Boys and men are falling behind. This might seem surprising to some people — and maybe ridiculous to others — considering that discussions on gender disparities tend to focus on the structural challenges faced by girls and women, not boys and men.
But long-term data reveal a clear and alarming trend: In recent decades, American men have been faring increasingly worse in many areas of life, including education, workforce participation, skill acquisition, wages, and fatherhood.
Gender politics is often framed as a zero-sum game — that is, any effort to help men takes away from women. But in his 2022 book Of Boys and Men, journalist and Brookings Institution scholar Richard V. Reeves argues that the structural problems contributing to male malaise affect everybody, and that shying away from these tough conversations is not a productive path forward.
RICHARD REEVES: A number of people warned me against writing a book about boys and men because it's such a fraught subject, particularly in politics right now, and because so many people were afraid that merely drawing attention to the problems of boys and men was implying somehow less effort being paid to girls and women; that it's framed as zero-sum. And it's sort of a who's side are you on question: and you have to be on one side or the other, rather than just being on the side of human flourishing. One of the real challenges here is that if there are men missing from certain crucial areas of our society and our economy, that makes it harder for other men and boys to flourish in those areas. We have an education system that has a dearth of male teachers. We have a labor market where the jobs that are growing fastest are ones where we have the fewest men- and in families there's the growth in what you might call the 'dad deficit' or 'father listeners.' As men are struggling in each of those areas, what you'll see is it'll be harder for other men to follow in their footsteps. It's harder for boys to flourish if their fathers aren't engaged. It's harder for men to enter occupations where there aren't men. It's harder for boys to do well at school where there are no male teachers to be seen. And so, there's a very real danger that unless we act quite soon, that we will set in train something of a vicious cycle.
I'm Richard Reeves. I'm a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and my latest book is "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is struggling, Why That Matters, and What to Do about It."
The overall picture is, that on almost every measure, at almost every age, and in almost every advanced economy in the world, the girls are leaving the boys way behind, and the women leaving the men. What nobody expected was that girls and women wouldn't just catch up to boys and men in education, but would blow right past them and keep going. Everyone was very focused, quite rightly, on getting to gender equality, getting to gender parity. It's not that long ago where there was a huge gender gap the other way, and there was huge focus, correctly, in the 70s and 80s to really promote women and girls in education. But the line just kept going-and nobody predicted that. Nobody was saying, "What if gender inequality reemerges in just as big a way as now, in some cases bigger, but the other way around?" And to some extent, everyone's still trying to get their head around this new world where, at least in education, when you talk about gender inequality, you are pretty much always talking about the ways in which girls and women are ahead of boys and men. And that's happened in a very, very short period of human history. So if you look at the U.S., for example, in the average school district in the U.S., girls are almost a grade level ahead of boys in English, and have caught up in math. If we look at those with the highest GPA scores, the top 10%, two-thirds of those are girls. If we look at those at the bottom, two-thirds of those are boys. When it comes to going to college, there's a 10 percentage gap in college enrollment; a similar size gap in completing college, conditional on enrolling. And the result of those trends is that the gender gap in getting a college degree is now wider than it was in 1972, but the other way around. So in 1972, when Title IX was passed to promote more gender equality in education, there was a 13 percentage point gap in favor of men getting college degrees. Now there's a 15 percentage point gap in favor of women getting college degrees.
So the gender inequality we see in college today is wider than it was 50 years ago- it's just the other way around. There's quite a fierce debate about the differences between male and female brains. And in adulthood, I think there's not much evidence that the brains are that different in ways that we should worry about, or that are particularly consequential. But where there's no real debate is in the timing of brain development. It is quite clear that girls brains develop more quickly than boys brains do, and that the biggest difference seems to occur in adolescence. So what happens, is in adolescence, we develop what neuroscientists call the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex of our brain is sometimes known as the "CEO of the brain." It's the bit of your brain that says, "You should do your chemistry homework rather than going out to party." It's the bit of your brain that says it is worth maintaining a high GPA 'cause it'll help you get to college, which might help you in the future. And that bit of the brain develops considerably earlier in girls than in boys, between one and two years earlier. Partly because girls go into puberty a bit earlier than boys and that seems to trigger some of this development. What that means is that if you have an education system that rewards the ability to turn in homework, stay on task, worry about your GPA, prepare for college, and so on, then, just structurally, that's going to put at an advantage the group whose brains have developed earlier in those particular areas- and that turns out on average to be girls. I think it's a great irony of women's progress that by taking the breaks off women's educational opportunities and aspirations, we've revealed the fact that the education system is slightly structured against boys and men, because of these differences in the timing of brain development. But it took the women's movement to show that, because the natural advantages of women in education were impossible to see when women's aspirations were being capped by a sexist society. Now that those caps have been largely removed, we can see that it's boys and men who are at disadvantage in the education system.
At the risk of sounding boring, let's collect the data first so we know what we are dealing with here. I do think that we should be strongly encouraging boys to start school a year later than girls. I think that should become the default in many school districts because of the developmental gap that there is between boys and girls. Because boys brains mature more slowly, then them starting school a year later would mean that they were developmentally closer to being peers with the girls in the classroom. We need a lot more male teachers. It's striking that the teaching profession has become steadily more female over time. Only 24% of K-12 teachers, now, are male- that's down from 33% in the 80s- and fewer men are applying to teacher training year on year. And so, we've seen this steady shift towards a close to an all-female environment; that has all kinds of consequences for the ethos of the school, for the way we deal with different kinds of behavior among boys and girls, for example. And so we need a very serious and intentional effort to get more men into teaching. The third thing I would do in this world where I have significant power to dictate policies, would be significantly more investment in vocational education and training: That is an area where we do seem to see better results for boys and men on average, and one that's woefully underinvested in in the U.S. The U.S. has really bet most of its dollars on a very academic, a very narrow route towards success, and less emphasis on vocational training. And that has actually put boys and men at a disadvantage- so apprenticeships, technical high schools, are actually a really good way to help more boys and men. I think one of the challenges with this debate is that if you're talking to women and men who are, say, at the top of the economic ladder- four-year college degrees, decent incomes- they look around and they don't see some of these issues. But that's not the same for working-class men; that's not the same for men lower down the economic ladder. So there's a danger that we're so busy, to borrow Sheryl Sandberg's phrase: "So busy leaning in that we don't look down."
The reality for men further down the ladder is very different. The economic trends for men have turned downwards along four dimensions. One is wages: Most men today earn less than most men did in 1979. In employment, with a drop in labor force participation of eight percentage points, which means nine million men now of prime age are not working. We've seen a drop in occupational stature, and so, there are now more men working in employment areas which are seen as lower status than they were in the past. And we've also seen a drop in the acquisition of skills, the kinds of skills and education that boys and men need. If boys don't get educated and men don't get skilled, they will struggle in the labor market. And across all of those domains, we've seen a downwards turn for men in the last four or five decades. And so the way in which social class divides have opened up, economic inequality has widened, is really important to understand in the context of gender inequality. If we only focus on gender gaps, then we miss the fact that both men and women at the top have done increasingly well. But that's much less true of everybody else, and especially it's less true of those from lower-income backgrounds, working-class boys and men, and Black boys and men. You see many of those trends are amplified, and so those boys and men are really at the sharpest end of many of the social and economic changes. On the one hand, we have a huge and successful and laudable effort to get more women into STEM jobs. So 'science, technology, engineering, and math.' On the other side, we have what I call "HEAL jobs." So that's 'health, education, administration, and literacy.' Almost, if you like, the opposite side of the coin to STEM jobs- and that's where a lot of the jobs are coming from. Health and education alone are huge and growing sectors in the U.S., and so by my estimates, for every one job we're gonna create in STEM between now and 2030, we're gonna create three in HEAL jobs. But those jobs are at least as gender-segregated as STEM jobs, but in the other direction, and unlike STEM becoming more so over time; so if you look at the HEAL sector, only 24% of the workers in those sectors are male, and that number is falling. And in particular sectors, we are seeing a really precipitous drop in the number of men. We have a drop in the number of male teachers. We have a very sharp drop in the number of male psychologists; that's dropped from 39% male to 29% male in the last decade alone. And among psychologists under the age of 30, only 5% are male. So we roll that forward, and we're going to see psychology becoming essentially almost an all-female profession. So these jobs, which are both crucial, I think, for society, and where it'd be very useful to have more diversity, are actually becoming more gender-segregated, and so we have absolutely no effort to get more men into HEAL jobs, which is where I think the future lies, and where we should be helping men to move.
One of the problems that we face is what I call in the book a 'dad deficit.' And that can be seen in various different ways: So one in four fathers don't live with their children. If parents split up, they're much more likely to lose contact with their fathers than with their mothers- and so one in three children, if their parents split up, don't see their father at all after a few years post the separation. So this fatherlessness is something that's very, very specific. And when 4 in 10 children are born outside marriage, and most children, to less educated parents are born outside marriage, then we have to reinvent what it means to be a father, because right now men are still being held to an old standard of what it meant to be a successful father in a world where that is neither possible for many of them, or even desirable, because what we've seen is, as women have grown in economic power and economic independence, then of course they're going to choose to be with a man rather than being forced to, as in the old days. This is probably the greatest liberation in human history, honestly, that women can now choose whether to be with a man or not. More than 2 out of 5 households in the U.S. now, a woman is the main breadwinner. 40% of American women earn more than the average man. These are huge economic changes, and all for the good, but it does pose some really sharp questions about what fathers are for. And until we escape the obsolete model of the breadwinner father, then we will continue to see more and more men being left out of family life. And the kicker is that boys in families that don't have a father presence suffer much more than girls. And so then what happens is that male disadvantage can become intergenerational because if the fathers are struggling, and therefore not really involved in their kids' lives, then the boys are the ones who suffer most, who will then go on to struggle themselves in education, and in the labor market.
It's clear by now that marriage and social institutions and a sense of purpose matter to men. And so as we've seen these real challenges faced by men in education, work, and the family, you're seeing some really difficult and troubling health consequences. And so, the so-called 'deaths of despair' from suicide, overdose, or alcohol, three times higher among men than among women. Suicide itself, three times higher among men than women, and rising very quickly, especially among middle-aged men and younger men. So we can see these as symptoms, I think, of a broader malaise, which is what's troubling boys and men. And for men in particular, this sense of purpose is very important. I think it's a human universal that we need to be needed. There's a wonderful piece of work by an academic called Fiona Chan, who looked at the last words that men had used to describe themselves before committing suicide, or attempting suicide. And the top of the list were "worthless" and "useless." I think if we create a society in which so many men do feel like they're not needed, then it's no surprise that we see these deaths of despair. We see problems with opioids- opioids are a much bigger problem for men than they are for women- and one of the great tragedies of opioid deaths is the death rates are higher in part because the users are on their own. And so, in some ways, the opioid epidemic is a perfect illustration of a whole series of things we are talking about: which is a loss of role in the family, a loss of status in the labor market, turning to drugs, and being isolated and withdrawn. And so in that example, I think you can see a symptom of this broader, male malaise that we just need to take it more seriously. And we have a cultural responsibility, as a society, men and women together, to help men and boys to adjust to this new world- because, right now, many of them are really struggling.