Many men and boys today are struggling.
At work, school, at home, in themselves.
And scholar Richard Reeves thinks it’s even hurting our politics.
"We do need a positive script for masculinity, but it has to be compatible with gender equality," Richard Reeves says. "And the left turn their back on boys and men, and the right respond by wanting to turn back the clock on women and girls."
Today, On Point: Richard Reeves on what he calls male malaise — and how true gender equality means supporting men, too.
Richard Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies. Director of the Future of the Middle-Class Initiative. Author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do about It. (@RichardvReeves)
Courtesy of Brookings Institution Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute and the Director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative. His research focuses on social mobility, inequality, and family change, and he has a new book out. It's titled "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling and Why it Matters and What to Do About It." And he joins us on the show. Richard, welcome back to On Point.
RICHARD REEVES: Well, thank you, Meghna. Good to be back.
CHAKRABARTI: It's a real delight to have you. And this book is quite a read and it's an important topic. And you know, yesterday actually, Richard, when we told listeners that we were going to be talking about men in this country — and boys — we got a lot of listener voicemails. People reached out to us to share their stories. For example, this is what Angel, who's a mom in Orange County, California, this is what she called and told us:
ANGEL: I have a 14 and a half year old son and a 12 and a half year old daughter. And I have noticed for sure a major gap in development. Both of my children have been diagnosed with ADHD. However, my daughter seems to be able to manage her symptoms and most of the time is an honor roll student. I have my son, on the flip side of the coin, who can manage B's and C's but has this terrible anxiety. I am a single mother, and their father isn't much of a positive example in their life.
CHAKRABARTI: So that's Angel from Orange County, California. Richard, what do you hear in her story?
REEVES: Well, one thing I hear is this very, very common refrain from parents, especially if they have a son and a daughter, which is that you do see these differences, that the boys are struggling more in the education system. And that's supported by all of the research now. Actually, of those getting the best GPAs, two-thirds are girls, of those getting the worst GPAs, two-thirds are boys. Obviously a huge gap on college campuses now.
But actually, when you talk to people and you say, "Did you know that there is this developmental gap, which is based some extent in just the timing of brain development between boys and girls?" They go, "Well, duh. It doesn't take a Brookings Institution scholar to tell us that. Like, come to my house when I'm when I'm trying to get the homework done. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, expert." (LAUGHS)
REEVES: And so it's known that there are differences between boys and girls in the way they develop and in particularly kind of when they develop. But that sort of basic common sense notion actually isn't reflected on our education system at all. And I think that's the main reason why we now see so many boys — especially boys from poorer backgrounds or from single parent households like Angel's — really struggling in the school system now. And of course, that then predicts all kinds of problems later in life.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Well, so we're gonna talk about that because in your book, you thread together education, changes in the economy, views of masculinity, fatherhood, to kind of lay out this thesis that not only are men in this country in crisis — not all men, okay? — but boys might be, too.
CHAKRABARTI: I mean, crisis is a word, I'll say, that I think is very much overused in media, including on this show. (LAUGHS)
REEVES: Yes. (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: But I mean, do you stand by that?
REEVES: Yeah. Well, actually, I'm quite careful about when to use the word crisis for the same reason. It's so often invoked that I think we have something of a crisis of crises, sometimes. It's like they're piling up and we can only cope with so many crises at once. And so I'm careful not to overstate the case. But I do think it's pretty clear now that in the education system and in terms of many aspects of mental health, boys are really struggling.
That isn't to say that girls aren't also struggling, but in different ways. And certainly in terms of the education system, girls and young women have just blown right past boys and men. There's actually a bigger gender gap in education today than there was 50 years ago. It's just the other way round to the one that it was when we're used to talking about gender equality. So I do — and, of course, then if the boys are struggling, it's gonna be harder for them in the labor market. So these things are all connected. And then of course, it's harder in family life, too. So I think it's very important that we can hold all these thoughts in our head at once.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So let's stick with education for a little bit longer. Give me more of the evidence that boys are falling behind. You talked about the sort of flip in graduation rates or degree attainment rates in higher ed, but what do we see in, you know, in K through 12 or even earlier, in elementary school?
REEVES: Yeah, well the basic story is that girls are ahead — girls and women — are ahead of boys and men at every stage of the education system, all the way from pre-K to post-graduate and in pretty much every subject. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but the general story is pretty clear.
And so just to put a few data points on it, in the typical U.S. school district now, the girls are almost a grade level ahead, on average, in English than the boys and they are dead even in math. In the poorer school districts, they're more than — the girls are — more than a grade level ahead in English and about a third of a grade level ahead in math.
So, and I've already mentioned the GPA numbers. If you take the top 10% of GPA scorers, two-thirds girls, bottom 10% by GPA, two-thirds boys. And then you get to college campuses, and you're now — campuses are about 60-40 female-male now in post-secondary education. And what that means is that a woman is now 15 percentage points more likely to get a college degree than a man.
If we go back to 1972, which is an important year because that's when Title IX was passed to really promote girls and women in education, at that point, there was a gap the other way, when men were 13 percentage points more likely than women to get a college degree. So what that means is that there's a bigger gender gap in college today than there was when Title IX was passed. It's just the other way round. And no one really expected that. No one expected this massive overtaking. We didn't expect to be talking about such big gender inequalities in education the other way round. Certainly not this quickly.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So as you know, my urge is to ask, "Well, why, why, why?" Now, it can't be one thing, right? Because this is — we could spend multiple hours just talking about education. So instead of getting a survey of all the possible reasons why, I wanna posit this, Richard: I'm a big believer in essentially the domino effect of what happens in early education. And I mean, honestly, people in policy circles, as you well know, in education, also believe the same things, which is why we have so much focus on like, Head Start, on early literacy, on that sort of K through 3 time window.
But here's my theory, or here's a theory that I offer you: I have been reading and noticing in my own life and in the shows that we do that, you know, you mentioned one of the biggest gaps is in literacy or English.
CHAKRABARTI: And in the early grades, education in America has now become like, almost entirely about literacy, right? And getting kids to read more — more comprehensively and earlier. And part of the reason for that is that we're now in a world where the economy has so shifted that it's believed that those higher ed degrees, those college degrees, knowledge-based economy-type degrees are really important. I think the two things are actually linked together. But it's that same economy that's hurt men, right? Because they're losing the jobs they once had. Are they also being set back by the way things like English and literacy are being taught in those early years?
REEVES: There's no question. Your observation is right. There's no question that a focus on literacy will, everything else equal, put more boys at more of a disadvantage because they just struggle more in English and in literacy than girls do. But it's also true, as you said, that those skills are becoming more important in the labor market. And so, you can simultaneously think it's important to develop those skills in the labor market, and it seems to predict college going quite a bit, but then also worry, "Well, hold on. Are we actually just putting boys even further behind?"
And the early focus on literacy means that boys are behind at the beginning, they're still behind a few grades later, and they just get further behind. And so this focus on literacy particularly, and we can, we can also talk about how many female teachers there are, et cetera, so other factors.
REEVES: I think you're basically right. The only thing I might slightly disagree about is that the focus in the early years is perfectly appropriate, but it's not game over in the early years. And there's sometimes a bit of an early years determinism in public policy debates.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
REEVES: It's like, "It's game over if he can't sort it by grade three," whereas that's, that's not true. And where I actually see boys really going off the rails very often is in grade — is in the transition to high school. It's really ninth grade is where a lot of boys crater and there's a lot we can do to help make that transition better. So it's not that we shouldn't focus on the early years, but we also shouldn't give up on anybody. Because that would mean giving up on a lot of our students and particularly a lot of our boys.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You can agree with me — disagree with me vigorously if you want, doesn't even have to be mildly, Richard. (LAUGHS)
REEVES: Okay. Don't worry. (LAUGHS) I will.
CHAKRABARTI: It's quite alright. (LAUGHS) So but tell me why is that eighth to ninth grade transition so important?
REEVES: Well, because that's where this developmental gap is really pretty wide between girls and boys. Now, there is a developmental gap pretty much all the way through. The two biggest periods where you see girls just, they're more developed than boys just in terms of their brain development is in the early years, which we've talked about.
So there's a big gap about the age of five, but there's an even bigger gap at 15 — 14, 15. That's because girls hit puberty earlier. That triggers all kinds of brain development, particularly in what's called the prefrontal cortex, which is the bit of your brain that makes you turn your chemistry homework in. Actually, it's the bit of your brain that makes you remember you have chemistry, homework, right? As well as turn it in. And that just develops a year or two earlier in girls, and it's really about that age, it's around 14, 15, 16, where this huge developmental gap opens up between girls and boys. That's also the point where we're transitioning them into a whole new environment of high school.
And so you've got this developmental gap combined with this very difficult transition, and if you look at ninth — ninth grade is really where you see a lot of the gaps really starting to open up, especially in literacy, as you just mentioned.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, Richard, as you know, and you acknowledge in the opening pages of your book, "Of Boys and Men," the question of the plight of men is not new. I mean, there's actually now, sadly, a rich literature out there about it, at least over the past 10 years or so. Why were you drawn to this issue now?
REEVES: One reason is because, whilst you're right, there has been some attention paid to it, it's tended to be more on the problem side. And I wanted to get into some solutions, frankly. Some of the previous books in this area, many of which I draw on, have felt like the secular equivalent of the book of Lamentations. (LAUGHS)
REEVES: And actually my sense when I was talking to people about this, look, we don't, we don't need to do — like, a lot of people know that boys are struggling and men are struggling. But what do we do about it? So I need to know why is that happening? And then what do we do about it? And so I did think I had something to offer in terms of like an understanding from a social science point of view of why it is. And we've already talked a bit about that in education. But then let's move on to a conversation about, okay, what should be the solutions? How could we, if we took this problem seriously, particularly at the political level, what might we do in order to actually try and address this problem through policy? That's where I think the debate has to go.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we will get the show to towards that debate as we press on here. Our guest today is Richard Reeves. He's a senior fellow in Economic Studies and the director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at the Brookings Institute, and his new book is called "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It." More in a moment.
CHAKRABARTI: Richard Reeves is with us today. His new book is "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It." And by the way, Richard spends quite a bit of time in the book talking about the economic plight of men, especially working class and men lower on the socioeconomic ladder.
And listeners, I'm gonna do something terrible. I'm going to tantalize you and tell you that we are not gonna talk that much about it with Richard today. Instead, I direct you to our website because we've got an excerpt of Richard's book. And there you'll also find a link to a show we did last year, specifically about the economic plight of men.
And we talked to someone that Richard references in his book, MIT economics Professor David Autor, because he at that time had co-authored a study called "The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education." And David Autor told us last year that there are fewer jobs available for those who don't have a college degree now. And for all the reasons that Richard Reeves just told us in the previous segment, that is disproportionately impacting men. And here's what David Autor said:
DAVID AUTOR: Women have increased their stature enormously. Men have not responded nearly as successfully. Their educational attainments have not risen nearly as rapidly. And as a consequence, more of them are working in basically, lower paid personal service jobs: food service, cleaning, security, entertainment, recreation, home healthcare. Fewer of them are working at all. And where we've seen these big declines, particularly in manufacturing employment, we've seen big falls in employment rates and increases in in other forms of, you know, what look like maladaptive behavior.
CHAKRABARTI: That's MIT Professor David Autor, who we spoke with last year about the economic plight of men. And again, go to onpointradio.org or wherever you get your podcasts and check out that show. We've got links to it there. Richard, the question I wanna ask you is taken straight from the subhead of your book. Why does this matter? Why does understanding the male malaise, as you call it, why does it matter?
REEVES: Well, it matters, first of all, because it matters for their chances of a flourishing life. I mean, just at the end of that excellent conversation you had with David, he talked about these maladaptive behaviors or what's happening to men. But one of the results of these struggles that men are having is something called a death of despair from either suicide or drug overdose, alcohol — all of which are much higher among men. So men are at about three times higher risk of a death of despair from one of those three causes than women. And the rate has increased by more than 50% in the last two decades.
And so you see actually this sense of drift, but worse than that, of redundancy among men. There's a very good study of male suicides by Fiona Shand and her colleagues, which really struck me. They looked at the words that men used to describe themselves just before they committed suicide or attempted suicide. And the two words most commonly used by men as self-description were "useless" and "worthless." And if you end up with an economy or a society where people, regardless of who they are, feel like there's no use for them or no worth to them, then you see the consequences in terms of these overdose deaths, suicides, et cetera.
So just on a purely human level, we should care. But also we should care because actually, a world of struggling men is not a great world for lots of women. What's happening is that because so many men are struggling in one way or the other, women are actually ending up having to do a lot more than they would otherwise do. They're working what Arlie Hochschild calls the "double shift" of both being the breadwinner and the carer. And we obviously want an egalitarian division of labor, but it's quite clear that women are having to pick up quite a lot of the slack that's being left by the struggles of men.
So it's not only that worrying about boys and men is is compatible with ideals of gender equality. I would argue that it's now necessary to achieving those goals. Otherwise, you just end up with a world where women are having to do more and more and men are struggling to do anything at all.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. This is why I think your most fascinating chapter in sort of diagnosing the challenges that we all face — men and women — in terms of the plight of men, is the chapter on fatherhood. Because you quote sociologist David Morgan and, you know, in his sort of conception of the importance of fatherhood and how we've defined it for a long time. And there's a quote where he says, "The idea of the provider is a major element in the construction of a masculine identity. It is a moral as well as an economic category." Talk about that, Richard.
REEVES: Yeah, I mean for about as long as we know, that role of provider has been central to male identity and to the, to the construction of masculinity, what it means to be a successful, to be a good man is to be a provider. And what's happened in the last few decades is that that role has become — you can't presume it anymore.
The central goal of the women's movement was to secure — postwar women's movement, anyway — was to secure more economic independence for women. And that's been not fully achieved, but really significantly achieved. We now live in a world where 40% of women earn more than the typical man, where 40% of breadwinners in the U.S. are women.
This is a gigantic social change, which is entirely positive, looked at through one lens, and we should certainly celebrate it. But on the other hand, it does raise this question, which is, well, what about the men? What does it mean to be a guy in a world where that role of provider can no longer be presumed? And what it means is that we urgently and desperately need to update our models — of fatherhood, especially, and of masculinity — to fit with this new world. And the problem is that for different reasons, neither left nor right are taking that cultural task seriously.
And because of that, there's a lack of a script, honestly, for a lot of men. They just don't — a lot of men will say they know what they're not supposed to do, but actually when you ask them, "What are you supposed to do?" they don't really ever have a good answer. That creates a massive vacuum, which gets filled, I'm afraid, very often by quite reactionary forces. Because, at least the people on the alt-right and sometimes online, they have an answer to the question, "What does it mean to be a man?" Whereas mainstream culture very often doesn't have an answer.
CHAKRABARTI: What does it mean for you, Richard?
REEVES: It means, first of all, acknowledging that there is both difference and equality. We don't have to be androgynous to be equal. So there's nothing wrong — First of all, it's just a positive, normative state. There's nothing wrong intrinsically with masculinity. And we should celebrate some of the differences that there are between men and women without them being determinative in any way at all. And I think that's just an important place to start. We're not going to vaporize all the differences between men and women, nor should we seek to.
And it means celebrating the different ways that men can provide. So I've been a stay-at-home dad myself for many years, but I didn't in some way lose my sense of identity because I was providing something different. I was providing care, I was providing structure, I was doing a bunch of other stuff in the community, even as my wife was the breadwinner. And so expanding that role, but without asking men to stop being men. And what I mean by that is, we have to make sure that these roles, which are traditionally seen as more feminine, are not incompatible with masculinity. And things like courage, things like physicality, which on average are found among men, we should be celebrating those.
So it's partly about this cultural narrative we've got to get right, which is to say, "Masculinity good, femininity good, distributions overlap and we can be equal." And right now that's proving to be quite a difficult Rubik's cube to finish. But we're partway through and we've just gotta keep going. And most of the work now has to be done, to pick up again on David Autor's comment, to help men adapt to this new world rather than leaving them behind.
CHAKRABARTI: Huh. You know, I wonder though, when you say that there are different ways to define, or culturally define, what it means to provide. I want to hear more from you on what you think is stopping that from happening.
REEVES: Well, there's nothing necessarily direct stopping it from happening. So it's a great challenge. I really — I think you're right to point is, "What's stopping men?" And I think a lot of it is a cultural presumption about the fact that to be a good father, you do have to be the breadwinner, have to be a provider — if not the sole provider, a provider, and probably co-resident with the mother. So that old model of the family.
And so what that means is that for many men who are not actually in the labor market, or if they are, they're really struggling, they get benched. Sometimes they bench themselves because they still have this cultural model. But also sometimes, sometimes women might see, see them as, "Well, what use is he?" Right? Kathryn Edin, another sociologist, talks about working class women saying, "Why would I want another mouth to feed?"
REEVES: And actually, you know, just not seeing him as having a role. And then of course, public policy doesn't do very much to support fathers, especially unmarried fathers, or giving them paternity leave and so on, too. So in various different ways, I do think we're still sending the signal that if you fail as a breadwinner, then you've failed as a father. And I think absolutely the opposite message needs to be said which is that fathers matter, period. And we need to unbundle fatherhood from the old ideas of what that meant around marriage, provider. Not that there's anything wrong with those, but we can't be conditional on those positions anymore given the changes in the labor market we've seen and given the wonderful changes we've seen in society, which have brought about much greater gender equality.
CHAKRABARTI: How much does marriage play a role in this evolution of what you think fatherhood ought to represent, mean, and feel like? Because you quote in the book that marriage and motherhood are no longer virtually synonymous, that 40% of births in the US now take place outside of marriage — up from just about 11% in 1970. What are some of the, the salient facts or shifts in terms of fatherhood that you think we should understand?
REEVES: Yeah, and it's actually the majority of children born to those who don't have a college degree, and it's 70% of Black kids born outside marriage. And so that 40% disguises a big class gap with actually marriage still quite strong among upper middle class Americans. But the basic story, I think, is that marriage provided this sort of one-stop-shop social institution, which was like clear division of labor, his role was to provide, mom's role was to care. It's relatively stable, relatively clear, but it had this fatal flaw of being deeply unfair and relying on the economic dependency of women on men.
So marriage, I think, has been unbundled. It's become, as Gloria Steinem hoped it would — and many others, Margaret Mead — a choice rather than a necessity. So marriage is now a choice, and actually only one in five Americans now think that marriage is essential to a good life. So in some sense, we're in a post-marriage era in that traditional sense. And so the unbundling of marriage means that we can no longer rely on marriage as being the main institution that connects fathers to children in the way that it used to. Mothers have continued this very strong relationship with children regardless of their marital circumstances. But for too many men, absent marriage, they've essentially been benched, as I said earlier, and that's why we need a more direct model of fatherhood, which does not rely on marriage.
So marriage was a great institution from those perspectives for a long time. But of course, it, as I said, it had this fatal flaw. It's been very successfully hollowed out now. We can't go back. We shouldn't go back. This is the problem with the conservatives on this who say, "Well, bring back marriage." No. Marriage is in the rear view mirror in the way you mean it. And so we have to look forward as to what does it mean to provide these positive roles for fathers independent of marriage.
CHAKRABARTI: I wanna push you on this a little bit because marriage was in the past seen as not just sort of this legal and economic institution, but it was the fundamental building block that actually had families — that meant families were physically living together.
I mean, you point in the book that among fathers who did not complete high school, 40% live apart from their children compared to just 7% of fathers who graduated from college. So there's that economic gap you're talking about that produces this intergenerational effect, I would say. And then you also say, in 2020, one in five children, 20%, were living with a mother only — almost twice as many as in 1968. So if not marriage, then what in order to — I mean, are you saying that more dads need to be living with their kids?
REEVES: What I'm saying is that we need to get used to a world where even if the mom and dad are not living together, the kids do still get to spend quite a bit of time with both parents. And we need to — we need to refocus the conversation to be about the relationship between the parents and the children rather than the residency of them. Sometimes it feels like — there's this whole debate about absent dads, you know, absent or present. And that's basically based on like, taking attendance, right? Which house is he living in? And I get that. And I don't want to in any way argue that it isn't harder to remain strongly in your kids' lives if you've divorced.
So I've divorced once and therefore raising a kid post-divorce and it's — there's a lot more work to be done. But I will say that when parents divorce in the U.S. now, a third of the time is allocated to the father and there are very few sole custody findings now. So, among married parents, there is this new world emerging where we don't basically just take the register of dad present or not.
And in one of the studies that really jumped out at me was one that found that kids whose father isn't resident with the mother, but has a very strong relationship with the kid, those kids do better than the kids whose father is living with the mother but they have a very distant relationship. And what that tells me is it's the relationship that matters. And yes, it's easier to have that strong relationship when you're co-resident. It would be crazy to deny that. But in this new world, where we've got much more divorce, much more separation, much more independence, much more choice, we can't rely on co-residence or marriage as the only thing that connects fathers to children.
I will say, by the way, that I think more engaged fatherhood would probably lead to more marriage. I don't know. It's hard to tell, but I think that's what's driving upper middle class marriage is this desire to raise kids together. This is almost like a joint venture for co-parenting. So it may well lead to more marriage, but it has to be that way around.
REEVES: It has to be fatherhood and motherhood leading to marriage rather than marriage binding men to women in the way that it used to.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, this all gets to an even bigger question, which you just raised a little bit earlier, about how do we define, you know, masculinity, right? Or maleness?
CHAKRABARTI: Because it seems as if we have really kind of warped our definition of masculinity and femininity in any number of ways. It's just into narrow and narrower confines. And in fact, we got a call from one of our listeners, this is Antoinette from Colorado. And she says she has many male friends who feel ostracized by women because of what Antoinette described as male stereotypes.
ANTOINETTE: Someone who's uber-outdoorsy, likes hunting, fishing, et cetera. Americans have made those kinds of men feel like they don't have a place in society, and I see a lot of my male friends who fit this category are ostracized by women in their communities. From my perspective, when I need a friend to talk to or someone to really be there, like after surgery, all of my uber-masculine male friends showed up with baked goods they handmade for me and homemade meals and have been very supportive. And we need as a society to make sure there's a place for everyone.
CHAKRABARTI: Richard, what do you think?
REEVES: Yeah, that's great. I love that story from Antoinette. And it reminds me of a quote from Margaret Mead who said, "Every human society rests on the learned nurturing behavior of men." And I think it's important because there is both that men can be nurturing, although in somewhat different ways, but also that that is something that we have to teach.
Right now, the discussion of masculinity, I think has gotten to a very bad place. Recent polling shows that almost half of Americans, and more than half of American men, think that today, society sometimes punishes men just for acting like men. Now, what they mean by that, of course, is a very important question, but I feel like a lot of, a lot of men, a lot of young men I speak to — and women — feel as if on the one hand there's toxic masculinity, you know, masculinity is the problem and if we could just exorcise it or dial it down or you know, expunge it all together. A bit like original sin, right? It's just this defect that lies within you.
So you hear a toxic masculinity on one side. But on the other side, almost sometimes in reaction to each other, there's almost a glorification of this kind of adolescent masculinity.
REEVES: Like when you heard Donald Trump, in the "grabbing by the [BLEEPED]" instance, and all that. And the way he acted and a lot of the people around him acted. I was trying to think of who do they remind me of? And then eventually I realized, they reminded me of my sons when they were 15. And myself when I was 15. And so you get this kind of reaction, which is a sort of middle finger, hyper old-fashioned masculinity because there isn't much in between those two. And we have to find some middle ground here.
REEVES: That's pro masculine, but modern.
CHAKRABARTI: But you know, the very idea of — one of the tenets of the belief in toxic masculinity is that it's, you know, acceptable or permissible — for 15-year-old boys, even — to say things like that, even if they don't mean it. But I'm gonna talk to you more in just a minute, Richard, when we come back, about this phrase toxic masculinity. So hang in there for a moment. We'll be back.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we're joined by Richard Reeves. His new book is "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It." So Richard Reeves, this phrase — just yes or no — "toxic masculinity." Are you a fan of it or not?
REEVES: No. (LAUGHS)
REEVES: You said yes - no, so — (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) No, no, no. I appreciate that. And in fact, we got a couple of callers who would probably agree with you. For example, here's Roxanne from Virginia. She called specifically to tell us what her husband says he hears in the phrase toxic masculinity.
ROXANE: He feels that toxic masculinity, the phrase means masculinity is toxic rather than specifically masculinity that is toxic. Because that's how he's mostly seen it discussed. I think that discussions of positive masculinity would do a lot for modeling what positive masculinity does look like.
CHAKRABARTI: That's Roxanne from Virginia. We also heard from Joe who calls us every day from Worcester, Massachusetts. Hello, Joe! We're putting you on the air today. And Joe told us that he believes the careless use of the phrase toxic masculinity is part of a deeper problem.
JOE: It shows that those who use this term have no appreciation of how important masculinity is to the success of a society. One of the problems in our society over the past few decades is that society demands less and less of men, neither demanding that men contribute to society in general nor to their families in particular. Having no demands or no structure placed, especially on young men, can easily lead to their sliding into self-destructive behavior, which is not good for them or society.
CHAKRABARTI: So Richard, let me go back to what Roxanne said about modeling what positive masculinity looks like. So this is the first question I have in — now we're gonna talk about your solutions. What would positive masculinity look like?
REEVES: Yeah. Well, first of all, I agree with both of those callers that the phrase is very — the phrase "toxic" is very unhelpful because it just puts the two words, you know, next to each other. I think it's much better instead to think about mature masculinity, rather than immature masculinity. It's back to what you said, Meghna, a moment ago about the difference between what you expect of a 14 year old and a 24 year old in terms of their behavior, which is true of girls as well as boys, of course.
So what does mature masculinity look like? And how is it both distinct from, overlapping with and complementary to femininity? And what I think — I mean, both of your callers, I think, have spoken to this in different ways. And I think first of all, it's just a recognition that, on average, we are gonna see some differences between the preferences of, of men and women, for example, around, you know, pursuing things rather than people, some of the ways they spend their time, et cetera.
But I'm gonna give you a quote, nearly a hundred years old, from a headmaster of Stowe School in England. And he said his job was to turn boys into men who would "be acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck." Now, I've been asked to modernize that phrase, and I can't really improve on it because what it's getting at is a sense that as men, you have to learn how to conduct yourself in society, how you interact with women in a way that's respectful, recognizing difference, but absolutely insisting on equality.
But also when the ship starts sinking, right, there is something quite important there about the role of men. Men are willing to take more risks physically than women — again, on average — but there's a big difference there and we should be celebrating that, too. And so recognizing that there is something about physical courage, but also this ability to conduct yourself in society is incredibly important.
It's back to these relational skills you were talking about before. And we only get there by recognizing there are some differences between boys and girls and men and women. And so we have to be educating our boys to conduct themselves in this world as men, but also as equal partners to women. That's a difficult task for sure. But I really don't think we're even taking the fact that the task exists that seriously at the moment because we're tending to just, you know, try and expunge masculinity, which just drives people to the right.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Well, on that point, we have a tweet from VS who says, "We live in a society where we're all supposed to pretend we don't know what the words 'man' and 'woman' mean. Is it any wonder people are struggling?"
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, Richard, that's a big inhale, exhale from you. (LAUGHS)
REEVES: Yeah. Well, it's a good question. It's a good question. Let me give you an answer to this because I do think, again, we're just stuck in these zero-sum games here.
CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. Yeah.
REEVES: And it's so unhelpful because it's not where most people live. So is there a spectrum of all of these things, all of these traits associated with masculinity and femininity? Absolutely. And the distributions overlap. Most people do define themselves as masculine or feminine and in line with their natal birth — but not everybody does.
So you've got most people clustered towards the ends of the spectrum, and then some people in the middle and some people then transitioning. That's an important word because it does imply from one to the other. And there are some people who don't define themselves in those terms at all. A small number of people, to be sure, but nonetheless, people who are as worthy of respect and equal human rights as everybody else. Basically, I think we've got ourselves into a position where we're not able to say that we can have exceptions to the rule and both the rule and the exceptions can be great.
It seems like you almost have to say, "Look, you can't have rules about these general patterns of masculine and feminine without dishonoring those who don't fit those binaries." I think that's completely wrong. I think in the real world, we're perfectly capable of saying, "Yeah, this is the norm. This is how things usually are. There are some people who's not like that, and we can equally respect each other."
CHAKRABARTI: You're calling for a basic decency in just recognizing of what I think the realities of human humankind are. I mean, I think — I'm pausing here because it's so frustrating to know how right you are that we're in this trap of a zero-sum game and we desperately need to get out of it, right?
CHAKRABARTI: I mean, why does it feel so hard?
REEVES: Well, because we hear it so much, you know, from our leaders. I mean, let's be clear, politics is absolutely founded on zero-sum right now.
REEVES: Particularly around gender. I mean, we are, you know, recording this not long after the midterms and everybody's talking about Ron DeSantis. So I just looked at the exit polls. Ron DeSantis only won among women by seven points. He won among men by 29 points. So a fourfold difference in the gender gap in DeSantis victory in Florida. And actually you see both sides just digging in on this culture war and insisting at zero-sum and many of our institutions doing the same thing, and most of us are just in a world where it isn't zero-sum.
And I'll tell you that my gay friends, but also my trans friends, they're not asking me to be less masculine. They're asking me to respect them for who they are. And they'll do the same in return to me. And so in the real world, we don't live in these zero-sum games and we don't — and we refuse this admonition that we can't think two thoughts at once.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Well, so there's another aspect of your analysis of the male malaise that people are pushing back on a little bit. This is from Faydren Edwards-Battle who sent us a message on Facebook saying, "As I listen to the statistics, proving how males are at a disadvantage" — the early learning, literacy, brain development stuff. Faydren wondered, "How they hold more positions of power: Congress, Senate, president, CEOs. How is it that they earn more compared to women with the same job? It's hard to process the idea of male malaise when they benefit so greatly from patriarchy."
REEVES: Hmm. Well, just a, a really boring social science point is there's really very little evidence that men earn more when they're doing the same job. The reason men earn more is because women take time out of the labor market care for children, which is in and of itself, I think, a big issue for gender relations. And because of the different occupations that men and women do.
But I think Faydren's basic point is right, is that if you look at the apex of society in terms of politics, you know, CEOs, boardrooms, et cetera, there's still a long way to go in terms of getting closer to gender equality. I've written myself about the need for quotas in politics. The U.S. Congress is particularly bad in this regard and our boardrooms. But if you, if you look further down, you get a very different picture.
And so I think part of the problem with this debate about gender equality is it's being conducted by people at the top of society who look around and see these remaining problems, these remaining barriers to women and girls, and so then find it impossible to believe that the same isn't true for the rest of society. So maybe we have some still, like, remnants of patriarchy, in the sense Faydren means it, at the top of society. That does not mean it's true all the way down.
I really do think if you go to a working class guy who's struggling in his life, struggling with his job and tell him he's part of the patriarchy, you're not gonna get very good reaction. And actually, if you suggest that to him, he may well find somebody else who he thinks is listening to him and that might not be somebody you want him to listen to.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. How does this then link — because you make a clear case for the fact that the struggles of men grow, again, as you drop down the income scale. And also then it's even further amplified when you factor race in as well.
CHAKRABARTI: So Black men are struggling basically more than anyone else. But how does this then link to your previous book, which was "The Opportunity Hoarders?" It seems like there's a connection there.
REEVES: Yeah, it's one of the things that brought me to this subject, actually. Because you see, actually, the only men who are better off than men were 40 years ago are the ones at the top.
You know, most American men earn less today than most American men did in 1979. The exception is at the top. And women's wage growth at the top has been even greater. And so then if they form households together, you do get this massive class gap. And so even as we have narrowed the gender gap — and we have, I'm not suggesting it's job done, but we've hugely reduce the gender inequality between men and women — we've massively increased the class gap and the race gap.
So it's important to note, this is why you have to think intersectionally, to use that term. It's important to note that white women now earn much more than Black men. For every dollar earned by a white woman, a Black man earns 84 cents. Which is quite similar to the overall gender gap, but it's the other way round. So we have to think about race and class as well as about gender.
CHAKRABARTI: So now, even though I wish I had gotten to this sooner. But you're just so fascinating, Richard, it's hard for me to, to control my clock here!
REEVES: Mm! (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: Solutions, solutions, solutions. And I want to introduce this — and we've got five minutes here — but I want to introduce some of your solutions through a little bit of tape from Christopher Goins, who we spoke with last year. He's the community lead for My Brother's Keeper and chief equity officer for Thrive Chicago. And he talked about specifically how to help boys of color and he had one solution that could lead to significant change.
CHRISTOPHER GOINS: If a Black student has one teacher in elementary school that looks like them, their likelihood of going to college, of not dropping out, increases by 13%. And their likelihood of going to college increases by 39% if they have one teacher in elementary school that looks like them. So to me, that says we need to have a targeted solution to get more men of color in front of our kids. If we want to talk about life attainment for boys and young men of color. We have to think about that. If one student — just one student drops — drops out of high school, it costs society nearly $300,000.
CHAKRABARTI: Richard, you talk in your book not just about getting more men of color into classrooms, but more men in general.
REEVES: Yeah. I agree with everything Christopher just said, but I do think we need to broaden the conversation to include men. It's one of my big proposals is to get more men into our classrooms, especially into English classrooms. So only 24% of K-12 teachers now are men, down from 33% a few decades ago.
And the subject they're least likely to be teaching is English. English is the subject where having a male teacher has the biggest positive effect for boys. So yeah, we do need more men of color — Hispanic men as well as Black men — but we need more men. The evidence is that having a male teacher can really help boys, especially — this brings us back, Meghna, to where we were — especially in these literacy skills.
REEVES: Actually, having a female teacher seems to help girls in STEM subjects. Having a male teacher, certainly true for me, really helps in English subjects. And we desperately need more men in early years education. Right now, only 3% of early years educators are male and that is half as many as a share of the profession as women flying U.S. fighter planes. So we have twice as many women now flying U.S. fighter planes — which we're redesigning so that they fit better for women by the way, which is great — as we do men teaching kindergarten.
You said a moment ago we overuse the word "crisis." I agree with that. But it seems to me that if we are raising our children and they don't encounter, most of them don't encounter, a single male teacher till they hit middle school at earliest. That is a crisis. And it's one that is being almost entirely ignored in the current debate. So Christopher's right, more men of color, but we need more male teachers in our classrooms and we need them soon. It's becoming more and more feminized over time and we really just can't let that keep happening, and not do something about it.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. You also talk about what you call the "HEAL careers" as the economy overall shifts away from traditional sort of working class manufacturing jobs.
REEVES: Yeah, yeah. Health, education, administration, literacy. Like the opposite of STEM in a way. There are lots of jobs being created in those areas, huge numbers required in areas like nursing, teaching psychology, social work. So there are jobs there — actually quite good jobs in many cases, but also we need more money in those professions because the people using them will very often want a male provider.
So the one example I'll give is psychology, which used to be gender parity in the 1980s. It's dropped from 39% male to 29% male in the last 10 years. And amongst psychologists under the age of 30, only 5% are male. So we're heading to close to an all-female psychology profession, just as we see these huge mental health problems growing among young men — very high rates of suicide, very high rates of depression — and young women. But are we gonna be able to cater to their needs with an all-female psychology profession? Why aren't we talking about this, and why aren't we doing as much to encourage men into those professions as we are, quite rightly, doing to encourage women into traditionally male professions?
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Well, in the last minute that we have Richard, it's so interesting to me, in the book, you said you kind of anticipated a major public backlash about writing about men and boy — manhood and boyhood, but that backlash didn't materialize. Why do you think that is?
REEVES: Well, not yet! (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) We can always try!
REEVES: Here's what I think: I think if you talk about this in a good faith way that's based on the facts, you discover that there is a massive appetite for a conversation about the problems facing boys and men that doesn't require people to give up their commitment to women and girls.
If you can get past this zero-sum, if you can create a space — a permission space, almost — to have the conversation like the one we've just had, then what I've discovered is there's actually a huge appetite for this. People are sick of the BS, excuse my language, on both the left and right about this, and they're struggling. They want their boys to succeed just as much as their daughters, and that's the conversation that we need to be having. I'm thrilled so far that we're able to have it.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, the new book is "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It." Richard Reeves, it is always such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so very much for coming back.
REEVES: Thank you, Meghna.
This program aired on November 11, 2022.