Computer game bludgers: SHOCK

Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men

by Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, Kerwin Kofi Charles, Erik Hurst


Younger men, ages 21 to 30, exhibited a larger decline in work hours over the last fifteen years than older men or women. Since 2004, time-use data show that younger men distinctly shifted their leisure to video gaming and other recreational computer activities. We propose a framework to answer whether improved leisure technology played a role in reducing younger men’s labor supply. The starting point is a leisure demand system that parallels that often estimated for consumption expenditures. We show that total leisure demand is especially sensitive to innovations in leisure luxuries, that is, activities that display a disproportionate response to changes in total leisure time. We estimate that gaming/recreational computer use is distinctly a leisure luxury for younger men. Moreover, we calculate that innovations to gaming/recreational computing since 2004 explain on the order of half the increase in leisure for younger men, and predict a decline in market hours of 1.5 to 3.0 percent, which is 38 and 79 percent of the differential decline relative to older men.

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David Walker
6 years ago

An important paper, also covered at INTHEBLACK.

Most disturbing sentence of the INTHEBLACK story:

“What really captured Hurst’s attention was these men’s life satisfaction scores – they were getting happier at a time when their job prospects were plummeting.”

John r Walker
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Apparently most of them are living with their parents – food and lodging is supplied.
So I suppose their happiness should last as long as the parents can cope ?

Avi Waksberg
Avi Waksberg
6 years ago

The Weeds podcast discussed this in the most recent episode. There are a range of compelling criticisms of the paper but I still think the core concept has some legs.

Avi Waksberg
Avi Waksberg
6 years ago
Reply to  Avi Waksberg

Key complaints-
1: the increase in video game playing in the period (2004-present) is completely offset by reductions in TV watching.
2: the group is spending less time in ‘leisure’ activities overall.
3: this is part of a long-term trend of declining work participation in males generally.

Stephen Bounds
6 years ago

I struggle to see what there is to get upset or disturbed about. I suppose the better option is the old, “proper” style of delinquency where unemployed youths roamed the streets causing property damage!

These days, games are a lifestyle that connects communities. Except in rare cases, it’s not a solitary endeavour where people sink into social isolation. People are playing with others online, solving amazingly complex puzzles within games in groups, discussing the games in online forums, watching others playing (Let’s Play), following their favourite eSports stars, and so on. In many cases, games actually foster face to face interactions where people get together for conventions and tournaments.

A small number of people may play computer games to an unhealthy level. But if you wouldn’t consider bridge or tennis to be a delinquent pursuit, you shouldn’t be concerned about other forms of games just because they happen to be digital.

David Walker
6 years ago

I need to be more explicit about the potential problems here, which are described in various ways in the papers themselves.

My main concern is that we have moved from a world where low-skilled men work in factories and on building sites to one where a proportion of them work on their Call of Duty skills. The proportion of prime-age men working has been falling in a number of labor markets, including the US. The US rate has recovered a bit since 2008; Australia’s has declined. Hurst’s work attempts to take those numbers apart a bit.

If the problem Hurst is describing really does exist, it is in one sense a really good problem to have. Stephen is absolutely right that video games are a lot better than gangs roaming the streets. He’s also right that online games have a social dimension for many players. And there’s a real issue of what the averages conceal.

My concern is what Nick accurately calls the soma angle. Gaming can be a dead end. I get that Call Of Duty/Overwatch/Your Favorite Game, played well, exercise and even develop some useful skills, including teamwork and leadership. But these games are immersively distracting in a way that bridge is not, and they do not improve fitness in the way that tennis does.

I am not worrying about this from a distance. I am perfectly capable of losing myself in Team Fortress 2 for an extended period of time, and I don’t really think it’s good for me. It would have been even less good for me if I had been doing a lot of it in my twenties instead of working. I suspect this is true for a lot of other males too.

Stephen Bounds
6 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Thanks for the reply David.

It seems far more plausible to me that video games become a buffer against depression, desperation, and anxiety once job hunting doesn’t go as well as planned. There is evidence that the artificial sense of achievement in games can act as a substitute for the real thing.

Rather than being a “leisure luxury”, I would characterise much of the game playing by unemployed youths as being primarily therapeutic. In contrast to soma, which merely dulls negative feelings, computer gaming provides an alternative method to meet the very human need to feel valued and capable.

I particularly like this story of how a person stuck in hospital recovering from a rare illness for two years maintained motivation and social connection through gaming – of course, not the same thing but an illustration of how morale can be maintained in difficult circumstances.

I acknowledge that the baseline satisfaction available through games may mean that people are likely to hold out for jobs that they perceive as delivering higher job and life satisfaction. If you feel unappreciated at work, you’re hardly going to push yourself back to work unless there is a pressing financial need.

This still doesn’t make games themselves at fault. I have observed elsewhere that there is a now a serious breakdown in the employer-employee social compact:

In today’s age, staff training is a form of “tragedy of the commons” … Unless the training is role specific (ie internal value that can’t be leveraged into a higher paying job elsewhere), the employee will either be able to negotiate a raise in salary, or to depart to another organisation prepared to pay that amount.

All organisations now have a disincentive to invest in staff development, pure and simple. It’s a sunk cost with no guarantee of RoI. This is particularly true given the decrease in employer/employee loyalty over the years.

I’ve been thinking about options, and can’t really see any way around it other than placing an explicit value on access to training as part of staff remuneration packages.

I would suggest that we need a whole new approach to the transition of people into work, and especially employer-employee relations in these early years. I believe solving these issues to be a far more pressing problem than concerning ourselves with what recreational activities young people do at home, if they are unable to successfully navigate a working environment that is increasingly hostile to inexperience.

Philip Clar
Philip Clar
6 years ago

Maybe the real point is we need to rethink the current paradigm on the definition of employment. Is it realistic to think that it is possible to gainfully employ a growing population while decreasing labour requirements through technology, automation and robotics?