American men have a problem. They account for less than 40 percent of new college graduates but roughly 70 percent of drug overdose deaths and more than 80 percent of gun violence deaths. As the left has struggled to offer a positive vision of masculinity, male voters have abandoned the Democratic Party at historically high rates. Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves, the author of a new book, Of Boys and Men, joins the show to ask and answer a number of controversial questions: Why do women out-achieve men throughout education? Why are men dropping out of the labor force? Why can’t Democrats win the male vote? And what would a progressive and positive vision of masculinity look like?
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Richard Reeves examines three areas in which boys and men seem to be struggling in America.
Derek Thompson: The subtitle of your new book, Of Boys and Men, is “Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.” And I like that subtitle. I think we’re going to proceed precisely in that order: why this is happening, why it’s important, and what we can do. But I have to imagine that for some people, maybe even for most people, who tune into this episode, the very existence of this episode, the very existence of your book raises a really important question that is not answered in the subtitle. What the hell are you talking about, men struggling? Like for every dollar earned by men, women in America earn 83 cents. Men control 73 percent of the seats in Congress. So what is the evidence that you are basing your book on when you say that boys and men in America are struggling at all?
Richard Reeves: Well, the big answer to that question is that two things can be true at once. That there can be remaining barriers, and you’ve just listed quite a few and we can dig into some of the details of it, whilst there are also problems facing many boys and men and one you didn’t mention but one that’s quite close to home for me. I have a wife trying to raise seed capital for a business. Only 3 percent of venture capital money goes to female founders, so we’re feeling that one. That’s every dinner table, I get a version of that question, Derek, with that 97 percent figure thrown at me. But yes, this broader point, I think, is that in a sense, because we have made a lot of progress toward gender equality—not complete, but significant progress on a whole range of fronts that we might get into—what that means is that you can talk about gender inequality in more of a two-way street.
There are some gender inequalities that remain to be tackled for girls and women, for sure. But there are some where it really is boys and men who are at disadvantage, and especially the most vulnerable boys and men. And so really, I think it’s a kind of gift of the progress of the women’s movement to be even having this conversation at all. I don’t think it was synonymous. The cause of gender equality was synonymous with girls and women until incredibly recently, like a blink of an eye in human history, but it is still true. And I fear that unless we turn our attention now to the problems of boys and men, that many of them will fester and they’ll get harder to deal with if we leave them to fester for too long.
Thompson: And so give me some specific examples, where are boys struggling? Where is the data that you’re pointing to?
Reeves: Well, the three main areas I look at are education—I know that’s something that you’ve written a lot about Derek, and you’ve written a couple of very good pieces, one in particular on the growing gap in college and college campuses where we’re seeing like 60 percent of the students on college campuses and rising being female. And so we’re seeing very big gender gaps in education. And in fact, the gender gap in getting a four-year college degree in the U.S. now is wider than it was in 1972 when Title IX was passed to help girls and women. In 1972, it was about 13 percentage points more likely that a guy would be getting a degree than a woman. Now it’s flipped to 15 percentage points more likely that a woman is going to get it. So, bluntly put, gender inequality in higher education in the U.S. is wider today than when Title IX was passed, but the other way around. And then we’re seeing it among the top-scoring-GPA high school students, two thirds of them are girls, big differences in high school graduation rates and so on.
Then on the work front, and it’s important I think here, this is going to be true generally, but to add kind of nuances to who we’re talking about. Most men in the U.S. today earn less than most men did in 1979.
Thompson: Adjusting for inflation?
Reeves: Yes. All adjusting for inflation. But I was also very careful in my language because it’s you, Derek, so I have to be incredibly careful when I say most men now are earning less than most men were then. It’s not the same men, but the male wage distribution adjusted for inflation is a little bit down on where it was. So if American men were a nation and we’re measuring them by their earnings, that nation’s poorer today than it was four decades ago. That’s a remarkable economic fact, and one that I don’t think has really sunken into our policy debates. And so there has been this decline in male wages and of course a drop in male labor force participation, especially for those with less education.
And then in the family, what we’re seeing is a really big increase in the number of fathers who are not in a close relationship with their children. For all kinds of complicated reasons around family instability and so on, too. But at heart I think because of the incredibly positive challenge that’s been made to the role of men as breadwinner, protector, provider by the successes of the women’s movement. But the result of that has been to leave particularly the least powerful men somewhat adrift and disconnected very much from their own children. And that’s bad for them, it’s bad for the moms, and it’s bad for the kids.
Thompson: Overall as I was reading your book and trying to find some way to synthesize what I saw as these struggles of some boys and men in America, it seemed to me that there’s this idea, somewhat controversial, of a success sequence. And if you go across a success sequence, men seem less likely to succeed in high school. Then less likely to take advanced classes in high school, then less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to drop out of high school. Then less likely to go to college. If they go to college, more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate from school. And then over the last 50 years, as you’re pointing out in the labor force, this is partly cashing out in the fact that they’re more likely to drop out of the job search entirely. The activity rate or participation rate of prime-age men has gone down consistently with every single decade. So that’s sort of how I conceive of the problems that we’re talking about. Is this happening in the U.S. only, or are you touching on global themes here?
Reeves: Far and large, I think this is an international trend. That’s one of the reasons I think we have to pay close attention to it, because if it was just a peculiarity of the U.S., you might say, “Oh, what’s weird about our education system? Can we go and learn? Maybe let’s go and see what they’re doing in France or Finland or South Africa or Australia.” But the basic trends are pretty similar everywhere. The U.S. does stand out a little bit for the extent to which men have lost ground economically. It’s not like men have done amazingly well in those other countries, but they’ve at least made some ground. We haven’t seen this sort of backsliding quite the same way elsewhere, but the basic pattern you’ve just described or this pipeline basically of just like a—it’s like a domino all the way through. Right from the beginning actually from pre-K or even like 2 years old all the way through to the 20s.
And you say that’s why young men are more likely to be living at home with their parents in their late 20s than women are, et cetera. And so I do think there’s this kind of sense of a causal chain running all the way through, but there’s also deep cultural questions as to why that should be the case. I think the question as to why it’s happening is a different one. But the fact that it’s happening in pretty much the same way, in pretty much every advanced economy. Again, big caveat, this is only a conversation you can be having really in pretty advanced economies. In most of the rest of the world, the statements we made earlier about gender equality really being about girls and women is still true. If I’m in Afghanistan, I’m not making this argument. But in advanced economies, the conversation has changed.
This excerpt was edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Richard Reeves
Producer: Devon Manze