Until a recent moment in human history, writes Martin Amis, “there was, simply, the Man.” The Man’s chief characteristic “was that he got away with everything.” But today, around the industrialized world, men seem to have lost their groove. By almost any statistical measure, the average man is worse off than he was forty years ago: men account for two out of three “deaths of despair.” Suicide is now the number one cause of death among British men under forty-five. In the United States, one in three men with only a high school diploma are currently out of the labor force, while 15 percent of American men report having no close friends (up from just 3 percent in 1990). The wages of most men are lower today than in 1979, while women’s wages are higher across the board. Japan frets over its many male shut-ins, known as the hikikomori, while Sweden has declared in its schools a pojkkrisen, or “boy crisis.”
The first glimmerings of this crisis appeared in the late 1980s. The mythopoetic Men’s Movement attempted to treat this incipient sense of dislocation, which kicked off an apparently fruitless talk about the “inner male” served up on a platter of atavism, Jungian archetypes, and spuriously Native American practices like sweating in lodges, chanting, and running around bare-chested. Our own moment is a familiar jumble: you hear the same carping about real men, weak men, feminized men, soft men, soy men, men’s retreats, Men’s Day, bug men, lizard men, etc. Around and around goes the discourse, and yet we seem no closer to creating—or excavating—the Brave New Male. The chief difference between then and now is that the statistical outlook for men was merely drooping in the eighties; now it has fallen off a cliff.
The proposed cultural solutions may float around without landing anywhere in particular, but the problem itself is grounded in hard facts. In his new book, Of Boys and Men, Richard Reeves argues that the problem is structural. Society has undergone profound cultural and economic changes in the past few decades and many of them have left men—especially working-class men—disoriented and demoralized. As certain structural barriers that used to hinder women have been removed, women have proven their “natural advantage” in several areas, including in our colleges and universities. The structural disadvantages faced by men, meanwhile, have only become more entrenched during the same period. Several rounds of globalization, more outsourcing of traditionally “male” sectors like heavy industry, increasing automation, and greater workplace competition from women meant that, for many men, the economic picture has been getting bleaker by the year.
As a result, many men are struggling to fulfill their own outmoded expectations of what a man should be. “The problem with feminism, as a liberation movement, is not that it has ‘gone too far,’” Reeves writes. “It is that it has not gone far enough”—that is, it has not succeeded in replacing traditional models of masculinity with something more adequate to our current circumstances. The Western male is stuck in a culture of masculinity that is now desperately mismatched with his material reality. “Women’s lives have been recast,” Reeves writes. “Men’s lives have not.” Men have been consigned to “cultural redundancy.”
Men in their twenties now earn slightly less on average than women of the same age. While women are still catching up to men in the labor market, men are now falling further behind in education. The gender gap in the awarding of undergraduate degrees is actually wider than it was in 1973, when Title IX was passed—but this time in women’s favor. Reeves points out that elite men are actually doing just fine. He believes it’s impossible to discuss the plight of men without discussing economic inequality, and the largest gap between men and women is inevitably at the bottom of the wealth, income, and academic performance distributions.
Reeves is dissatisfied with the usual responses to this set of problems on both the Left and the Right. On the Right, one hears a kind of response associated with the Left on other issues, one having to do with societal norms and structural disadvantage (“It’s not your fault; society has made you sick”). The Left is more likely to dismiss the whole phenomenon, or to hold men responsible for their own problems and advise them to purge themselves of their “toxic masculinity.”