Men are losing their grip. Literally. Adult men today have a 30-pound weaker grip strength than four decades ago, writes Richard Reeves in his latest book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. And that’s not their worst problem.
Grade-school boys are far more likely than girls to fail math, reading, and science, and twice as likely to have developmental disabilities. The problem persists through higher education: Women receive more than half of bachelor’s degrees in the United States and the majority of master’s degrees, associate’s degrees, law degrees, and doctoral degrees. Women now dominate most previously male-led fields. As Reeves explains, “there have been no equivalent gains for men … nobody predicted that women would overtake men so rapidly, so comprehensively, or so consistently around the world.”
Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is not alone in identifying the male species’s decades-in-the-making downfall. “America’s boys are broken,” comedian Michael Ian Black wrote in the New York Times in 2018. “And it’s killing us.”
Hallmark feminist Gloria Steinem wrongly assessed such a situation in her 1970 essay, “What It Would Be Like If Women Win.” She predicted that with women “bearing financial responsibility, and with the idea of ‘masculine’ jobs gone, men might well feel freer and live longer.” She praised Sweden, which adopted radical feminist policy years before America, as a soon-to-be “working Women’s Lib model.” Reeves claims Sweden once again leads the way: The country in 2010 penned the term pojkkrisen (boy crisis) to address the widening gender gap, the same year Forbes magazine declared America’s “Year of the Woman.”
Women won. And after decades of diligent feminism, men are worse off. While the sexual revolution liberated women to leave men behind in the dust, it also left men right there in the dust. Women wrote themselves a new economically and physically independent script, and men never drafted a response. Instead, the feminine mystique paved the way for what Reeves calls the male malaise.
As women made gains, employment declined drastically for middle-age and less-educated men, who “self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and accumulated criminal records that made them less employable and less marriageable.” A 2019 Harper’s Magazine essay identified the masculinity crisis as a “gnawing sense of purposelessness,” which Reeves says might best explain why men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. Men, he writes, “are not suffering from a lack of labor force participation but cultural redundancy.”
“A man who knows he must provide for a wife and children has a clear sense of how to be ‘purposeful’ and ‘whole,'” Reeves explains. “The role of mothers has been expanded to include breadwinning as well as caring, but the role of fathers has not been expanded to include caring as well as breadwinning.”
Wives liberated themselves in the 1960s from homemaking duties but didn’t release men from stereotypical breadwinner responsibilities. As a result, men lost their place. “A husband may be nice, but he is no longer necessary,” Reeves writes.
Independent women are more likely and more mobile to pursue a family alone than with a man in a weak economic position. Eighty-two percent of women aged 25-34 agree that “it is okay for an unmarried female to have and raise a child,” and only 74 percent of male peers concur. When men suffer, so too does the family.
“Women have expanded their role, and the range of choices that they can make. Too many men are stuck with the narrow provider role, which is now badly obsolete, not only in theory but also in practice,” Reeves says.
This, Reeves explains, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The time society spent propping women up for success was well spent. And, the gender equality activist adds, there’s still much to do for women’s rights. Now, men need help catching up.
Cautiously, he warns that “the answer is not to try to roll back the gains of the women’s movement” but to take other steps, such as redshirting boys so that they are held back one school year, propelling men into health, education, administration, and literacy (HEAL) positions, and reinventing fatherhood as an independent social institution.
Male-friendly education systems would give boys an extra year of pre-K before they start school, Reeves argues. Already, boys (especially from affluent families) are more likely to delay school start, and data suggest higher literacy among those boys. Reducing the developmental age gap is equitable for boys who might otherwise be held back later in their education, Reeves says. Next, HEAL occupations will shift men away from “traditional” male professions into sectors with a growing demand for labor, filling occupational and financial needs. As arguably his most radical solution, Reeves rejects marriage as the vehicle for which fathers should exist. Instead, Reeves would liberate fatherhood from marriage, giving men the same social freedom awarded to women.
“Raising men up does not mean holding women down, or ‘displacing’ them. It means rising together,” he writes.
But solving the “male malaise” requires correction, not catch-up. Reeves doesn’t give men a framework of what it means to be a man—and subjectively molding masculinity to feminist thought isn’t good enough. Regardless, his work may be the most well-researched compilation of problems plaguing the modern male. Mothers, fathers, wives, employers, and educators are “really worried about boys and men,” Reeves emphasizes. “We need a pro-social vision of masculinity for a post-feminist world.”
Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It
by Richard V. Reeves
Brookings Institution Press, 256 pp., $28.99
Haley Strack is a senior at Hillsdale College.