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Of boys and men

Why the modern male is struggling, why it matters and what to do about it. A conversation with Richard Reeves

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Robert Neubecker for the Deseret News

Richard Reeves is the father of three sons, but he says that was only part of the motivation behind his decision to write his new book, “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.” 

The bigger motivation was what he saw in his day-to-day work as a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, where he studies inequality and social mobility. His findings? The boys are not OK. Boys are falling behind girls at all levels of education — in K-12 schools, at college and in graduate programs. The number of young men who participate in the job market is dropping. Men are more than three times more likely than women to commit suicide. The numbers are especially stark for boys from low-income families and for those who are Black. Reeves believes Black men are the victims of sexism, that their masculinity is used against them. 

He is sensitive to the argument that sexism still exists. But valid concerns over gender equality may have led us to this moment, where we’ve lost sight of what’s going on with the other half of the population. 

Reeves spoke with Deseret Magazine recently and shared what he sees as the problems facing boys and men, as well as some concrete solutions.


Deseret News: What was it that you saw in your own children’s or their friends’ lives that made you want to write this book? 

Richard Reeves: I was trying to find a way to broach the subject in a way that was compatible with a continued commitment to gender equality, but which took seriously the problems of boys and men. I felt that the world had gotten to that point, but I kept tripping over it. And then I’d come home and talk to my boys about what’s happening with them, so it’s one of those classic examples of where your day job and the rest of your life are intersecting. I also felt like there wasn’t a good faith conversation going on about this issue.

DN: You recently wrote in The Atlantic (“Redshirt The Boys,” October 2022) that boys should start school later than girls. Are you suggesting that we should have mixed grades, with five-year-old girls and six-year-old boys in kindergarten and on up? 

RR: What is the right age to start kids is a slightly separate question. But yes, the basic idea is that you start boys a year later. Let’s say the girls are starting at five, the boys would be six. So, you’d have six-year-old boys enrolled with five-year-old girls, and then they’d stay in the same class all the way through. And that’s the important point, because the main reason I want boys to be on average a year older is not because of the gaps at five — although, those are real — it’s because of the gaps at 15. But, to hold boys back — which happens to quite a lot of boys actually — to hold them back part way through their school career is really not great from a social point of view, from a stigma point of view and from a development point of view. So, it’s better to just build it in from the beginning. The real rewards will come in adolescence, which is where the developmental gaps that matter for education are at their widest, around 15 or 16 years old. It’s just unfortunate that the years in which boys are furthest behind girls are also the years that turn out to be incredibly important in terms of educational success.

DN: National test scores show that boys are way behind girls in English and writing. What outcomes do you see from boys being so far behind in these subjects? 

RR: The focus by class and race is important, because the gender gaps in education are much wider among less advantaged kids. Once you get up to the top of the economic distribution, the gender gaps get much narrower. But they’re pretty wide at the bottom, and they’re very wide for Black kids especially. The English versus math thing is a good illustration of the difficulty we’re having of updating our priors about the world given the rapid changes of recent years. I think the reason why we’ve been so focused on math is because it was where girls were behind boys for so long. They’ve now basically caught up with boys in math. They’ve overtaken them by eighth grade, a little bit of a gap maybe emerging again in high school, but basically the math gap has closed. The English gap hasn’t closed at all, and it’s much bigger. You’ve got one gender gap that’s really rapidly narrowed, and now is pretty small, and another gap that hasn’t narrowed at all and is pretty big. I think the reason why we focus on math rather than English is because we’re focused on girls, and because we have presumed that the fight for gender equality is synonymous with the fight for women and girls. Whereas in fact, in some cases now, it’s the other way around. And the other point to make is English and literacy, generally, is a much stronger predictor of college enrollment and college success than math. So, which should you care more about, in terms of success in college? You should be more worried about English than math. 

DN: Do you think this is why we’re seeing boys fall so far behind girls in college enrollment and graduation? 

RR: That’s right. Certainly, women have overtaken men in professional degrees and Ph.D.s, MBAs, undergraduate business studies. Most scientists in the U.S. now are women. That’s a relatively recent phenomenon. There’s just been this transformation essentially of women’s educational performance and opportunity. And I think that’s revealed that the boys are at a structural disadvantage in education because of the maturity gap. You couldn’t see that when girls were discouraged from going into higher education or having careers. It remained invisible to us. It was only once we took the brakes off from girls and women that their natural advantage became apparent in the education system. So, the playing field is level now, but the girls are better players. We’re seeing the inevitable consequences of that. And they’re better players because their brains develop a little bit earlier, particularly around noncognitive abilities. There’s a bit of a nuance here, but you can predict college enrollment and college-going very strongly from what’s happening in high school. But as far as college completion goes, it’s a little bit more mysterious. Even conditioned on enrollment in college, men are much more likely to drop out. The gap is 10 percentage points between women and men in four-year graduation rates among those going to a four-year college. That doesn’t seem to be explained by their preexisting test scores or their GPAs or anything like that. There seems to be something else going on there, which may be more about motivation. 

DN: One of the things I’ve heard people say is that school is not built for boys — that it’s harder for them to sit still in class, they get bored more easily, that they need more physical movement. Is that a stereotype, or is that true? 

RR: It’s true. It’s just a bit harder, everything else being equal, for boys to sit still and focus on a task for as long as girls. I think to some extent it’s hard to know exactly how much of a problem that is, but I don’t know how to redesign the curriculum of every school in order to get there. I think a better way to get at this is to just have more male teachers, because I do think that male teachers are more likely to instinctively get this. There is some evidence that male teachers are particularly good for boys in subjects like English, where boys tend to struggle. But the teaching profession is becoming more female over time. Only 24 percent of K-12 teachers are male, only one in 10 elementary school teachers and essentially no early years teachers. What that means is there are a lot of schools, especially at the elementary and middle level, where there are basically no men around. I think that does affect the ethos of the school. It’s hard to know exactly how and why — you can’t really design a good study — but I think it’s hard to avoid the commonsense conclusion that this isn’t going to affect the structure of classes. But what we do know is that female teachers are a little bit more likely, everything else equal, to see boys as acting out or behaving badly than male teachers are. You can see why that would happen, it’s no one’s fault, but it’s an argument for diversity in the teaching profession of all kinds. 

DN: As fewer men go to college, some say this is affecting marriage rates and marriageability. Is that what you’re seeing as well? 

RR: No, not yet. It’s interesting, we saw this big gap in college and a lot of people started prematurely panicking about marriage because they thought college-educated women would want to marry college-educated men, and there won’t be as many around. Well, it is true that for every college-educated woman there will be fewer college-educated men, especially if we don’t address the issue. Whether they’ll be less likely to marry as a result depends on how quickly our norms change. If we quickly become more comfortable with the idea that women can marry men who are less educated than them, then it won’t necessarily be a problem. Especially if there is still rough economic parity. It’s harder for us to catch up with the fact that many women are actually the main breadwinner in many households. In my own family we have a couple — he’s a plumber, he isn’t college educated, he’s got a vocational education, while she’s a teacher and has a master’s degree. He earns way more than her. I don’t think she’s thinking, oh, I shouldn’t have married a plumber. So, maybe it’ll start to happen, but I think the countervailing force is much bigger than that, which is college-educated Americans want to get married so they can raise their kids together. Marriage has held up incredibly well among college-educated Americans. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think the typical college-educated woman, when it comes time for her to have children, is going to want to raise her children with somebody else if she can, and therefore is going to want to marry. And if that means, “marrying down” educationally, I suspect that they’ll do it. If the choice is that or be a single parent, I think they’d still rather share it with somebody else. 

The boys are not OK. Boys are falling behind girls at all levels of education — in K-12 schools, at college and in graduate programs.

DN: Switching now to mental health, how much have you looked at suicide being more prevalent among boys?

RR: A little bit. I think it’s important, but it depends on what you’re looking at. There are higher rates of depression among girls, for example. I think there are real reasons to be concerned about the mental health of girls and young women. There are differences in the expression of mental health problems between boys and girls. I don’t think I would confidently say that there is much of a gender gap overall in mental health problems in their expression, but I would say the consequences of mental health problems are more likely to be deadly for men. At every age, but especially among young men, we see a suicide rate that is at least three times higher than among women of the same age. You’re seeing more reported loneliness for young men than for young women. I think that these are playing out differently for men and women. In terms of the ultimate thing to worry about, which is the loss of life in the form of someone taking their own life, then there are real reasons to worry about the mental health of boys and men, at least as much as about girls and women. 

DN: There seems to be more focus on girls and their mental health. It seems like boys are less likely to share when they’re struggling, and less likely to talk about it. 

RR: It is hard to know exactly what is going on here, but there is every reason to pay at least as much attention to the mental health of boys as of girls. It is just not true that the boys are fine, let’s worry about the girls. The boys are not fine. And there is a lot of evidence for that. The fact that 23 percent of boys have been diagnosed with some kind of developmental disability, that’s almost one in four, that’s not a trivial fact. That includes a lot of autism, and ADD, and ADHD.

And that brings us to an important point, which is who’s providing the care? And what we’re seeing is a growing gender gap in the provision of care, which I am worried about. Because I think there are many occasions when a girl or a boy would prefer to be talking to someone of the same sex, but those professions are strongly female dominated. Psychology for example, only 29 percent of psychologists are men, that’s dropped from 39 percent just in the last 10 years. And among psychologists under the age of 30, only 5 percent are male. So, among under 30-year-old psychologists, 95 percent are female.

If you look at school counselors, it’s between six and seven times more likely that the counselor is female. Same with substance abuse counselors, special needs teachers — they’re all very, very strongly female dominated, even though, in many of those cases most of their clients are male. I think it’s a problem that the caring professions, that the mental health professions, become more female by the year, even though at least half of the people who need those services are male.

People say the problem with boys is that they won’t get any help, which is a form of victim blaming. But there’s a danger of a vicious circle here, because if all of the people they can get help from are women, and some of them would prefer to go and get help from a man, depending on the nature of their problem, it’s a vicious circle. And as far as I can tell, this is getting zero attention. 

DN: Talk about what you’re seeing among socioeconomically disadvantaged men and minority groups from low income backgrounds. 

RR: That’s a really big part of the challenge here, because if the people having this conversation are largely upper-middle class, largely from affluent backgrounds — they’re looking around and saying, what is this guy talking about? I don’t see boys and men who are struggling in my workplace. And, first of all, they might be struggling more than you think they are, in the same way that lots of people might be. But, secondly, you’re missing what’s happening beneath that level.

As we’ve narrowed gender inequalities, we’ve widened class inequalities, very significantly. And the gaps between Black Americans and everybody else have remained very wide and stubborn. So, everything I’ve said about the gaps between boys and girls in education, and men and women in education, you can just dial up the volume on them for lower income, working class boys and men, and especially for Black boys and men.

It is simultaneously true that men at the top of the distribution are earning more today than men at the top of the distribution were in 1979. It’s also true that most men today are earning less than most men were in 1979. More than half of the male population is poorer today when it comes to individual earnings than the same distribution of males 50 years ago. So, if American men were a country, then we’ve gone backwards everywhere except at the top.

Black women are already twice as likely to get a college degree, a master’s degree, than Black men. They’re much more likely to be upwardly mobile than Black men. The gender gaps that we see in general are magnified significantly by class and by race. And Black men in particular are getting the sharp end of almost every stick, and they are actually worse off not despite being men, but because they’re men. Their masculinity is very often turned against them, in terms of incarcerations, school suspensions, criminalization, etc. I think Black men are the victims of sexism through a racial lens. But you have to look at these things through different lenses in order to see what’s going on.

“At every age, but especially among young men, we see a suicide rate that is at least three times higher than among women of the same age.”

Today, white women earn significantly more than Black men, which they didn’t used to. White women overtook Black men in the 1990s. Now, for every dollar earned by a white woman, a Black man earns about 84 cents, which is almost as big as the overall gender gap. Black women earn still less than that, and white men earn much more than white women, but just that simple fact should make us pause and get beyond the binary. When you say, oh, there’s a gender pay gap, if you’re a white, college-educated woman, then, I’m telling you, you are a whole heap better off than working class men, and Black men, and so on. Which is not to say you don’t still face difficulties. It’s just that we have to be able to think multiple thoughts at once. 

DN: These problems feel really big — what are some other ideas you have that could help? 

RR: Well, in education, I also want a massive recruitment drive of male teachers, which we’ve already touched on. We need subsidies and scholarships to get men into teaching, including and especially in subjects like English, and in early years and elementary school. And I want to see a really big investment in vocational education. There’s a discussion going on now about forgiving college loans, but there’s a bill sitting in Congress to create a million new apprenticeships that would cost $1.5 billion a year, compared to the $500 billion to forgive college loans, and it’s been in a Senate committee for a year, even though it was passed by a bipartisan vote in the House. We need more male teachers, but we also need a lot more men going into the health care professions, because, one, that’s where the jobs are coming from, and two, because those professions are desperately short-staffed. 

And finally, there’s fatherhood, where I think we need to do two things. One, we need to significantly reform the way we handle the breakup of parents who are not married. Unmarried fathers get an incredibly raw deal in the current system. They get hit hard for child support, but they have to fight for access. If you’re married, the divorce laws kind of deal with those two things together. If you’re unmarried — and 40 percent of kids are born outside of marriage now — you get a very raw deal. Unmarried fathers are essentially benched as a result. We need to have equal paternity and maternity leave for mothers and fathers, which is independently attached to them and is not transferable, so that fathers have the opportunity to spend time with their kids in the same way that mothers do. So that fatherhood is both seen to matter, and does matter as much as motherhood, if not in the same way, as an independent social institution.

Right now, fatherhood is still kind of bundled with marriage and being a breadwinner. With recent social and economic trends away from that model of marriage, that just leaves too many men on the sidelines. So what you have to do instead is talk about how much dads matter as dads, period. Even if they’re not breadwinners. Maybe especially if they’re not breadwinners. Even if they’re not with their kids’ mom. Maybe especially if they’re not with their kids’ mom. They still matter.   

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.