The state of work in America

by William Bornhoft

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” is filled with expansive, iconic Midwestern scenery. The entire film is in black and white, which gives the sweeping landscape a barren and lifeless hue like something out of “The Grapes of Wrath.” But a second kind of lifelessness adds to the film’s backdrop — the idleness of working class men. Nearly all the male characters in the film spend their days parked in front of a television and their nights on a barstool.

Viewers of the film may interpret these scenes as a depiction of the laziness of the characters themselves, not a general reflection on society. But the film — intentionally or not — accurately depicts the product of a long and steady decline of male participation in the labor force. According to a Brookings Institute report published in February, more than one in six men between 25 and 54 (prime working years) do not have jobs. This phenomenon cannot be blamed entirely on the nation’s current economic woes. As the report points out, it’s the continuation of a trend that predates the recession, and a fully recovered economy won’t cure it. It’s a slow but monumental structural change in the economy.

This change hasn’t received the attention it deserves, but “Nebraska” gives us a look at its harmful impact at ground zero of the old economy — the rural Midwest.

Most characters in the film are retired older men — another feature in line with current trends on our aging workforce — who were fortunate to spend their prime working years at a time when the economy rewarded things like grit, physical toughness and self-rule. We also see younger and middle-aged men: David Grant (Will Forte), his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and their heavyset cousins Cole and Bart.

Cole and Bart are unemployed. This is immediately apparent to the viewer: Cole (on probation for sexual assault) is wearing pajama pants, and he and his brother are first seen sunken in a couch watching television. Their mother offers a defense: “this economy has just torn up Hawthorne. . . things are hard for young men,” but short of an oil boom, it’s hard to imagine any economic revival that would have a place for the likes of Cole and Bart, whose physical strength and hardiness might be in demand just a few decades prior. Even David — far more determined and refined than his cousins — works an unfulfilling job selling audio equipment in Billings, Mont. David’s brother Ross, who works as a local news anchor, is the lone character with a promising career and, as far as we know, the only married man in the film who wasn’t alive during World War II.

“Nebraska” also features bleak parts of Midwestern culture that are seemingly timeless: unreachable fathers, unknowable relatives, aimless small talk and a pattern of alcohol abuse. Those of us with deep roots in the Midwest may find the film uninteresting because the characters and relationships are so familiar. Some might even find it painful to watch for that very reason. Where “Nebraska” differs from other Midwestern films like “Fargo” or “The Straight Story” is its realistic portrayal of the region, without caricature or enchantment. Personal failures and bad relationships are in the film’s forefront, but the regional decline in the backdrop is hard to ignore.

But as we know, it’s not all bad. Parts of the Midwest that have been able to transition to the new economy are doing quite well. The Bureau of Labor statistics reported in December that the Twin Cities is home to the nation’s lowest unemployment rate for large metropolitan areas. This isn't surprising given the area's high percentage of residents with college degrees. But unemployment rates don't tell the whole story. In the Midwest and across the country, unemployment rates are deflated as a result of people, particularly men, dropping out of the workforce. In 2012, men's participation rate in the workforce fell to its lowest point on record, which dates back to 1948.

Nobody is struggling to survive in “Nebraska,” which is mostly true in the real Midwest. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have stopped looking for work and are able to get by on government benefits and the charity of friends and family. But without a steady job, a large fraction of the population is kept from making important commitments like marriage and family that demand the structure, satisfaction and financial means that subsidizes cannot provide.

Government policies and programs cannot reverse or even slow down a structural change in the economy. They can only offer a leg up through education subsidies and training programs, which could help. But the steep decline in male participation in the labor force is underway, and it’s not out of the question that an entire class of would-be hardworking fathers and husbands will resign to a life in front of the TV, not because of a lack of ambition or smarts, but because the economy has left them behind.

William Bornhoft welcomes comments at [email protected].