Today’s episode is about the state of men in America. Last week, the nonprofit institute Equimundo published a report on the state of men and boys in America: “Many men—especially younger men—are socially disconnected, pessimistic about the future, and turning to online anger,” it wrote. “They are facing higher rates of depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and a sense of isolation, as seen in the agreement of 65 percent that ‘no one really knows me well.’” One survey is one survey. It doesn’t do a lot of good to overreact and proclaim one set of findings the iron law of American sociology. But this report is in line with other polls and also with the analyses of experts like Richard Reeves, the Brookings scholar who wrote the book Of Boys and Men. Richard is today’s returning guest. We talk about how complaining about masculinity is history’s oldest trope; why this time might be different; what young men think about feminism; the effect of social media on men and why it might be different than the effect of social media on women; and what a positive version of masculinity might look like.
In the following excerpt, Derek and Richard Reeves talk about the data behind what some see as a modern-day crisis of masculinity.
Derek Thompson: Well, before we get to this report that I talked about in my open, I think it’d be useful for people who did not get a chance to listen to our last conversation to hear a quick summary of what your excellent, excellent book is about, because the idea that modernity has destroyed masculinity is a very old one. It is hundreds of years old, and this is a popular idea that often goes for a walk and leaves evidence and data behind. Your book, however, is full of evidence. It is full of data. It is full of very specific claims about what exactly is the matter with boys and men in America, and to a certain extent in the Western world as you see it. Can you quickly remind us what it is that you’re talking about?
Richard Reeves: Right. Well, the first thing is just to underline your point, that the crisis of masculinity is probably about as old as men. As far as I can tell, we’ve been talking about how masculinity is being undermined throughout human history for at least as long as old people have been complaining about young people today. It is a pretty common refrain.
And even just in more recent history, I found this essay by Arthur Schlesinger in 1958. It was called “The Crisis of [American] Masculinity,” again Esquire, and it was all about the rise of the women’s movement. And that was before Vietnam, after Vietnam. There was Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Even in the last few decades, it’s been a constant refrain.
The difference now is that there’s data. There’s always been a discussion of, “Is masculinity in crisis?” Which, by the way, I think is an important data point in itself. It suggests that the social construction of masculinity has always been on people’s minds, for good reason. Really, when you looked at the data, it’s like, “Well, what crisis?”
But now what you see is boys and men a long way behind in education. And you’ve written about this, Derek, but there’s a bigger gender gap on college campuses today in favor of women than there was in favor of men 50 years ago, when Title IX was passed, so for a 16- to an 18-point gap, depending on how you measure it. It’s just this huge gender gap in education.
In the labor market, it’s not a secret that for working-class men especially, and in the U.S. especially, but just generally, we’ve seen stagnant wages, falling employment, falling labor-force participation, lots of fathers out of their children’s lives. We see a number of men who are just not in touch with their kids anymore.
And again, you’ll know this, and certainly your listeners will know the literature on deaths of despair from suicide, from drug overdose, alcohol—and that’s overwhelmingly men. It’s at least two-thirds, probably three-quarters of those deaths of despair are men. And even just recently, and this data may even have come out since we last spoke, but suicide rates among young men, so among 15- to 24-year-old men, rose by 8 percent just between 2020 and 2021, and overall there’s a four-times-higher risk of suicide among men than among women.
And so you see in different ways this male malaise, whatever you want to call it, playing out. But what I’m at pains to do is to just: “Where’s the data? Here are some trends. Is this a problem? If so, what do we do about it?” And in a sense, to ground it in data and in facts rather than, as you suggested, this cultural confection around masculinity, which is always with us.
Thompson: Why do you think it is useful to talk about this as a male problem? Because someone could say, “Oh, well, deaths of despair are an American problem” or “It’s a drug problem.” They could say suicide is a gun-supply problem. They could say that the fact that men are falling behind in education is an education problem. But you sew all of these ideas together, and you say, “We might be looking at something that you would characterize as a male problem.” How do you find it helpful to frame it that way?
Reeves: Well, I think that inevitably, anybody that comes at a dataset of any kind brings their own priors with them. And so there’s always this danger. You’ve just listed a bunch of things that could be a problem. But they might have leaned a little bit left. I’m not sure. We’d have to go back over the list. But I encounter a lot of people who say, “It’s a marriage problem, right? If more people were married, their kids would do better, they’d have more employment, they’d be healthier, they’d live longer,” et cetera. Or “It’s X problem.”
So the causal arrow always starts where your normative prior is, generally speaking, and usually you can find some evidence for that. But it’s obviously very complicated and multicausal. These things overlap with each other and hugely affect each other. And the reason I think it’s still useful in many of the areas that we just discussed to talk about what’s happening to boys or to men is because on average, but with pretty different sizes between the groups, these are problems that do seem to disproportionately affect boys and men.
So for example, I think it makes sense to look at Black men in the context of incarceration. It seems to be sensible to look at working-class men when it comes to employment, and so on. And so I hope—and I would say this, wouldn’t I?—but I hope I’m being led by the data to conclude that the category of “male” is doing some work for us here, and not least when we turn to things like the evaluation of policies.
So one of the things I look at is which policies work for which people. And it turns out some policies work really well for women and girls, especially in education, but they’re just not moving the needle for boys and men. I think it’s good to know that, just from the point of view of making policy, in the same way that I would say it’s useful to measure the gender pay gap in the other direction. Is it still useful to know that women on average earn less than men, even as you see this huge rise in women’s earnings? I would say it is. They might say, “That’s not a women problem; that’s a labor market problem.” And yeah, it is. But it’s the way the labor market’s interacting with women’s life trajectories that’s causing a gender pay gap.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Richard Reeves
Producer: Devon Manze