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.”
The Right’s lamentations about male alienation too often serve as a pretext for—or gateway to—celebrations of the old patriarchy or even brazen misogyny. One day a lost young man finds himself reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; the next day he may be watching the former kickboxer and lifestyle influencer Andrew Tate ranting on YouTube or TikTok about how women “bear some responsibility” for sexual assault. There is a lot of money to be made from exploiting the insecurities and fomenting the rage of frustrated male adolescents.
A less alarming but no less delusional example of this cultural mode is the cult of D-Day, or an unerring belief in the salutary, masculinizing effects of combat. This idea is helpfully distilled in the following pablum, usually stamped over an image of Marcus Aurelius or a crowded Higgins boat: “Hard times create strong men / Strong men create good times / Good times create weak men / Weak men create hard times.” Apparently, today’s strong men actually create history memes, while the longed-for test of manhood usually has the advantage of happening somewhere else at some other time.
In any case, this is not what Reeves is about in this book. He doesn’t want to turn back the clock. Nor is he proposing that we subtract from the gains women have made in the past fifty years in order to compensate the men who have lost out during the same period. To voice concern about men and boys, Reeves insists, is not zero-sum. There are, for example, large labor shortfalls in teaching and health care that could be made up by enticing more men to consider these jobs. If one’s aim is to promote gender equality, one must consider that a society that serves men better—helping them be better fathers, brothers, and sons—will also serve women better. And for society to serve men better, we have to start by asking what exactly our society needs men to be.
Reeves presents a cocktail of public policies that include longer and more generous paid leave for new dads, a reformed child-support system that no longer makes excessive demands of mothers, and more father-friendly employment opportunities (working from home, working part-time, or working flexible hours). This would help alleviate the gender-wage gap while also promoting a healthier model of fatherhood—more “co-parenting,” less “distant benefactor”—that reflects the demands of economic conditions not as they once were, but as they are now. Men have ceded territory in the workforce; now it’s time they picked up the slack at home. And, as Reeves points out, in a nation where one in four children are without a father, it’s difficult to imagine any successful new model of masculinity that isn’t rooted in a new model of family and fatherhood.
The structural disadvantages faced by men and boys in education start early. Almost one in four boys is diagnosed as having a “developmental disability,” which Reeves attributes to the later development of the male prefrontal cortex. The developmental gap is widest in the exam-heavy years of adolescence. Boys are set up to fail academically in their youth, and that failure compounds over time. He proposes that boys should receive an extra year of pre-K instruction before starting school to offset their delayed cognitive development.
Notwithstanding Reeves’s various schemes for persuading young men to consider new kinds of work, some disaffected men will still prefer to nurse grievances about being deprived of the world their fathers and grandfathers could take for granted. They will prefer the antisocial consolations of callow idols like Tate to the practical advice of policy wonks like Reeves himself. It is worth noting that plenty of seats in federally funded retraining programs for displaced coal workers have gone unfilled. Cultural norms and prejudices can be sticky. They often survive long after the world in which they made sense has disappeared. And while no one is quite sure why, male pupils tend to perform better under male instructors, while the girls are unaffected by the difference. A D.C. kindergarten teacher tells Reeves, however, that “some people assume if you’re a man teaching young kids that you’re somehow a pedophile or weirdo pervert or something.” Where could they have gotten that idea? But a future of more male nurses does seem within reach. The “murse” used to be a punchline. Now, unlike many men working in factory jobs, the male nurse is solidly middle-class.
Reeves’s concerns about the prospects of men and boys in contemporary American society come across as genuine. Despite his wonkish credentials and methods, the tone of this book is unabashedly empathetic. Of the opioid crisis, Reeves writes:
Opioids are not like other drugs, which might be taken to artificially boost confidence, energy, or illumination…. Opioids are taken simply to numb pain—perhaps physical pain at first, then existential pain. They are not drugs of inspiration or rebellion, but of isolation and retreat. One reason that so many people die from opioid overdoses is that users are typically indoors, and very often alone.
Reeves also notes that social dislocation leaves men “vulnerable to the attentions of a demagogue.” Donald Trump enjoyed the widest gender vote gap since exit polling began, and the counties with the most deaths of despair were the ones that swung most decisively to Trump in 2016. This fact underscores Reeves’s argument that the problems facing men and boys in America are really problems facing everyone, weighing heavily on our economy, our schools, our health-care system, and our democracy.
Addressing the kind of male disadvantages that Reeves catalogs does not mean ignoring or excusing inequalities that favor men over women. It’s possible, Reeves writes, to “hold two thoughts in our head at once.” Indeed, it’s urgent that we do so.
Of Boys and Men
Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It
Richard V. Reeves
$28.99 | 256 pp.