Thursday, March 22, 2012

Call a Bum "Feckless" Today

When you meet able-bodied guys not eager to work, demographer Charles Murray has a  culture-saving suggestion: "Don't call them 'demoralized.' Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer." His choice: "Feckless."

Feckless, aside from sounding appropriately snide, means men, who before would have supported families with honest, working-class employment, instead withdraw from the job market and bum around.  They're now affectionately called "slackers" and star in movies, like the current "Jeff, Who Lives at Home."

My husband liked "Jeff," but I had a harsher view.  This is a guy Charles Murray would scorn. He's chosen to live in his mom's basement, interpreting natural and accidental phenomena in his environment as "signs" pointing his direction.  He has no initiative, other than to wander after guideposts as wild as a wrong number phone call, a name on a delivery truck, and the basketball jersey on a punk in a bad neighborhood.
Jason Segel plays "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"

Jeff needed Charles Murray to chastise his passive dependence and become useful. Actually, that's what Charles Murray wants us all to do--vocalize and popularize the value that "one of life's central moral obligations is to be a productive adult." We need to get judgmental, and I say we need to resurrect shame as an appropriate emotion.

Murray just wrote a fascinating book about the growing economic (and cultural) divide between lower and achieving classes among white Americans. He took some flack for dismissing the economy as the cause for this schism, and in his Wall Street Journal article from a few days ago explains himself: Working class men aren't just suffering with everyone else through the downturn--disproportionately, they've opted out completely.

Wages for the same working-class jobs that supported families in 1960 haven't dropped; to the contrary, the "mean annual earnings of white males ages 30-49 who were in working class occupations," rose three thousand dollars, adjusted for inflation. The same jobs that in 1960 earned $33,302 in 2010 brought an average of $36,966.

"This (increase in salary) occurred despite the decline of private-sector unions, globalization, and all the other changes in the labor market," Murray notes, and "doesn't include additional income from the Earned Income Tax Credit."

That inflation-adjusted $33,300 was considered a "family wage" back in 1960, when 84% of men in that age group were married, and women were only a third of the labor force. Since then, women's labor force participation has doubled, and their opportunities as well as education levels have soared. Men who hold working-class jobs, Charles Murray suggests, aren't so desirable as husbands any more, and so the percentage of them who were married in 2010 plummeted down to only 48%.

Let's see: You're over 30 and not married, unneeded by women, prospects for advancement marginal..why not just coast and take advantage of all those government "safety nets" that will carry you through? And indeed, in 1965, just 3% of 30-49-year-old men with no more than a high-school diploma were "no longer in the work force." In 2010, almost 12% had dropped out.

We can't return to a time when limited employment options for women forced them to depend on men any more than we can go back to one-car families and one-phone households. Lifestyles have evolved, and I'm glad women now have opportunities to fulfill their potentials (I remember as a child considering the only career options for females: librarian, teacher, nurse or social worker. I chose teacher.)  But the cost has been to usurp men's respected roles in so many fields, leaving those disinclined toward academia at the bottom of the heap. That may explain why so many men are withdrawing--they feel impotent, thwarted and feckless.

The error is in responding with a "poor baby" instead of an expectation to try harder. You don't need a college degree to be a successful entrepreneur, but you do need drive, industry and determination.  The new class divide is between those who thrive on challenge, and those who in the same circumstances recede.

When I was a kid, the guys sleeping on the park benches were called "bums." As "One Finger Ellis" scribbled in 1897 on his Kansas City prison cell wall, bums were averse to work, but in those days mores forced them into the crevices of society: "Oh why don't you work like other men do? How the hell can I work when the skies are so blue?  Hallelujah I'm a bum, Hallelujah bum again, Hallelujah give us a handout to revive us again!"

Bums were reviled. Mothers would point them out to their kids and say, "if you don't do your homework, you'll end up like that man!" I remember my dad saying that to me.  Such an attitude is now considered heartless and cruel, but it used to be effective in motivating children and deterring the lazy from succumbing to their weaknesses. That attitude also moved "decent people" to take responsibility for their brethren who really needed help. Vagrancy laws upheld the norm of public decorum.

Charles Murray suggests we again make judgments about behaviors useful for individuals and society, and label "reasonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state...lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums."

Charles Murray authored Coming Apart
He not only recommends rebuking these guys, but praising their tenacious counterparts: "Start treating the men who aren't feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor's college-educated son who won't take a 'demeaning' job. Be willing to say so."

That's not what I'm hearing from critics reviewing "Jeff, Who Lives at Home." The movie validates the slacker, and, (spoiler alert!) suggests his meandering, lethargic life is what ultimately makes him a hero. Wrong. We need to re-establish the value--the necessity!--of hard work.  We shouldn't punish the people whose efforts pay off by taxing their income at ridiculously higher percentages than their peers who haven't attained that level, and we need to call able people who rely on others or "entitlements" what they really are: feckless drains on us all.

No comments:

Post a Comment