Men at Work
Essays Society Economics

Men at Work

Dave Atenasio

The Economics of "The Spiral of Violence"

As the 2010s wore on, a series of high-profile killings of African Americans by the police would ignite country-wide protests in the United States. In 2014 and 2020, these protests escalated into looting and rioting, as anger spilled over and gave way to destruction. Alongside the protests and riots, many liberals and leftists in America recovered an idealistic vision of criminal justice reform. Activists issued increasingly ambitious demands: it is not enough to reform the police, we must reduce police funding with an eye toward ending the police as an institution.

In the wake of officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council promised to “end policing as we know it.” Despite these ambitions, only a shift of $8 million from the police budget to other public safety efforts materialized. Not long thereafter, the city of Minneapolis quietly refunded the police by earmarking $6.4 million for recruiting new police officers to replace those who departed in the wake of protests and budget cuts. While the Austin Police Department announced a $142 million reduction to their budget, the money was not removed so much as transferred to other discretionary funds, which to this point have been used to fund traditional policing initiatives. After initially freezing the upcoming cadet class, the Austin Police Department reinstated it with a modified training academy.

Reformers soon faced additional challenges. Murder and gun violence spiked over the summer of 2020 across the United States and remained elevated through the rest of the year. Videos of hate crimes against Jews and Asian Americans surfaced in a number of major American cities. Progressive reform prosecutor Chesa Boudin currently faces a recall petition in San Francisco. Former police officer Eric Adams just won the New York City mayoral race and polling shows that New York City voters are growing increasingly concerned about crime and security. Taking all this into consideration, criminologist John Pfaff sees a tough road ahead for reform efforts in the coming years.

If our present situation seems familiar, it is because a similar clash of liberal idealism and rising violence occurred fifty years ago. As violent crime crept upward throughout the 1970s, politicians increasingly looked to realist criminologists for criminal justice policy, who argued that the only rational response to crime was deterrence through threats of harsh punishment and incapacitation. The result was decades of tough-on-crime policies, military-style policing tactics, and swelling prisons. The police went from being just another consideration for young Black men living in poverty in the early 1990s to their primary antagonists just twenty years later.[1]

While there are still reasons to think we may not repeat the reform-reaction cycle of the 1970s, a pair of social pressures continue to make meaningful reform challenging. The first pressure comes from crime and social dysfunction driven by concentrated poverty, joblessness, broken homes and segregation. As I discuss in my essay on what Hélder Câmara calls the “spiral of violence,” a constellation of postwar political decisions brought unimaginable wealth to the United States at the cost of structural deterioration—which further isolated those who had been left behind from mainstream society. Cut off from any shot at a respectable life, these men turned to a frontier lifestyle awash in drugs and violence. Despite a large reduction in violent crime following the mid-1990s, the United States still suffers from a murder rate well higher than comparable wealthy nations.[2]

But there is an additional factor quietly pushing back against reform, one not as readily apparent: an increasing pressure on the security state to soak up men left behind by the changing social and economic conditions. While these conditions pushed one set of men toward prison or drug abuse, it drew another into the burgeoning security state. As good, stable employment for men without a college degree began to evaporate, a career in military, policing, or intelligence seemed for many one of the last reliable roads to a respectable middle-class life.

These forces issue from the same contradiction: we have created a society where a segment of lower- and working-class men have been either rendered useless or ostracized and actively excluded. Breaking the reform-reaction cycle for good and bringing lasting, moral peace to our most violent neighborhoods will require fundamentally changing our social and economic relations so that we no longer tolerate a portion of the country being rendered superfluous. Doing so may require taking political control of the American economy to a degree unthinkable for much of the postwar era. Until we commit to finding a place for everyone, we should not be surprised when men continue to line up on one side of the law or the other in troubling numbers.

Labor Force Participation

As recently as the 1960s, the labor force participation rate for American men with a high school diploma or less was in the high 90s. Around the end of the decade, that number began a slow decline that continues to this day. Despite a small rebound in 2014, the labor force participation rate for prime-age men with a high-school diploma or less now sits in the low 80s. In all there are about 7 million men between the ages of 25 and 54 who are not currently employed or actively looking for work.

How this happened is a complicated story. A number of demand-side factors likely precipitated the flight of men out of the workforce. Beginning as early as the end of World War II, American industry began shuttering its factories, first evacuating them from the Rust Belt to chase weaker labor laws in the South before eventually moving them out of the country. Good union manufacturing jobs were often replaced with low-paid work in the service sector or high-paid professional jobs that required years of college coursework. The service and hospitality jobs that replaced manufacturing in the United States did not pay as well, did not offer the same job security and did not provide the same kind of respect or status that a union manufacturing job provided.

None of this was helped by the neoliberal turn in economic theory, which encouraged deregulation and supply-side monetary and fiscal policy. The federal minimum wage ceased to keep up with rising productivity and the cost of living. Executives continued to claim a larger and larger share of wages. Collective bargaining rights weakened and unions declined. The United States inked free trade deals with Mexico and China and made no real effort to mitigate the resulting trade shocks that reorganized the economy and left hundreds of thousands out of work.

But supply-side factors contributed as well. The number of disabled workers in the United States skyrocketed from about 3.5 million in 1980 to over 10 million in 2016. Disabled men now make up approximately forty percent of men not presently in the workforce, and many of them report regularly coping with some form of physical pain. Alan Krueger estimates that around 3 million of the men currently out of the workforce regularly take some form of pain medication. These disability and pain issues are heavily concentrated in blue-collar, native-born men who are not married.

Another reason that men without a college degree began disappearing from the labor force is that more and more of them were busy sitting in prison. Approximately 2.3 million people presently reside in American prisons or jails, and the overwhelming number of them are men with low levels of education. But this is not the only way that the criminal justice system depresses the ability of men to find gainful employment. One study estimates that at least 19 million people in the United States currently have a felony conviction on their record. Felon reporting requirements and restrictions on government housing and food stamps have made it very challenging for ex-convicts to find stable, gainful employment upon leaving prison, a factor that likely contributes substantially to America’s high prison recidivism rate.

Beginning around the time of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007, in addition to rising unemployment, the number of workers who found themselves involuntarily working part-time rose from 3 million to as high as 9 million shortly after the crash. While the number declined down to 4 million in the summer of 2019, the pandemic has once again driven it in the 6–7 million range. The gig economy was supposed to be a way for people to make some money on the side to supplement their income, but many now find themselves clinging to it as their only source of income.

And finally, although it is harder to measure, it is possible that many jobs for the non-college educated have become so degrading or humiliating that people do not want to do them any more. There are indications that low-paying jobs are growing worse; job hours are growing longer, the intensity and pace of work is worsening, conditions are growing more dangerous, and verbal abuse on the job is common. Faced with collecting disability or returning to an abusive job with no chance for advancement, men are rationally choosing to stay home on the couch.

We should therefore feel less confusion than Nicholas Eberstadt when he writes:

While many jobs in the modern economy require a college education or advanced degree, not all the open job slots in the JOLTS survey are for computer coders or chemical engineers. To the contrary, more than 800,000 of these unfilled positions are in “accommodation and food services”; almost three-quarters of a million are in “retail trade”; and more than 300,000 are in construction. Whether or not one happens to regard such work as attractive or sufficiently remunerative, the fact of the matter is that most of these positions do not require any higher education, and a great many do not even require a high-school diploma. Recent reporting has put a human face on the paradox of a country awash in low-skill jobs at a time when millions of men with high-school diplomas or less are out of the workforce.

The future does not look bright for out-of-work men, as jobs that typically appeal to non-college educated men are disappearing and the drug crisis is not improving. 13 of the 20 most rapidly declining industries identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are either in manufacturing or mining, both fields heavily dominated by men. Most of the jobs that analysts predict will grow over the next ten years are either in care work or highly technical fields like engineering or computer science. In a recent report, Amazon executives indicated that they had no interest in developing or advancing non-college educated employees, choosing instead to abusively burn through them over a period of three years before discarding them. Despite attempts at regulating opioid usage, overdose deaths continue to rise. On some projections, 2020 ended with a record number of overdose deaths, possibly 90,000 or higher.

Jobs for Men

Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, the American economy began to shift from the pressures of automation, globalization and neoliberal politics. As William J. Wilson documents in his work, with every decade that passed after the war, manufacturing jobs were increasingly replaced by low-paid service work and credentialed office and professional work.[3] This was a boon to men who excelled at abstract thought and the manipulation of numbers. Jobs in computing and engineering proliferated and provided good professional salaries. Work in business and administration did as well, and many men found their calling there. But men who preferred to work with their hands or who did not want to pursue years of extra education were finding it increasingly difficult to procure stable work that provided them the income and respect they needed. Many subfields of manufacturing and mining were collapsing, terminating jobs or sending them overseas.

Politicians hyped exciting new industries with growth potential that would provide working-class men with stable, respectable careers. They continue to point to occupations like wind turbine installer, which labor economists believe will grow by sixty percent over the next ten years. But many of these growth fields will likely grow from very small to slightly less small. A sixty percent increase in wind turbine installers translates to about four thousand new jobs. For reference, Dollar General alone currently employs over 157,000 people in the United States.

There are some notable exceptions to this trend. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that warehousing and transportation jobs will increase in the future. Natural gas extraction ramped up in the 2000s and will likely continue growing. More recently, there have been worries about staffing construction jobs for the foreseeable future. But these fields are unstable. Warehousing and logistics jobs are under threat of redundancy as automation, robotics and autonomous vehicles improve. To the extent these growth jobs come from Amazon, Amazon’s executives have made it clear that non-college educated employees have little hope for a long career there. Environmental worries doomed the coal industry in America; they could doom the natural gas extraction industry as well. The construction industry collapsed with the Global Financial Crisis, and many workers retrained for other fields or left the country. In some parts of the U.S., construction employers had been undermining union construction jobs for years by lobbying for deregulation and hiring cheaper (and often undocumented) immigrants.

But there remains one field that is stable, appeals to men, and does not require a terrible amount of education: security. Federal, state and local governments employ individuals in a range of jobs in national defense, corrections and policing. As government jobs, they are in principle more protected from market shocks than jobs with private firms. With a few exceptions, they are also disproportionately staffed by men and often provide good benefits and pensions.

Just how many people hold jobs in law enforcement or national defense is hard to quantify, as some surveys suffer from large measurement errors and no one is quite sure how much of America’s national defense efforts have been delegated to private contractors. We have decreased the amount of service members on active duty, but continue to employ approximately 1.3 million of them, the bulk of whom are men. We also maintain around 1 million people on active reserve duty. In 2017, the Department of Defense officially employed about 464,500 people full-time as defense contractors. Expanding to intelligence and support roles, one analysis found that the number of federal employees working in security or national defense could be over 6 million, around 3–4 percent of the national workforce.

As for policing, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program reports 686,665 sworn officers, mostly men. If we include corrections officers, detectives and other law enforcement personnel, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that number at around 1.2 million. If we expand even farther to include firefighters, supervisors, security guards, and others working in protective services, the number reaches 3.35 million.

Some policing fields are growing quickly. In 1992, we employed 4,000 border patrol agents, while we now employ closer to 20,000. Including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agents, the total is closer to 50,000, the majority of whom are men.

These trends have just as much to do with politics as the law of supply and demand. We continue to add border agents even though we have repeatedly met all of our past hiring benchmarks. From 1992-2009, we increased the number of full-time police officers from roughly 3 officers for every 1000 residents to 3.5 officers per 1000 residents, even though serious crime was becoming less and less of a problem as the ‘90s and ‘00s wore on.

Glancing at the number of college degrees awarded, there is no shortage of young men who aspire to a role in law enforcement or protective services. Most majors that award a substantial number of degrees and appeal to men now require courses in engineering, computing or data analysis, but two exceptions stick out: criminal justice and parks and recreation. Up until recently, we graduated the same number of people with bachelor’s degrees in law enforcement as we did in computer programming. Adding in associates degrees we continue to churn out around 100,000 degrees related to law enforcement and security each year.


Humans gravitate toward a plurality of vocations and hobbies. A healthy economy would allow people to pursue their talents and interests within reasonable bounds and organize them so that their efforts contribute to a flourishing society that is to everyone’s benefit. While our present economy has unlocked unimaginable wealth and power for some, it has also left a segment of the population behind, isolating them from mainstream society and withholding from them the opportunity for a productive, meaningful life. When confronted with the prospect of low-pay, low-status jobs with little security, a segment of American men dropped out of the workforce to fight, deal drugs, take pills, kill themselves, or do nothing much at all.

But globalization and the re-ordering of the American economy has also had a more subtle effect; alongside the increase in social dysfunction, there has arisen a parallel need for the security state to manage the dysfunction and soak up men who might otherwise be trouble. This is hardly a new strategy. Wars have long been a way for countries to deal with large stables of inconvenient men. But traditional military campaigns are growing increasingly unpopular with the ruling class, so instead these men are dispersed along a growing defense and security apparatus that wields its social control both domestically and abroad.

During the 2000s, as manufacturing declined and the economy reeled in response to the September 11th attacks, defense and security contractors nevertheless did remarkably well. The Department of Homeland Security now employs approximately 240,000 employees, despite being created in 2002. Young men without a college degree found themselves with a chance to make good professional salaries as defense contractors in Iraq, even as other opportunities were drying up. With a few promotions, a border patrol agent can easily clear $100,000 per year. Police officer has become a common career for veterans, as one study found that 19 percent of police officers are veterans, even though veterans only make up 6 percent of the population.

Systems of formal control play an important role in cosmopolitan societies such as ours that lack a shared, religiously held moral code. But as we are discovering, security institutions are not great vehicles for soaking up men who do not fit into the knowledge economy. As the ranks of the security state swell, it becomes more difficult for the bureaucracy to stay focused on the narrow task of keeping the peace, as growing agencies must find new ways to stay occupied and justify their existence.

For example, the FBI now employs around 15,000 informants, and many argue that they just as often manufacture terror plots as root out existing ones. One study found that half of U.S. terror prosecutions involved an FBI informant. About one third of all prosecutions involved a sting operation by the FBI and, in 10 percent of cases, the terror plot was organized and funded by the FBI. As the number of thwarted terror plots increase, it simultaneously justifies further increases in staffing. In fact, the Biden administration just announced that it plans to increase resources for its domestic terror and intelligence programs, allocating up to $100 million for additional staffing. In response to the January 6 riot, the Capitol Police are now planning to expand operations and open field offices in a number of other states.

In the wake of the Michael Brown police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, Obama’s Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. They found that the Ferguson Police Department spent a significant amount of its time generating revenue, writing enormous tickets for small municipal violations and issuing as many citations as possible for every traffic stop. The department had entered into a parasitic feedback loop. In order to pay the professional salaries of the largely white, suburban police officers, they generated revenue by over-ticketing the poor Black residents there, placing even more financial and legal strain on them, leading to an increase in the likelihood that they would come into contact with the criminal justice system again. But over-policing was not limited to Missouri; in New York City in 2011, as part of the city’s stop-and-frisk program, police officers performed over 600,000 informal stops based on no more than a hunch that someone was up to no good.

While skepticism of the security state has become mainstream in leftist and libertarian circles, social conservatives often maintain a romantic attachment to policing in this country. But they should fear an expansion of the security state as well. While police officers are often cultural conservatives, many of our national security institutions are slowly drifting toward center-left, technocratic liberalism. In Waco and Ruby Ridge, the U.S. government showed it was capable of aiming its crosshairs at religious conservatives; as the U.S. secularizes and social conservatives continue to lose their grip on political power, there is good reason to think that their contact with the growing security state will only increase.

Back to Work

There are a number of actions we could take to expand the pool of employment opportunities for non-college educated men looking for stable, meaningful work. First, we could make it easier for employees to unionize and re-implement strong health regulations to make sure employees can count on a safe workspace. Protecting unions has not been awfully popular with conservatives, as many unions are now indistinguishable from liberal lobbying groups. But as the political parties realign, that could be changing. For example, Richard Louis Brown recently won SEIU Local 1000’s presidential election on the promise of drawing down political contributions to focus union dues on striking for better wages.

Construction remains an excellent vocation for men without a college degree, but the government has done little to ensure that construction workers can enjoy a stable career with a good retirement. The average age of retirement for construction workers is 61. For comparison, police officers typically retire closer to 55 years old, even though construction work is often more dangerous and more physically demanding. To make construction jobs more alluring as a career, we could subsidize the industry directly the way we do with farm subsidies, provide free trade school, make the apprenticeship model more accessible, and begin a public retirement fund for workers who must perform a lot of physical labor or work in dangerous conditions.

If subsidies won’t suffice, the government can increase labor demand by funding infrastructure projects or even hiring workers directly through a government jobs program. U.S. senators are presently working on an infrastructure bill that will allegedly provide a number of jobs for men without a college degree, and this is an excellent development. But that is not sufficient. There need to be assurances that this work will not dry up in a few years when the bill’s funding provisions expire. We should also commit to an infrastructure maintenance program and a reserve of workers who will pursue future building improvements as well.

And finally, the government can implement an industrial policy to target certain key manufacturing industries. As manufacturing becomes more productive and technology improves, there will be a natural decline in the number of manufacturing workers required for a given level of output. But it is possible to swing too far in the other direction, offshoring vital supply chains and putting millions out of work for the sake of marginal decreases in the price of goods. We need to find the right balance, strategically bringing back important industries to the United States and creating incentives so that companies reliably reinvest gains in productivity to expand production and hire more employees.

These suggestions may sound like affirmative action for men, but the benefits of a balanced economy redound to everyone. An economy that can successfully employ people in a greater range of occupations translates into fewer men on the margins of society, which in turn means less dysfunction and less pressure to expand the security state.

Some contend that we simply need to do a better job encouraging men to take the care and service jobs available to them. It is true that men have in the past gladly worked in a range of occupations that are now dominated by women, and it is likely that norms and preferences will shift again. But one employment norm remains stubbornly persistent: American men and women continue to find it very important for men to be strong financial providers, even as women contribute a greater and greater share of household incomes. This is especially true among members of the working class. We should therefore not expect gender norms to shift much for an occupation unless it offers the income and stability to provide for a family.

We are not going to return to the constellation of cultural and material conditions that gave us the male labor force participation rates of the 1950s, but we do not have to. Men have shown that they are capable of incorporating traditional values into changing social conditions. One study found that traditionally masculine traits in men like competitiveness and chivalry are now linked to caring, involved parenting. In the 1970s, men made up 2–3 percent of all registered nurses; they now make up over 12 percent. We can either support men and build an economy in which they may incorporate their values into new industries and more substantive parenting obligations, or we can stubbornly insist that they take precarious, low-paying service and care work and then feign shock when they decide to drop out of the workforce instead.


A peaceful neighborhood is primarily a product of morality. The only way to ensure lasting security is to organize society such that people choose to antagonize each other less. Formal social controls such as security or policing should be an institution of last resort, when every other check has broken down. When the security state increasingly becomes the primary arbiter of social control, it is only a matter of time before trust erodes and people grow weary of the constant surveillance and discipline. If young men are unable to secure stable, dignified work, they will continue to get in trouble and put people in their neighborhoods in the difficult position of enduring the dysfunction or sending more of them into the system of mass incarceration. As long as our policing decisions follow in the wake of one working-class employment crisis after another, we will continue to search in vain for an equitable balance between security and justice, and the reform-reaction cycle will continue.

  1. Patrick Sharkey, Uneasy Peace. (W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2018), 28-9. ↩︎

  2. Thomas Abt, Bleeding Out. (Basic Books: New York, 2019), 2. ↩︎

  3. William J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged. (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1987), 41-2. ↩︎

Featured image: "Police Squad at the George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte, 5/30/2020" in photo by Clay Banks via Unsplash.

Dave Atenasio is a Lecturer at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, MD. He received his PhD from Loyola University Chicago. You can find more of his work on his website. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.