Boy problems

A new book analyzes how the economic and social world of men and boys has been turned upside down.

It has become increasingly clear to me,” Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution writes in Of Boys and Men, “that there are growing numbers of boys and men who are struggling in school, at work, and in the family.”

Reeves notes that on a range of measures, men — especially those lower on the social ladder and among them, black men in particular — are falling behind. In education, the “gender gap in college degrees awarded is wider today than it was in the early 1970s, but in the opposite direction.” Indeed, “for every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, 74 are awarded to men.” Economically, “the wages of most men are lower today than they were in 1979, while women’s wages have risen across the board.” Socially, “one in five fathers are not living with their children” and “men account for almost three out of four ‘deaths of despair,’ either from a suicide or overdose.”

What is causing this? Regarding education, Reeves notes that male brains develop more slowly than female ones so that, unintentionally, “from a neuro-scientific perspective, the education system is tilted in favor of girls.” Male economic underperformance is, Reeves argues, because “male workers are challenged on one side by robots, and on the other side by workers in other countries,” automation and China, in other words. Concerning fatherhood:

…I argue the following: (1) the male role has long been culturally defined as that of provider, and based on the economic dependence of mothers on men; (2) this traditional role has been dismantled by the securing of economic independence by women; (3) culture and policy are stuck on an obsolete model of fatherhood, lagging way behind economic reality; and (4) this is resulting in a “dad deficit,” with men increasingly unable to fulfill the traditional breadwinner role but yet to step into a new one.

Consequently, “many men are left feeling dislocated,” and this is the root cause of what Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair” in their excellent 2020 book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.

To fix the situation regarding education, Reeves advocates for “giving boys an extra year of pre-K before starting them in school; a recruitment drive of male teachers into classrooms; and significant investments in vocational education, including more technical high schools.” In employment, Reeves notes a “decline in traditional male occupations,” but, instead of reversing this trend, he argues for getting more men into health, education, administration, and literacy — what he calls HEAL — jobs, which are expected to grow in coming decades. To accomplish this, he proposes “build[ing] a pipeline in the education system, provid[ing] financial incentives, and reduc[ing] the social stigma faced by men working in these fields.”

To “reconstruct the role of men in the family,” he outlines “a new family model, one where the relationship between fathers and children is independent of the one between fathers and mothers.” To accomplish this, he recommends “equal and independent parental leave; a modernized child support system; and father-friendly employment opportunities.”

There is much in the book for conservatives to disagree with, namely his discussion of race as it relates to violence in black men. And he dismisses legitimate concerns around “trans rights” as simply an attempt by conservatives to “whip up the partisan base.”

But while he castigates conservatives for “fuel[ling] male grievances for political gain,” “overweight[ing] the importance of biological sex differences for gender roles,” and “see[ing] the solution to men’s problems as lying in the past rather than the future, in the form of a restoration of traditional economic relations between male providers and female carers,” he also lambasts liberals for, among other things, “a tendency to pathologize naturally occurring aspects of masculine identity, usually under the banner of toxic masculinity,” “an unwillingness to acknowledge any biological basis for sex differences,” and “a fixed conviction that gender inequality can only run one way, that is, to the disadvantage of women.” The point is that this is sincere scholarship, and Reeves is not afraid to risk “cancellation” by the post-modern mob that insists on erasing any inherent biological or psychological differences between the sexes.

Many conservatives would agree that the problems Reeves identifies are real, more so than many on the left. They might also agree with several of his suggested causes; worries about China and automation destroying manufacturing jobs are, after all, a staple of “National Conservatism.” They might also disagree with many of his proposed solutions, as do I. But, again, Reeves has produced a work of sincere and deep scholarship and it deserves a hearing. These problems are too big to be either ignored or solved by one side of the aisle.

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