Men and boys are struggling. For all the talk of “toxic masculinity,” men and boys are losing ground and straining to find meaning in their lives. As the world has changed and women have increasingly found ways to advance, men and boys have lagged behind and have not adjusted well to the realities of an evolving society.
In a remarkable new book entitled Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow in Economics Studies at the Brookings Institute, he opines that deaths of despair (suicide, drug addiction) are almost three times higher among men than women. Men report a higher degree of loneliness than women. They have fewer friends. This leads to an increased risk of isolation, purposelessness, and disconnection from social relations and engagement with a meaningful social network.
Women, on the other hand, have been more successful in establishing social connections. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that women were much more likely than men to report living a life of meaning and finding satisfaction from a broader range of sources. Consider that girls have consistently outperformed boys in school. High school girls have had a higher grade point average for the past fifty years, and that gap has grown wider by the decade. Girls are more likely to take Advanced Placement classes, and while boys are still somewhat leading in standardized test scores, the gap has closed significantly. Boys are less likely than girls to graduate from high school in the United States. Reeves further reports:
- 57% of bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women, including from schools of business
- Women receive the majority of law degrees, up from one in twenty in 1970
- Women earn three of five master’s degrees
- Doctoral degrees for women (law, medicine, dentistry) have risen from 7% of those awarded in 1972 to 50% in 2019
This data suggests that women’s lives have skyrocketed over the past fifty years while men’s lives have stagnated. The man’s primary societal role for generations has been of the provider. With the advances women have made in the career world, there is a decreasing incentive to marry for financial security. Indeed, many women today far out-earn their male partners. The result has been a rebalancing of power relations between men and women that has rendered men’s traditional roles largely obsolete. While women have redefined their roles, men have not.
Certainly, there are still many powerful, successful men in the upper rung of society. But this represents only a small percentage of the male population. The great majority of men are searching for identity, purpose, and meaning. Unless this trend changes, the futures of America’s boys will become increasingly precarious.
Consider the phenomenon of “failure to launch.” How many of America’s daughters are stuck in their parent’s basements playing video games and failing to thrive? How many sex crimes are committed by women? How many horrendous shootings are perpetrated by girls and women? The answer to these questions is clear. Very few. Most of today’s behavioral breakdowns are squarely within the purview of boys and men.
So, what are we to do? Rolling back the clock to the old days is a tempting cry, but it will be futile and ultimately not good for society. Reeves advocates:
- We need to help our boys adapt to the changing realities of the new world of equity and equality. This means that men’s roles need to be defined by more than just the traditional role of breadwinner and provider.
- The expansion and greater engagement of men in roles of hands-on fatherhood. He contends that a stronger family role for fathers would benefit children and men by providing them with a powerful additional source of meaning and purpose.
- Men need to be taught the importance of stronger and more connected emotional lives. We have seen, particularly considering the social distancing and working from home necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in depression, isolation, and loneliness in men.
True, COVID-19 has also strained the relational lives of some women, but our early data strongly indicates that this has been a significantly greater problem for men than women. Women have managed to maintain social relationships during these trying times much more successfully than men.
There are no quick and simple solutions here. But we need to be mindful that the gender gap runs in both directions. The narrative of men being the more powerful sex is becoming increasingly obsolete. The data is clear. Men are struggling, especially our young men and boys. We need to help them redefine maleness, masculinity, and meaning. We need to help our boys become more like our girls, who are hungry and seek opportunities for expanded roles. The world is changing. Men and boys need to be changing with it. And the time is now.
Advocating for the development of boys does not run counter to encouraging the continued advancement of girls. Indeed, they go hand in hand. Helping men and boys redefine the meaning and purpose of life benefit us all. This may sound like a monumental effort, and it is. Our leaders need to step up and create policies and programs that promote true gender equality, including expanding opportunities for men to be better fathers, partners, and friends. In the meantime, we can look at our own lives. Change begins at home. Let’s help the men and boys in our own families take the steps needed to move forward and redefine the role of maleness. We will all be better for it.
Dr. Daniel N. Watter received his doctoral degree from New York University in 1985 and has also earned a post-graduate certificate in Medical Humanities from Drew University. He is licensed as both a psychologist and a marital and family therapist.