Episode #178: Why Our Boys Are Struggling, Reframing Toxic Masculinity & Creating a New Script for Manhood
My guest today is British author and Brookings Institute scholar Richard Reeves. Richard’s latest book Of Boys and Men explores the reality of what is happening with our men and boys in the education system, workplace and home environment. I wanted to have this conversation with Richard because as a woman who has benefited so much from the women’s equality movement and title nine I was curious if it was possible for our society To elevate all of its members simultaneously. I have three daughters, Richard has three sons and our observations of what they experience is almost polar opposite. In so many wonderful ways we have changed the script, the only thing left to do is to figure out how to rewrite the new one for men and boys. I found his book a compelling argument for trying to figure out how exactly we all can do that. Enjoy
Listen to the episode here:
- Writing Of Boys and Men [00:08:40]
- It’s Not Just About Men-Women [00:11:54]
- The Need for Male Teachers [00:23:09]
- Immature (Not Toxic) Masculinity [00:29:42]
- Changes in the Labor Market [00:37:28]
- Men and their Mental Health [00:42:16]
- Youth Transitioning to Adulthood [00:45:50]
- Crime and Suicide [00:49:27]
- A Whole Chapter That Didn’t Make It to the Book [00:51:10]
- Redefining the Internal Reward System [00:55:52]
- It’s Always About Humanity [01:02:10]
Why Our Boys Are Struggling, Reframing Toxic Masculinity & Creating a New Script for Manhood
“I was struck by the fact that almost 1 in 4 boys, 23%, at K-12 age have been diagnosed with a developmental disability in the US. At that point, you have to stop and say, “Do we think that 1 in 4 of our boys is developmentally disabled? Do we think there’s something in their system? Could it possibly be that the system’s failing them rather than that they’re failing in the system?”
“It looks like, with the many fewer studies that have been done on the other side, that it’s true for boys in subjects like English to be taught by a male teacher. There is some evidence that having a male teacher improves the performance of boys in English and doesn’t, in any way, affect that of girls. A bit against the grain, a bit against some of the biology, etc.
Speaking perfectly and anecdotally, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not have been able to fall in love with the metaphysical poetry of John Dunn if my teacher hadn’t been Mr. Wyatt who was a grizzled Korean War veteran who would have us, working-class, 16-year-old boys, in tears reading metaphysical poetry from 400 years ago. That’s a tough thing to do and I have no doubt in my mind that my love of words and writing was hugely affected by the fact that a man was teaching me to do it. It’s not to say it couldn’t have been a woman.”
“I have this quote in the book from JF Roxburgh who is the headmaster of Stowe school in England. This is over 100 years old, this quote. He said, “I’m trying to turn out men who will be acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.” Someone asked me, “Could you update that?” I tried and I thought, “No.” Everybody knows what that phrase means.
Acceptable at dance means I’ve learned how to conduct myself well in society, I know how to treat women, I know how to behave, I know what to say and what not to say, I know how to take no for an answer graciously, and I know how to dance. Also, if the ship starts sinking, whatever the equivalent is, I know what to do then too. I still think that captures a version of masculinity, albeit over 100 years old, that is important. It’s mature masculinity that we’re after and not non-toxic because then you’re defining masculinity against toxicity rather than in a positive way.”
My guest is Richard Reeves, he works at the Brookings Institute, and he has a book out called Of Boys and Men. I was looking forward to this conversation because it’s important. This is discussing and diving in with data and statistics about how our men and boys are suffering. You could be rolling your eyes but I benefited from this empowerment for girls and women. I went to school on an athletic scholarship.
Title IX is beyond my wheelhouse. I have three daughters so I’m for women but not at the cost and it doesn’t have to be of men. This is where sometimes, culturally, we have this conversation and it almost turned from this movement of equality for women to think that in order for women to be successful, men couldn’t be. That’s not the case. It’s getting to redefine things. It’ll impact all of us, culturally.
If we’re interested in humanity, these conversations, we need to have these. You’ll see that more and more men are committing suicide and they’re saying that they feel useless and worthless. The homelessness situation, the number of men in jail, and how easy it is for us as a culture to throw around the term toxic masculinity. The word masculinity shouldn’t have this word in front of it for everything that seems to be masculine. It’s unfair.
Richard makes a beautiful distinction between immature and mature masculinity. What are we doing to help, in this changing world, our education system, our labor system, and our home life are different. How do we create a new script to give men and boys so that they can feel productive and like they’re participating?
For example, in education, we have few male educators. How do we communicate and reframe some of these professions like education and psychology as something that men can do because we need them? As the labor market changes, what are the new jobs? What are the new ways that we can get men in that workforce? For some reason, if they decide to be a stay-at-home dad, it’s changing that script saying, “Fatherhood in itself is important. It’s not fatherhood and you have to be the breadwinner because that’s not what’s happening.”
40% of homes, the female is the breadwinner, including single parent homes. There’s a lot of statistics showing that, as women, we get satisfaction out of, “I can kill it at work. I can be a mom. I can do all these things.” Men only think that their worth is what they provide. Richard provides a lot of data and a lot of ideas about what we can do, what’s going on with porn, and how does that impact our men. It’s not as bad as I thought.
He offers real solutions to what’s happening here. We still have programs to support, girls and women, and I want that. Simultaneously, how do we support our men and boys because we need them? We need all of us. Most importantly, the people that it impacts the most are downstream. You’ll see upper and middle-class people being like, “I don’t see this.” If you start getting into the working class or the lower class, they’re getting hammered more than everybody.
The conversation was more rushed than I had hoped. You’ll see that I was sliding in a lot of data, statistics, and information because I did want it to come from him. From the top of the show, he said he didn’t have a lot of time. I tried to get through as much of it as I could because it’s an important topic. I hope you enjoy.
Richard Reeves, thank you for coming to the show. I loved your book, Of Boys and Men.
I want to dive right in because there’s a lot to cover. I appreciate the fact that you wrote this book. I have three daughters. You have three sons. I’m a product of Title IX. I got an athletic scholarship to a university. I’m on every upside of that movement to empower, elevate, and create that equality for women. I thought, “Now it feels like boys going now into men are getting not left behind but maybe unsupported whether it’s in education, the labor force, or at home.”
I used to tell my husband, who is pretty masculine, that we have to support our men and boys. It’s all of us, it’s our civilization, and it’s our cultures working together. You have a lot of research at the Brookings Institute but maybe you could first explain why you wrote Of Boys and Men. What was showing up for you that you decided, “This is important to undertake.” It’s not easy in this climate to be like, “Let’s talk about why we have to help our boys and men.”
It’s not easy. Partly for the reason that you hinted at, Gabby, the world has changed quickly. In the span of a generation, we’ve gone from it being appropriate to thinking about, “Why aren’t women doing better at college?” Thinking, “Why aren’t men doing better at college?” There’s been this incredible overtaking.
[bctt tweet=”Anybody who asks us to choose between the two genders is not serving us, not serving our kids, and not serving our culture.”]
The personal reason is that I have three sons. I’ve raised them both in the UK where I’m from and the US where I’m now a proud citizen. It’s partly the challenge that I’ve had adjusting to this new world and as I’ve seen them navigate this new world for a wonderful new world but certainly a world where the rules of how to be a man are clearly different and more complex than they were for my father and his generation.
Also, some of the stats. We’ve talked about higher education but in 1972 when Title IX was passed and you were a beneficiary, men with 13% points were more likely to get a college degree than women. Now, women with 15% points are more likely to get a college degree than men. Our campuses are 60/40 females. There’s more gender inequality in US higher education today than there was when Title IX was passed. It’s the other way around.
That change has happened quickly and updating our view of the world is incredibly hard. If in the space of one generation you’ve got to go from worrying about gender inequality one way to the other way that quickly, it’s almost impossible. Many of us and I have it in myself, this instinctive reaction, “Really? Boys and men?” The data speak for themself. Also, our failure to rise to this challenge is hurting a lot of our boys and men and creating a dangerous vacuum in our society and a dangerous vacuum in our politics.
People reading this will say, “Is that true?” I want to point something out that felt the other part of what was important. Men at the top are getting paid more than they’ve ever been paid but what people have to remember is what you’re talking about is it’s everyone in the working class and below that suffer the most.
It isn’t about CEOs and hedge funders. Yes, men have never made more money in their life but you’re not talking about that. You’re talking about the downstream that men are 2.5 more times to commit suicide. 93% of the people in jail are men. 60% of the homeless are men. It’s people getting their heads around. It isn’t about this male-female issue, it’s also about how it starts to deeply impact everybody downstream of these few exceptions. That’s an important part of why we need to talk about it.
That’s also one of the reasons why it’s hard though for people to talk about it if they are in that upper middle class or professional strata because they look around and they say, “I don’t see the men struggling very much.” In my world, if anything, they say there’s still more work to be done, which there is in many quarters of society.
Most American men earn less today than most American men did in 1979. As a collective group, we’ve seen male wages go back, and that’s an extraordinary economic fact. Whereas female wages at the median have gone up by at least 30% and female wages at the top have also gone up quickly. It’s not to say that they’ve matched men on average, although we might get into the gender pay gap, which is largely a parenting gap.
The pay rises of women at the top have also been extraordinary, especially for white college-educated women. We’ve seen this amazing change such that today, 40% of women earn more than the typical man. That’s not 50%. If it was 50%, you’ll see exactly the same distributions. 40% earn more than the median man partly because the median man is worse off than the median man was over 40 years ago. He’s lost a little bit of ground.
In 1979, only 13% of women earned more than a typical man. It was quite unusual for a woman in 1979 to be earning more than the average man whereas now, 40% of women are. That’s a reflection of class inequality growing. The danger is that we might be busy leaning in, to use Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase, “But not looking down.” Of course, if you add race to the equation too and you look at the trends for black boys and men, white women and not only black women, outearn black men by a huge magnitude now. You’ve got to look at this through that lens of race and class as well as gender.
I had heard Jordan Peterson discussing the Union of Ideals and you say it clearly, “Men and boys don’t have to lose in order for women to win.” I appreciate that. This is important because of our children and what they’re stepping into. Let’s slide and go right into it. There are a lot of statistics and a lot of things that could be improved on the education side of it. Maybe we could start discussing it. Part of that is it’s female-friendly. Part of those statistics launched you into saying, “I need to write this book. There’s data here and statistics about how many male teachers there are.” What’s going on in the education side of things?
I appreciate the way you framed that because it is incredibly important to get our facts straight. I used to write for The Guardian and the founding editor of The Guardian, CP Scott, famously said, “Comment is free but facts are sacred.” Getting these facts on the ground, getting them on the table, and then we can argue about what they mean, etc., is important.
We’ve already mentioned the higher education stats. If you look into high school, 2/3 of the highest GPA scorers are girls, 2/3 of the ones with the lowest GPA are boys, and all the way through the education system. In the typical school district in the US, girls are almost a grade level ahead in English and have caught up in math. In poor school districts, they’re a full grade level ahead in English and ahead in math. This is are grades 4 through 8. At every level, there’s this huge gender gap across the board. The question then isn’t, why does that happen?
Let’s lay out the facts, which aren’t always perhaps acknowledged but then start to get at why is that happening. I’ve come to believe that there are structural factors at work here, not least because it’s happening in every advanced economy. This is not a quirk of the US education system. It’s a difficult thing to say even now but schools are, on average, a bit more female-friendly than male-friendly. They reward the skills that girls have a bit more than the skills that boys have.
There are fewer than 1 in 4 teachers now who are male and dropping. Over time, we do less and less applied learning and vocational learning, which tends to favor boys. Everything is on average. If you take an education system that rewards soft skills like turning in your homework and that has few male teachers in it and that does little applied learning, learning with your hands as opposed to sitting still at a desk, It shouldn’t be a surprise that girls and women are doing so much better than boys. All of those things, everything else equal, are going to advantage girls and women.
I see it as, in the structure of the education system, rather than there being something wrong with the boys. I was struck by the fact that almost 1 in 4 boys, 23% at K-12 age, have been diagnosed with a developmental disability in the US. At that point, you have to stop and say, “Do we think that 1 in 4 of our boys is developmentally disabled? Do we think there’s something in the system? Could it possibly be that the system’s failing them rather than that they’re failing in the system?”
The whole notion of red-shirting a boy, we’ve done it in athletics, and developmentally how different boys and girls are. It was interesting because the deeper I dove into what you were talking about, it’s like, “We will use statistics to support things for women and girls.” Somehow when we were talking about boys, it’s testosterone and the prefrontal cortex.
These developmental things have nothing to do with it. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the brass tax on the development. It’s different. Being a female and having daughters but living with a masculine male, if you pay attention, yes, there are always people who slide over in the middle, I get it. It’s different.
On average. There are a couple of things. I can’t remember who said this but somebody said that many problems in society stem from our inability to think of an overlapping distribution. Our inability to recognize that if you’ve got these differences between two populations on average, you’re going to see there are different patterns. You’re an athlete so I don’t know how tall you are.
That’s a great example. You would be in the top 10% of men.
I have a theory and this is also why I wanted to talk about it. My husband is an athlete as well. I played professional beach volleyball and you could go to practice. Let’s say you’re top three teams in your country and you’d be practicing next to a group of boys were going to try to qualify to get into the men’s side.
I sometimes feel like when you’re a female athlete or you’re on one sharper end of the stick, you know greater the difference is. If you’re supposedly the sharp end of the stick and then you look and you see guys who barely can make it in their sport who are bigger, stronger, and faster, you go, “We’re different.” It’s obvious to see knowing men’s upper body strength, it goes on and on. It’s not that I didn’t fight it but I saw it in real-time all the time.
When you say that to ordinary people as opposed to people in politics, they go, “Duh.” Height is a great example where, on average, women are, whatever it is, or however many inches, shorter than men. The distributions usually overlap. You’re a great example of that. You’re slightly taller than me and I’m tall for a guy. Equally, there are guys who are short, and so on. They distribute but it doesn’t mean there aren’t differences on average.
What that means is, on average, more men are going to be able to reach the top shelf in the kitchen than more women, not all but on average. The question becomes, which of those differences matter in life? Which would matter in terms of which jobs we choose, how we behave towards each other, and what motivates us?
In other words, how much of it becomes about psychology, not just physiology, but psychology? That gets a much more interesting and more controversial subject because then you’re into things like sex drive, risk-taking, the potential for aggression, and slightly more interested in things than people, etc. The thing that’s often lost in that whole debate is where you started this bit of the conversation, which is the difference in the timing of development.
Where there is no controversy at all is that girls hit key milestones in terms of their brain development earlier than boys. Even that’s on average. They do because they hit puberty earlier. If you take a classroom of 16-year-old girls and 16-year-old boys, they’re not the same. You know that and I know that.
I always feel for those boys that are freshmen and sophomores and they look like little boys still and now they’re going to school with these women. You’re almost scared for them.
Margaret Mead said that she went into a classroom and she said, “You would think that you’d walked into a class of little boys and young women,” and that’s exactly how it feels. Of course, that’s partly physical because they hit puberty earlier and so they developed physically earlier. Also, it hits this bit of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.
It’s the bit of the brain that helps you get a good GPA because it turns in your homework because it remembers what the GPA is. It thinks, “Maybe I should study for a test,” that stuff. That’s more developed in girls. It develops earlier in girls than boys and it develops at a critical age. All of those are reasons why education is somewhat more female-friendly than male-friendly.
I want to move into the labor aspects of this. One of the solutions is, how do we encourage males and even maybe reframe what the job is for male educators? I appreciated this. Let’s say you were teaching a class and I was teaching a class, you would see certain behavior from the male students as not a big deal and I might take that as I need to take some disciplinary action or things like that. It’s finding ways where you’re also working with the male students while they’re in these environments that maybe are not as conducive for them. How would we get more men teaching?
First of all, we have to agree that we need more male teachers. Step one is to persuade policymakers, institutional leaders, etc., that getting more men into teaching is a priority. Right now, nobody is essentially saying that it’s a priority. If we achieve that, the question is how. There are a few exceptions to that rule that I mentioned but it’s certainly not a high priority for anybody. The question then is how.
We’re at a tipping point now where once you get to about 30% of any profession being more of one gender or the other, once you get below that, it gets harder to get people to go into it. There seems to be a bit of a tipping point. It’s like, “That’s not for me. I’m a bit too much of a minority.” It’s one thing to be 1/3, it’s another to be like 1 in 10, which is what elementary school teachers are now. There are only 1 in 10 elementary schools where teachers are male and most elementary schools don’t have a male teacher.
If you’re a male elementary school teacher, you’re a bit of a wit. If you’re a male early years teacher, forget it. There are twice as many women flying US military planes as there are men teaching kindergarten as a share of the professions, twice as many. That strikes me as cause for concern.Whilst we’re doing quite a lot to help women into the military, which I agree with, we’re doing nothing to encourage more men into early years education. It does mean scholarships, it does mean having the programs that we’ve had to help women to STEM and women into male professions with scholarships, subsidies, and aggressive social marketing campaigns.
We need male teachers going into high schools to try and persuade the boys that teaching is a career for them. We should raise the pay of teachers as well anyway but it would also help because that’s definitely a bigger issue for men going into those professionals. There’s a bunch we can do but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be setting ourselves a target to increase the number of men in our classrooms. Especially in subjects like English where men appear to have a disproportionately positive impact but where they’re also the fewest men teaching.
What do you mean that they have an impact?
If you look at the gender of the teacher and the outcomes for the students in various subjects, there’s quite a big literature showing that, for girls, having a female STEM teacher in science, technology, engineering, or math, is helpful to them and it doesn’t seem to affect the boys but it seems to help the girls. Those are subjects that have historically been ones that boys have been stronger than girls. It goes a bit against the grain, either culturally and/or a little bit biologically for girls. It’s great to have a female teaching that.
It looks like with the many fewer studies that have been done on the other side it’s true for boys in subjects like English to be taught by a male teacher. There is some evidence that having a male teacher improves the performance of boys in English and doesn’t in any way affect that of girls. It’s a bit against the grain, a bit against some of the biology, etc.
Speaking perfectly and anecdotally, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not have been able to fall in love with the metaphysical poetry of John Dunn if my teacher hadn’t been Mr. Wyatt, who was a grizzled Korean War veteran, who’d have working-class 16-year-old boys in tears reading metaphysical poetry from over 400 years ago. That’s a tough thing to do and I have no doubt in my mind that my love of words and writing was hugely affected by the fact that a man was teaching me to do it. It’s not to say it couldn’t have been a woman.
It also gives you, as a young man, permission if you’re looking to explore these uncomfortable emotional or sensitive areas because as young men, you’re culturally told to be tough and all these other things. I’ve been with my husband for over 27 years and he is hyper-masculine but he is sensitive and the heart of our whole family. I have seen it over and over again in military men that we train with or other things.
[bctt tweet=”It is about leadership. It is about recognizing that you can be strong and have all this vulnerability along with it too.”]
We’ll get into toxic masculinity. I read in the book, Natural Born Heroes, “To be a hero, one must be truly compassionate.” People have gotten it wrong about what masculinity is. I’ve always viewed it as helpful, my word is my bond, and all of this other protectiveness and wonderful traits that we can all benefit from. Of the most masculine men I’ve met, I find them to be the most sensitive. People don’t maybe realize it or they’ve forgotten that or they want to throw it out as something that it’s only aggression and it’s all these things. That has not been my experience at all.
It’s another false choice. It’s seen as another trade-off, a zero-sum. To be masculine is not to be sensitive but the opposite is often true.
Especially, for people who’ve maybe been in life-threatening situations like the military, I find them to have that. Maybe there’s a different perspective or appreciation for things. If there is a high level of aggression, violence, or danger that someone has experienced, maybe it evokes this other side of appreciating tenderness and love.
I’ve seen that so much and I see it with my husband and it’s important. Speaking about toxic masculinity and before we move out of education and go into labor, you make an important distinction that you talk about. Immature and mature masculinity should be the reference versus toxic masculinity.
I prefer that framing. I’ve come to dislike the term toxic masculinity. It used to be a well-defined term in academia. There are some psychologists in academia, a few mentions in some obscure journals till 2016, and it broke out because of the embarrassing Donald Trump’s Me Too movement, etc. COVID, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and recession all have been blamed on toxic masculinity. It’s become a catchall term for behavior from men that you don’t approve of, “That’s toxic masculinity.” At that point, it’s not serving any useful function as a time of any precision.
In the meantime, it’s pissing a lot of men off and young men, especially who don’t appreciate the location of the word toxic that close to the word masculinity. Even though people say, “Of course, there’s good masculinity.” They struggle to say what that is. It’s game over at that point. The term itself is toxic and what we’re getting at is something more like the difference between immature and mature masculinity.
Everyone who’s been a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 16-year-old, a 17-year-old boy, an 18-year-old, or who’s raised them knows a bit about what that’s like in terms of what’s going on in your body and what’s going on in your mind. As it is for girls too but in a different way for boys. You learn to moderate, temper, channel, and how to conduct yourself.
I have this quote in the book from JF Roxburgh who is the headmaster of Stowe school in England. This is over 100 years old, this quote. He said, “I’m trying to turn out men who will be acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.” Someone asked me, “Could you update that?” I tried and I thought, “No.” Everybody knows what that phrase means. Acceptable at dance means I’ve learned how to conduct myself well in society, I know how to treat women, I know how to behave, I know what to say and what not to say, I know how to take no for an answer graciously, and I know how to dance.
Also, if the ship starts sinking, whatever the equivalent is, I know what to do then too. I still think that captures a version of masculinity, albeit over 100 years old, that is important. It’s mature masculinity that we’re after and not non-toxic because then you’re defining masculinity against toxicity rather than in a positive way.
It’s like putting dye in the water and being like, “Put the genie back in the bottle.” Once you phrase it that way, you’re always backpedaling. I’m curious. Because the labor market has shifted, is any of this connected to also on how men also are relating to other men? Are there parts of that that you found in your research where even that have impacted young men’s ability to develop mature masculinity? Even now, coaches or teachers can’t be as tough on young people. There’s a lot more protocol.
I wondered if any of that has also maybe lent itself. Maybe when you were growing up, if you were going to take on or learn a new task with a group of older men, they would give it to you, “That’s not how you should hold your shovel.” Whatever it is that you’re learning, I wondered if that impacted how young men are also developing.
The relational aspect of development is usually important here. To take a step back, it seems pretty clear that mature masculinity is more socially constructed than mature femininity. It’s not that they aren’t both slightly socially constructed but there’s a biological reality and there are rights of passage for girls and women that are much more obvious, more rooted in the body, and clearly related to fertility and motherhood, etc. That’s less true for men.
We’ve always had to construct ways to mature and ways to have rights of passage, to have institutions and spaces within which that intergenerational male learning can take place. I agree with you that those spaces have been weakened. Back to the school example, one of the reasons why it’s important to have male teachers is because they’re disproportionately likely to be coaches. There are all kinds of reasons you get into that.
The iconic position of coach in American culture is not accidental, especially for boys who maybe don’t have a strong male role model in their home or their home life. The coach can become hugely important. There are other institutions that have done that too. I’ll give you one personal example but it’s topical, which is the scout movement.
I came up through the scouting movement. I then became a scout leader myself. My boys came up through the scouting movement. That was clearly a space within which some of this intergenerational learning and socialization could take place. Boy Scouts of America went co-ed. It’s not a male-only space anymore. Meanwhile, Girl Scouts of America remain female-only. It’s had a huge investment from MacKenzie Scott because she made the point that these girl-only spaces, to do STEM, develop relationships, and learn how to be a woman are useful.
I’m like, “I agree, but what about boys? Do we don’t think that we need any spaces that are appropriate for boys to learn?” That’s another example. We’ve become shy of the idea of having these spaces where men can develop these skills, especially from older men. The decision by Boy Scouts America to rebrand as BSA in the hope that one day we’ll forget what the B ever stood for, I have come to think that’s a big mistake.
It’s interesting. It feels like there’s an overcorrection but if we get below this 30% or this number, then is there no coming back from it? I am a person who has greatly benefited from the support of women and girls and I believe that. Looking at the whole landscape, you go, “Is the overcorrection going to make it that we then can’t pull it back and say, ‘Let’s talk about our men. Let’s talk about supporting them. Let’s create these spaces.’” Also, let’s celebrate masculinity. Let’s celebrate all the wonderful traits. Can you share a little bit about the labor market? It is changing for men for a number of reasons, from manual labor and other things.
The point you made earlier that this is about class is doubly true here. I mentioned the fact that most men earn less than most men did in ‘79 but the men at the top are doing well AND also the employment effect. We’ve seen about an 8% drop in labor force participation among men over the last few decades. the biggest drop has been among men with less education. Among men with a high school diploma but no more education than that, 1 in 3 are out of the labor market. There are 10 million men.
For that group, when only 2/3 are in the labor market at all, that’s a different world and that’s also the men who are struggling in all kinds of other aspects of life. You’re seeing a labor market that partly because of free trade and automation and the shift away from a more industrial economy has had a disproportionate effect on men. It’s not because women have come into the labor market or because women are doing better, that’s a zero-sum lump of labor and bad economic thinking. It’s not that.
At the same time, as women have succeeded in the labor market, men independently faced these big shocks from more trade with China, more shift towards automation, and the move away from the jobs that men used to be able to do with relatively modest levels of education and still get decent pay. That world has gone and that has benched millions of men and we haven’t done a good enough job yet of helping those men to adjust to the new labor market.
What would that look like? Is it scholarships for vocational schools and things like that? What would that look like so that we can redirect them somewhere?
There are still quite a lot of jobs that are still dominated by men who would require some post-high school training and can pay decent wages. That’s things like HVAC, plumbing, electrician, etc. You certainly need to get some technical training for that. You probably need to get at least an associate’s degree or some kind of certificate.
You need a certification for those but you don’t have to go into a four-year college degree. Much more investment in those and much more investment in apprenticeships. The US is at the bottom of the international league table for apprenticeships. 90% of apprentices are men. That would help men to get into some of those jobs. At the same time, we have to recognize that many of the jobs of the future are not going to be in those areas that have been the ones that are traditional male jobs.
A lot of the jobs of the future are in what I call heal professions, health education, administration, and literacy skills. There, you’re seeing a lot of jobs coming in areas like healthcare, more broadly, nursing, social work, and psychology. These are all professions that are becoming progressively more female-dominated. It’s back to this tipping point issue, which is even as we’ve seen the desegregation of the labor market one way in a lot of professions, not all. For example, deep-sea fishing remains male and telephone wire repairers.
What a surprise.
I talked to my liberal junior colleagues about deep sea fishing and one of them said, “You can have that one.” There isn’t a huge campaign to get more women out on deep-sea fishing boats.
Richard, even that tone, “You can have that one.” We’ve managed to politicize everything and instead of saying, “How do we, as a group and a collective, help each other all move forward?” We’re in a changing world and the world works differently. The way people can make a living is different. The way people are married is different. It’s changing. It’s interesting that you talked about we’ve changed the script. Technology has changed the script.
Women are finding their bearings and you’re saying that men are out there improvising and it’s difficult. Do you think it also would be about selling these jobs? People are struggling quite a bit. You hear about mental health all the time. Having more male psychologists, for example. if I’m a 15-year-old boy, as much as I’m sure I’m interesting and cool, I would probably rather talk to you. Is it about how we’re marketing these jobs to men?
Partly, but it’s also back to this point. Watch the numbers. If a profession becomes too dominated by one sex or one gender or the other, it gets harder to persuade and the barriers are higher. Psychology is a great example. I only have to go back to 1980 when psychology was slightly more men than women. In the past ten years, the share of men in psychologists dropped from 39% to 29%. Among psychologists under the age of 30, 5% are male.
In the space of a short period of time, psychology has gone from being a pretty gender-equal profession. In fact, if anything, it’s slightly male-oriented to an overwhelmingly female-dominated one. That’s happened right over time. What that tells us is, first of all, there’s nothing about psychology intrinsically, which means that it’s a women’s profession. It’s not a women’s job to be a psychologist, or at least it wasn’t in the ‘80s.
When Ronald Reagan was president, half our psychologists were men. Was it a women’s profession then? I don’t think so. Now, you get to a point where it’s hard to persuade men. I know some of my friends’ sons are in psychology classes and they’re the only man in the psychology class, almost all the faculty. It’s hard to persuade these guys that psychology is a profession for them when everyone they look at around them is female.
That’s a problem because, for the reason you identify, you’re a 15-year-old guy, when any of my sons have needed help or mental health support, it had to be a guy. When I needed help, it was a guy. I tried female therapists but with the stuff I was dealing with, it had to be a guy. What that means is that if you allow these professions to become scarce of men, I talked to a lot of male psychologists and they all say almost to a man that they can’t meet the demand for their services because there are so many people ringing them up. Often, it’s mums, by the way.
These are women calling up male psychologists and saying, “Can you see my son or maybe my brother?” They’re like, “No, I can’t. My waiting list is a year.” They’re overwhelmed. That’s a great example of a win-win-win because there are more jobs in psychology. We are short of psychologists and we need psychologists to be able to be available. We need male psychologists. As far as I’m aware, nobody is paying any attention to this issue. There are no campaigns. There’s no nonprofit money. Neither MacKenzie Scott nor Melinda Gates or anybody else is pouring money into scholarships to get men into psychology, nobody.
[bctt tweet=”Fatherhood matters independently of the relationship with the mother.”]
This is a bolt onto that idea, all these transitions that young women and men go through, puberty, graduation, and then moving into adulthood. I know you’ve thought about it. What could we do better to help them through these not only rights of passage but difficult transitions for any person to go through?
The first thing is what not to do and we’ve already talked about toxic masculinity and not framing the task here as learning all the things you shouldn’t do, shouldn’t say, and, “Don’t be like this.” It’s seeing some of these differences as positive and being with compassion and no eye-rolling. That’s toxic masculinity. Also, no, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Either implicitly or explicitly, never should it be, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” There’s a bit of a cultural thing around that.
For fathers and community leaders anyway to unapologetically model a mature form of masculinity, which is about helping people manage risks. It is about leadership. It is about recognizing that you can be strong and have all this vulnerability along with it too. There’s a degree of risk-taking involved. There’s a degree of physicality, on average, for boys than there is for men, and communicate. This is back to the point about psychology.
I was listening to some psychologists talking about walking therapy. He’d initiated this way of doing therapy with his young where they went out for a walk because he found that sitting down with them didn’t work. What we know is that men communicate more effectively shoulder-to-shoulder than face-to-face.
With my kids, my boys would come home from school and my wife would sit opposite them across the breakfast bar, “How was your day?” “Whatever.” “What happened.” “I don’t know.” It shut down. I said to her, “It’s because you are in their face.” Later on, I’d be driving somewhere with them or video gaming with them or doing something or watching a sporting event with them and they’d say, “This weird thing happened at school today.” It came out when we were playing. That’s fine. We have different communication styles. If you’re a mom or any role, recognize that they’re not going to communicate with you in the same way perhaps with your girls and that’s okay.
Know your audience. I’m with you on that. They’ll take little kids and they’ll color and do stuff. They’re not going to sit with a little kid. Everybody will feel more comfortable in a certain way. Let’s talk about home life, husbands, and fathers. This also is interesting. You talked a lot about the two things that would come up a lot that men would write or say or use the words before they would commit suicide were useless and worthless.
There’s something interesting where we think if women aren’t around or families, you have that settling impact on men that they’re going to become a bunch of hoodlums. In fact, they’ve retreated quite a bit. You said that this was quite a big surprise and that no one would’ve guessed that everybody retreated. Everyone thought they’d be going around the neighborhoods with sticks and hitting garbage cans because they weren’t in a calming environment. You’re saying it’s worse, they’re retreating.
Not worse probably.
I feel like I could deal with the energy outward. It’s when people feel like they’re giving up. At least the other feels like there’s still a fight in there.
The cost of that is much higher levels of crime, much higher levels of violence, and much less safe. I’m sure you prefer feeling a bit safer walking along the street than you would if there were bands of marauding men. It’s different or better. It is a surprise and it may have quite a lot to do with screens. It may have quite a lot to do with the internet. It may turn out that the internet, although it has huge problems for men, it’s also saved us to some extent.
The counter fact we have to run is a world where you’ve got many men who feel dislocated and lost and there’s no internet, there’s no video gaming, and there’s no porn, to be blunt about it. What would they be doing instead? Maybe they’d all be volunteering at the local soup kitchen and being crossing wards, guards, or better fathers. I hope that would be true. There is an alternative world where they would not be checking out but they’d be acting out.
I sometimes feel like technology is part of the reason why they’re able to check out. If we still lived in a world where we had to all be together and we’d have time, it would be a different sit situation. I understand your point. Let’s talk about porn. Having daughters, we’re more concerned with social media. People with sons often are alarmed about porn. You dug into it and said, “Yes, it exists and people are using it but it might be surprisingly less than people think.”
I had a whole chapter on sex, generally, which didn’t make into the book but I did keep some of the work that I’ve done around porn.
Why didn’t it make it into the book? Would it keep us from all the other important information?
Yeah. My wise agent and friend said, “If you have a chapter on sex, nobody will care about your ideas for technical high schools.” I’m sure that’s right. Also, that’s the one reason that people are visceral. It’s such a shiny object that it would distract from others. Also, it’s because I was determined in the book, in the ways that we’ve been discussing, to try and be quite solutions-oriented rather than cultural commentary.
There are a lot of cultural commentaries out there with views informed by their own experience, their anecdotes, etc. They go from, “Woe is me,” to sex positivity, “Polygamy is great,” or, “Porn is terrible.” The internet is full of that commentary. I didn’t feel particularly well-equipped to intervene in that debate. Secondly, it’s not clear to me where the policy lands with one exception, which is perhaps around porn.
I did look at the porn stuff because it’s being used as something of a stick with which to beat young men, especially. There’s a little bit of a sense here. It’s like, “If they didn’t spend all their time in the basement smoking weed and looking at porn.” Let’s look at why they might be spending time on porn and partly it’s t algorithmically designed to grab us by the testicles. Pornography is about as old as human civilization as far as we know. There’s nothing new here, it’s just the internet has weaponized it in a way that’s totally new. You got to look at it.
The concern is less with the majority of men using porn who use it occasionally and for pretty short periods of time. That’s the norm. It’s those who become addicted. Like any addiction, it can be a problem. This is a bit harder to measure and it comes back to your earlier point, Gabby, about displacing other activities. Does it displace in real-life activity? The thing that I’ve always worried about with my own boys more generally is less, “Are they looking at porn?” The answer to that question is, do you have an internet connection? If the answer is yes, then the other answer is also yes.
Old magazines for that matter.
It used to be. Is it stopping them from going out on dates? Is it stopping them from asking a girl out? Is it stopping them from getting out there in the real world and trying to have real relationships? As long as it isn’t doing that, we can keep our moral concerns under wraps. If it is, and in some cases, it is, it’s a problem.
It’s like everything, it’s a question of, what’s the line between problematic use and use. I don’t know if the analogy holds but let’s say a wine. What’s the difference between a glass of wine a night and two bottles a night and not being able to get through the day without having to drink? There’s a big difference. I would say there’s probably something similar about pornography. This is not a popular view on either the left or the right, by the way. The moral panic around it is not supported by the evidence.
Richard, as I know we start to wind down, I would be remiss if we don’t talk about husbands and fathers. In 40% of households, the female is the breadwinner. You talk a lot about self-complexity. My husband always jokes with me, he’s like, “You can give birth.” I’m like, “What does that mean?” In a way, I can and I have made money, I have a family, and I get different things from all of these things.
For men, it’s like, “My ability to provide is still a big part of the narrative.” You have some wonderful ideas around helping men redefine this whether it’s the value of directly parenting. It used to be that the father parented through the mother. Now you’re saying it’s getting that internal reward system redefined for men.
It comes back to what you were mentioning about suicides and being useless and worthless and this sense of internalizing problem as opposed to externalizing. That was the conversation we had. It’s noteworthy that suicide rates among men have increased by 50% and they are between 3 and 4 times higher for men than women but homicide rates are almost half in the last few decades.
The typical man today is significantly less likely to be violent towards another human being even over 30 years ago, about half as likely. He’s significantly more likely to take his own life. It’s a classic example of what you talked about. I’m taking your side of the argument now, which is the trouble of retreat, or opioids. You die because you’re on your own where you take your own life.
That’s about the sense that because we haven’t expanded the role of fatherhood in men in the way we have of motherhood in women, we have expanded it so there are more ways to be a woman now than there were over 40 years ago. There also needs to be more ways to be a man. In particular, as a father, it’s important that the message we send culturally and through policy and our incentives is that dads matter not as breadwinners. It’s great if they can do that and they should do that when they can but it’s not as if they can’t given that so many men are struggling economically.
Third of marriages now, the wife is earning more than the man and that’s in married couples. 40% of breadwinners including single parents are female. That’s the world as it is. If we continue to stick to a model of masculinity and fatherhood, which is contingent on being the main breadwinner, we’re in real trouble. That is not a role that many men are going to be able to fill now and nor should it be. It’s potentially hugely liberating that we can start to share this stuff but it means that fatherhood matters independently of the relationship with the mother.
Dads matter to their kids regardless of the relationship with the mom. It’s better if they can be with the mom, it looks like from the evidence but be realistic about this. These men who effectively get benched by society are the ones who’ve absorbed this message that if they can’t live up to the old masculine standard, they’re useless or worthless. We haven’t provided a new masculine standard against which they can compare themselves and that’s the chasm that many men are falling into.
You talked about liberating fatherhood from marriage. People are taking on the importance of that role and that it does have value. Wrapping up, we need to get more men in education. How can we get support? You’ve said that people’s jobs every day is to get out there and support women and find ways to further women’s agendas, which is awesome, but we need more of that for men. There are other things that you think we can do to help solve some of this. Get them into these heal jobs.
Throw some money at that.
Are you hopeful?
I am hopeful that we’re having a better conversation about this now than we were over 4 or 5 years ago. I am hopeful that people are receptive to the fact that there is a thing here, this is a real thing. As long as you say, “We can think two thoughts at once. This is not about in any way letting up rights for women and girls. It’s about equal flourishing.” People breathe and they go, “Good. I’m on board with that.” If you are going to say, “There’s a war on boys and men.”
The number of liberal middle-aged moms, liberal in many cases, strongly feminists like you who benefited hugely from the work of previous generations of women, worried sick about their sons and worried about their brothers or their cousins, and, in some cases, their husbands. This is happening in real life. If people feel I have permission to talk about it, I’m hopeful. There are some signs. Washington State is considering a bill to create a commission on boys and men. Every day, you’d have people whose job it is to say, “Let’s look at what’s happening to boys and men.” There are similar bills in other states. Florida has this fatherhood initiative.
I’m a born optimist and so it may just be that I’m seeing it but my sense is that this problem has been around for long enough now that enough people want to tackle it and take it seriously and that the consequences of not doing so, in terms of human suffering, leave everything else aside, are becoming clearer by the day.
That’s it. For me, it’s always about humanity. I have three daughters and I message for them to go out and kick ass in the world but I don’t need it to be for the sake of the sons of the world. As a strong female, quite frankly, I’m not interested in neutering our males. That doesn’t seem the way to go. Richard Reeves, the book is Of Boys and Men, thank you for your time. I will end this though with one fact so that we’re showing that we’re responsible. The big place where there’s a gap is women and I’m an entrepreneur as well. They only get 2% of the VC money. We can leave that for another time. I didn’t want to act like it’s perfect everywhere.
I’m glad you mentioned that. I don’t know if I said this in the book or not but my wife is trying to raise money. I get reminded of that statistic on a nightly basis and it’s great evidence. It’s two things at once. We can worry about that and about that. We don’t have to choose. There are huge efforts we still have to do for women in VC, for example, all women in tech, or women in politics. The US still hasn’t had a female president, which, at this point, is an embarrassment.
As a new American, the feeling we’ll have when we elect a female president will be one huge relief because it’s becoming extraordinary. The UK had three female prime ministers now. I’m not saying they’re all great but we’ve had three. It’s the fact their gender is not an issue anymore. Is there more work to be done for women and girls, especially the apex of society? You bet. Is that in some way in conflict with doing stuff for these suffering and struggling? No. anybody who asks us to choose between the two is not serving us and is not serving our kids and not serving our culture.
You’re the right person to start this conversation so I appreciate it. I look forward to seeing us work it out a little bit better.
One relationship at a time. Thank you for having me on, Gabby. I appreciate it.
Thank you so much for reading this week’s episode. Stay tuned for a bonus episode where I go deeper into one of the topics that resonated with me. If you have any questions for my guest or even myself, please send them to @GabbyReece on Instagram. If you feel inspired, please hit the follow button and leave a rating and a comment, it not only helps me but it helps the show grow and reach new readers.
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About Richard Reeves
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Future of the Middle Class Initiative and co-directs the Center on Children and Families. His Brookings research focuses on the middle class, inequality and social mobility. Richard writes for a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, Guardian, National Affairs, The Atlantic, Democracy Journal, and Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Dream Hoarders (Brookings Institution Press, 2017), and John Stuart Mill – Victorian Firebrand (Atlantic Books, 2007), an intellectual biography of the British liberal philosopher and politician. Dream Hoarders was named a Book of the Year by The Economist, a Political Book of the Year by The Observer, and was shortlisted for the Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. In September 2017, Politico magazine named Richard one of the top 50 thinkers in the U.S. for his work on class and inequality.