The father's example
Working fathers are critically important for kids

Article Highlights

  • In 2008 and 2009, 217 men lost their jobs for every 100 women who became unemployed.

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  • In 1953, 14% of men were neither working nor seeking work. Today? 30%.

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  • Fathers play a vital role in modeling the value of hard work.

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Recently, my 14-year-old son, Carlos, accompanied me on a trip to give a speech alongside a group of politicians. In the large holding room backstage, the speakers milled about, making small talk before our speeches. Working as my assistant, Carlos handed me a bottle of root beer, which, unbeknown to me, he had been shaking. (Behold the mysteries of the 14-year-old mind.) Upon opening it, I sprayed a copious amount onto a distinguished member of Congress.

Notwithstanding this embarrassing moment, Carlos is ordinarily a great wingman. And traveling together gives me the opportunity to do one of my most important jobs: demonstrating to my children that work is the epicenter of a good life.

All the wisdom of the sages reinforces this truth. As the Buddha lay dying after a 45-year career seeking and teaching the way to true consciousness, it is believed that his last words were “appamadena sampadetha,” which means “Strive diligently,” or, “Work consciously.” Our labor should be an agreeable path to spiritual enlightenment.

The data confirm that hard work is correlated with well-being. The University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics polls thousands of American families, and its 2009 results show that people who feel good about themselves work more than those who don’t. It asks how often the respondents felt so sad that nothing could cheer them up. My analysis of the study showed that people who felt that way “none of the time” worked 10 percent more hours per week than those who felt that way “most of the time.” This holds true when we eliminate people who worked zero hours, so it is not merely that unemployed people are miserable. This doesn’t prove that extra work hours chase away sadness, but it weakens any argument that the cure for the blues is a French workweek.

So vocation is crucial to leading a satisfying life. Who teaches this truth to children? Many traditions emphasize the role of fathers. Jesus defended himself to the Pharisees for working on the Sabbath by saying, “my Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” And the Talmud instructs us, “For a man not to teach his son a trade or profession is equivalent to teaching him to steal.”

Young men who grow up without a father are 1.5 times more likely to be idle — neither in the work force nor in school.

The best way for a father to teach this is by example. This explains why a child’s ability to grow up to be a productive adult is so strongly predicted by the presence of a working father in the home. The Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan has for decades studied what happens to sons and daughters when their fathers are absent. She finds that after controlling for demographics, children in fatherless families are roughly twice as likely to drop out of high school as kids in intact homes. Even after controlling for student talent via standardized test scores, a sharp decline in grades and attendance persists. And young men who grow up without a father are 1.5 times more likely to be idle — that is, neither in the work force nor in school — than those with a father in the home. 

And this brings us to a particularly serious issue this Father’s Day: Our growing national jobs deficit. In 1953, just 14 percent of adult American men were neither working nor seeking work. Today, that rate has more than doubled, to 30 percent. And this doesn’t only reflect an aging population with more retired men: Just after World War II, 8 percent of noninstitutionalized males ages 25 to 54 were not working. Today, 17 percent of that same group of men are idle.

For a good deal of this, we can thank the Great Recession and our manifestly inadequate policy responses to it. The AEI economist Mark Perry called it “The Great Mancession” after observing that the downturn produced the widest gender disparity in jobless rates in modern American history. From December 2007 to December 2009, 217 men lost their jobs for every 100 women who became unemployed.

To see where this leads without a change in course, look to Athens and Madrid, to Rome and Lisbon. A combination of culture and policy have left these once great capitals increasingly despondent and idle.

Some will always deny that there is a problem, arguing that Americans are foolish for forgoing such Continental luxuries as mandatory vacations and the “perfect cup of coffee” and working harder instead. I’ve heard it a thousand times from my Spanish in-laws: We live to work, while they work to live. Woe unto us, American workaholic rubes!

But leisure and chronic idleness are very different phenomena. Spain’s roughly 25 percent unemployment rate (for both women and men) doesn’t sound much like “living” to me. Its 54 percent unemployment rate for young adults doesn’t sound that great to Carlos, either.

This Father’s Day, I’m grateful to be able to take my son to work — root beer and all.

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Arthur C.

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