems like bit of a social shift towards increased narcissism as well, among the young, and probably the whole population.

Some would say it's healthy narcissism, but either way it's not totally clear to me whether this has involved the whole population. I suspect there might be more dropouts from society today who aren't as comfortable with high narc social norms (talking a lot about yourself, taking pictures of yourself a lot, marketing your own unique style, etc.).

Yeah, except the problem with this explanation is that young women are becoming way less promiscuous. Not more.

"In a paper last year, my co-authors and I found that Millennials actually have fewer sexual partners than GenX’ers and Boomers did at the same age... [W]e find that 15 percent of 20-to-24-year-olds born in the 1990s have not had sex since turning 18, compared to only 6 percent of comparable young adults born in the late 1960s—more than twice as many."

Note she only talks about 1990s births though.

Go to - it's easy to rerun with the variables as row: sexfreq or partners, column: cohort, control: age (20-24). There's actually no in change through births from 1970 through to 1989 (or 1990 on the partners variable).

So depends on whether we still class births from the late 80s as "young people".

It does look like something has changed in the 1990s births. I think this is probably palpable in the very recently publicized recent high fear of rape among college age women, that was basically not present in the 2000s.

Albeit the sample sizes are very small for the 1990s births, and there may be some swing there - it's a bit misleading of Twenge to talk up the N = 26,707 in her paper, when almost none of those are people aged 20-24 born in the 1990s. Perhaps 100 at most out of those. Nonetheless, should be robust enough.

Also note this is separate from the declines in criminality among youth in the 2000s. That happened among the whole Millennial cohort - both the 80s births who we heard nothing about "safe spaces" from all during their college years and the mid 90s births who've made "safe spaces" a thing. This sex thing seems to hit only the 1990s births.

It’s the effect of divorce. It’s weeding out the “can’t stay in a relationship” people from the population. The kids of the 90s are the first people to have been born when births started happening predominately in decent marriages.

The effect will only get stronger.

But how does that lead to young people who've been more likely to have been born in a decent marriage to be less likely to be able to form any kind of romantic relationship?

Also how does that fit with this - or this - They seem to show higher numbers of non-marital births over time (among all American large scale ethnic subsets and Western European nations).

If there was the same proportion of in wedlock and out of wedlock births across time I could see a pathway of greater permissiveness to divorce->weeding out of weak relationships->% in wedlock births stay the same, ergo, all kids are born into stronger relationships. But that doesn't seem to be true.

Decline in marriage is different from decline in relationships. One's a legal thing, the other isn't. "Divorce," however, is a pretty clear indicator of a failing relationship. Out of wedlock births are also going to be a manifestation of divorce; you'd expect the rate to rise and then fall once the divorcing people are gone.

For your other question, and at the risk of entering just-so territory, two introverts are more likely to have a stable marriage and to have a kid who never has a relationship.

> So depends on whether we still class births from the late 80s as “young people”.

Born in 1986. I keep thinking of myself as a "young person", but that's increasingly looking like a delusion. I will agree that there is definitely a cultural divide between the early and late millennials. Among my birth cohort you still see a lot of "rude, crude dudes" who aren't shy about it. That's pretty rare though in anyone born after 1991. Particularly among the college-educated.

I think Alex's skepticism is definitely warranted here. I am a 34 year old who is employed in a good 50+ hour a week job, and I play quite a bit of computer video games a week. It has basically displayed television for me, as well as most of my other friends in my age group.

It is nice that you still make time for children and old people. Just teasing.

I would say yes and no. I'm a big gamer myself, employed in a 35-40 hr very well paying job, married, no children. Computer/video games aren't bad, and can even be remarkably informative (I became very good with geography thanks to Crusader Kings 2, I've learned some psychology studying Skinner boxes and game mechanics, various puzzle games, learned basic programming and statistics, etc) Gaemz are good things, on the whole.

HOWEVER, they are a hobby, and I know firsthand and from a few of my friends how they can move from a fun hobby to aimlessly spinning wheels coasting through life, waiting for... something. Essentially masking depression, or providing a dead-end outlet for creative energy that should otherwise be harnessed. I don't know how to better motivate these young men - it seems like the classic incentives are muted nowadays (sex, religion, family, secular advancement, respect, etc)

I addressed the TV question in my column this week (second half). Short version: Gaming is rising while TV holds steady with low skill young men, but TV is still MUCH higher.

I enjoy video games, they take me away from the problems of the real world.

A tad over my head, but this very detailed blog post ( looks at the data and ends:

"There are, I think, three big things going on with these data. (1) Young people have been marrying less and later. (2) Young men have been working less and going to school more. (These two major trends interact, and result generally in a slower transition to adult patterns.) And (3) recessions suck, and great ones suck greatly."

As Tyler says, it's an easy just-so story.

'If elderly people started playing a lot of video games (as soon they will)'

Ever been to a casino in the last few years? Because you almost had it with this following remark - 'Perhaps the issue is that video games like slot machines are so enticing that young people discount the future too heavily or don’t recognize the future cost of not being in the workforce.' Slot machines are video games at this point, but it isn't the young generally playing them. Here is an overview of how it works -

Of course, retirees using up their pensions in front of a screen are contributing to America's economy, unlike some unemployed 19 year old playing online.

Video games today are simply incredible, they've become the greatest recreational art of modern times. Of course there are people who don't like them, utility is in the eye of the beholder, but if you increase the utility of leisure people will respond to incentives rationally.

Just don't assume this is a bad thing. The goal of rational actors in an economy is to maximize utility.

"Video games today are simply incredible, they’ve become the greatest recreational art of modern times" [SNIP]

You must have quite a life.

Listen to TallDave! -- and video games are going to get more incredible.

I can recommend Rimworld as a good game for social scientists.

+1, big fan. Plan for the worst, everyone still dies

Video games provide flow. Watching TV doesn't.

we probably should separate out video games into multiple groups: single player fixed length games and practically infinite games. the later combine games that are primarely online multiplayer with infinite/near infinite procedurally generated or repetitive content. the move towards "open world" games seems to be a step in this direction.

how much time can you spend on Fifa or NBA 2kX or COD or the Division? pretty much an infinite amount of time. compare that to a movie or TV (the problem with the tv argument is that it doesn't engage with the problem that nothing is on in the middle of the day)

Excellent comments!* This is why I come to MR, a great mix of wit and wisdom.

* except for prior_approval, they ought to to start deleting his comments again.

We just need to make work more like games. Complete 200 roofs, get Roofer level 40 and get a deluxe ladder and a sticker on your truck. Or they can get paid to play wills and testaments online, get a level for every 10 wills you write for an old person. Or they could just be investors, it is just like a game, pays more than real work, and isn't even zero sum since the market goes up and needs efficient capital allocation.

Two things.

First, what a victorian view of the world to suggest, that because of video games people become less willing to work, less productive or even unemployed. My goodness! It's important to separate cause and results from each other, but if piousness drives thinking, I guess the story always has to take the same route.

Second, because of productivity growth and video games, leisure time and quality of life have become more affordable for the less affluent. To play is a choice. And you will do so, as long you can afford to. Come time and desperation, people will actively look for work to finance their habit.

Do you have a teenage son? It's a little better now, but honestly it has competed for his time like nothing in my past experience - and I worry that it will impede his ability to be motivated/productive in life. Sometimes I feel like the struggle is not that far off from a parent with a kid struggling with a heroin addiction. Call me a Victorian, but I want more for my kid than playing games 24x7.

Today's videogames are incredibly immersive. I quit playing over a year ago though, too many of the games on the market felt like retreads.

"If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being—surveys that ask people to assess their overall level of happiness—lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s."

This is an example of economic growth that is not measured in GDP.

"This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points ..." Did you mean to say "because of"?

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