The revolution will be gamified

American flag draped on van 

In The Free-Time Paradox in America, Derek Thompson explores a very modern problem:

Twentysomething male high-school grads used to be the most dependable working cohort in America. Today one in five are now essentially idle. The employment rate of this group has fallen 10 percentage points just this century, and it has triggered a cultural, economic, and social decline. “These younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives,” he said.

So, what are are these young, non-working men doing with their time? Three quarters of their additional leisure time is spent with video games, Hurst’s research has shown. And these young men are happy—or, at least, they self-report higher satisfaction than this age group used to, even when its employment rate was 10 percentage points higher.

The problem, just as pointed out in a recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, is that short-term gains can mask long-term losses. The examples given in the podcast were financial, but in this case they’re psychological and sociological:

It is a relief to know that one can be poor, young, and unemployed, and yet fairly content with life; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent society is that it can make even poverty bearable. But the long-term prospects of these men may be even bleaker than their present. As Hurst and others have emphasized, these young men have disconnected from both the labor market and the dating pool. They are on track to grow up without spouses, families, or a work history. They may grow up to be rudderless middle-aged men, hovering around the poverty line, trapped in the narcotic undertow of cheap entertainment while the labor market fails to present them with adequate working opportunities.

The author goes on to look at the ‘paradox’ that the wealthier and more successful you are, the more you’re likely to work. He outlines three theories explaining this:

  1. The availability of attractive work for poor men (especially black men) is falling, as the availability of cheap entertainment is rising.
  2. Social forces cultivate a conspicuous industriousness (even workaholism) among affluent college graduates.
  3. Leisure is getting “leaky.”

The last one for me is the most interesting as I think it explains the causes rather than the symptoms. The work that can’t (currently) be easily outsourced or automated is knowledge work. This kind of work doesn’t have a specific location in terms of where it can or should be done, and it also the kind of work that sometimes doesn’t feel like work, and also relies on the  autonomy of the individual to be effective.

We’re about to enter a time of ‘moral panic’ around virtual reality and augmented reality. Although decent VR/AR hardware is currently expensive, it,  like everything technological, will come down in price. We may then have a very real problem. 

Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses. For better or worse, entertainment, including television and video games, and even the 24-hour news media, is the drug that stops societal progress.

Image via Nomad Pictures