Transcript: Richard V. Reeves
My interview with the Of Boys and Men author
There’s a group in our society who are in deep trouble. They lag behind in education and employment — and disproportionately die of suicides and drug overdoses.
Who am I talking about? I’m talking about boys and men.
My guest on the podcast today says that while this topic has long been taboo, it’s high time to have a conversation about it, as its impacts are felt all around us.
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Boys and Men Project. His new book is called Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the full interview for free here.
TH: Richard, welcome to Lean Out.
RR: Thank you for having me.
TH: Wonderful to have you here. What an interesting book. There is so much to talk about today. The status of boys and men is something that you’ve been thinking about for a long time, both in your day job as a policy scholar — and in your family life as a father to three boys. This is a deeply controversial field of inquiry, one that colleagues and friends warned you off of. What was the tipping point? When did you know that you were going to go ahead and write this book anyway?
RR: I think it may have been the fifth colleague warning me off. [Laughs] There came a point where I genuinely came to believe that if this is really an area that I can’t tackle even in this way, then we’re really in trouble. And we’ve created a self-reinforcing cycle, whereby we basically just say it’s a no-go zone for anybody who isn’t on the alt-right. Which means the only people writing about it are on the alt-right. Which means it becomes more of a no-go zone. And so it probably was a sense of, “Wow, okay, if this is really seen as such treacherous territory, then I’d better get into it.” And in my slightly earnest, boring, fact-driven Brookings-y way, maybe make it a little bit less so. Maybe make it slightly safer ground to tread on. It was that.
And also, a few of the facts weren’t getting quite enough attention. There was one moment in particular, in 2020. I was already pretty committed to doing the book at that point, but the fact that the college enrollment rate dropped seven times more for men than it did for women in that first year of the pandemic, with literally no commentary — it was a real light bulb moment for me. I was like, “Okay, that is something that should be getting some attention.” And it just wasn’t. So that was another moment. It was like, “Okay, there’s stuff here we should be talking about that we’re not.”
TH: Let’s set the stage here for listeners. You write in the book that in order to understand this culture shock from women’s economic independence, we need anthropologists as much as economists. What are we talking about, in broad strokes, when we talk about how the modern male is doing — in education, employment, and family? How bad is it?
RR: Well, it depends where you look and who you look at. So an important caveat here is that men at the top are still generally doing pretty well, at the top of the social and economic ladders. And there are some parts of society, of course, where there’s still quite a bit more work to do on behalf of women and girls. I am focused mostly on working class and middle class boys and men, especially Black boys and men. But let’s put a few facts on the table, just to get us going. In education, for example, women are now 15 percentage points more likely to get a college degree than men. In 1972, which was when Title IX was passed to promote women and girls, there was a gap in favor of men of 13 percentage points. So there’s a bigger gender gap on college campuses today than there was in ’72 when Title IX was passed. It’s just reversed, flipped the other way around.
There are lots of other examples in education too. That’s a relative story. That’s a share story, rather than an absolute one. In the labour market, there’s really a strongly negative absolute story. Which is that most American men today earn less than most American men did in 1979, which is a pretty extraordinary and brutal economic fact of life — just this backwards movement for men in the labour market. It’s been extraordinary. 10 million men with a high school diploma are out of the labour force altogether. A third of that group with a high school diploma are out of the labour market. And a lot of that then translates into family life, where you’ve seen a transformation in family life, with one in five fathers not in touch with their children, and obviously significantly increased family instability. Which is both a good and a bad thing, because it’s partly as the result of the greater choices that women in particular have about family life.
But the result of all that has been to create a disorienting and difficult environment for men. And again, working class men in particular. Then you can see the symptoms in things like suicide rates, opioid deaths, so-called “deaths of despair” that combine suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse, where the rates are at least three times higher for men than for women. And have risen by about 50 percent in the last two or three decades.
TH: The numbers really are staggering as you go through the book. You write about how we’ve torn up the old scripts for men and women, and the new one for women is working. I would beg to differ on that; I’ve written about that a fair bit. But let’s stick to men for now. If there is no new script for men right now, how do you think — you must have spent a lot of time thinking about this — how did we get to this point? How did nobody see this collateral damage coming?
RR: To be fair, a lot of conservatives did see it coming. Back in the 70s, social conservatives were warning that if we get women’s economic independence, we’ll be writing men out of the script, and that will be bad for everyone. Their prediction was that the men would act out en masse, in marauding bands of Mad Max-style criminality. And while, of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, it actually has been the other way around. We’ve seen a decline in violent crime in the last few decades and less male violence. So that has not transpired in the way that they feared. But they were right at least to say, “Hold on, what does this mean for men?” But their solution was let’s stop all this feminism stuff. Well, that was wrong morally, and they lost.
Whereas I think those focused on women and girls were, quite rightly, paying attention to the issues of women and girls. And at best what this meant for boys and men was always going to be a second-order question. And to some extent it was, “Well, get over yourselves. You’ve had ten thousand years. We’re going to get equality. If you can’t cope with that — that’s on you.” And I understand that from the point of view of the revolution that was being driven on women’s position.
But the result of the neglect of the issue from the left, and the failure to update to the times on the right, meant that no one was really taking this cultural task seriously. I think the left didn’t think it needed to happen and the right thought it was too late. To the extent they have got a script, it’s the old script. So, the left don’t think men need a script. Or if they do, it’s just, “Could you be less? Less of this masculinity thing would be good. Just dial everything down.” And the right just say, “Yeah, well, we need to go back to the 50s.” Neither of those are very helpful to men in the modern world.
TH: You do draw attention in particular to Black men and to working class men. This is something I have thought about a lot, because I started my career reporting on hip-hop — for the first six years — and that is the constituency of hip-hop. Can you unpack why these trends are impacting working class men and Black men particularly hard right now?
RR: I will do that. But I’m going to ask you a question, which is: You said a moment ago that you weren’t so sure about the new script for women working. I’m really intrigued to hear you talk a bit about that. Then I promise I’ll come back and answer your question. I know I’m not supposed to do this, but you put it out there. You put it out there, Tara.
TH: It’s fine. So, when I was turning 40, I did a documentary, 39, about exactly this issue: Is this script working for us as women? It was for the CBC in Canada. And I interviewed a lot of women, across a lot of backgrounds. What I discovered was that a lot of women felt that it was not working. That in some ways we had been sold a false bill of goods. That, for one thing, this script concentrated too many life events in the early 30s. So, you would need to be pushing your career really hard, but also trying to find a mate and trying to have children at the same time. And that produced really hectic life circumstances for those who could pull it off. But many could not pull it off. Many did not end up having children in time, biologically. Many felt like there were big gaps in their life that were missing.
A lot of women that I spoke to that did have careers and small children felt like they had no community and no female friendship and were really lonely. And so it felt like this script doesn’t work that well for women.
In the years since — I’m 46 and when I made that documentary I was 39 — in the years since, we’ve seen smartphones and how much that has impacted dating. It has made a lot of these trends even more difficult for women who are trying to juggle all these different forces all at once. And then a housing crisis has made it incredibly difficult for women to provide housing for themselves and move into that next stage of life when they want to. That’s it in a nutshell.
RR: Yeah, that’s super interesting. I think what you’re saying is that script was clear, but it wasn’t necessarily all it was cracked up to be. And what I’m saying is there isn’t a script for men. So you’re the script of economically independence. “You go girl. Have a career. Have a family.” The GirlBoss superwoman thing — that turned out in many, many ways to be challenging. But at least a very powerful message was sent to girls and women about what they should do. In some senses what happened, I think, was that women ended up with too much to do and men ended up with not enough to do …
TH: That’s such a good way of putting it.
RR: … as a result of these changes, because as men are like, “Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, no one seems to need me anymore.” So they drift. And as a woman it’s like, “Yeah, you can have everything. You’re going to have great career, great sex, great kids, great life, great food, great soft furnishings — if you just work harder.”
So I agree that there’s real downsides, and I would say that the structural problem there is that we just have failed to update our labour market institutions sufficiently for the world of dual earners, and for the world of women. It’s amazing to me, really, given the massive changes we’ve seen in women’s employment and family life, that our labour market institutions — and I would say in particular the career ladder — have just remained so unreformed. And so, it’s not just the day-to-day flexible working-type stuff, but I think the very shape of the way the career ladder works, and you’ve just identified it, in the 30s especially. It’s not just not family-friendly; it’s family hostile.
So, a big part of my argument around fatherhood and performing in the labour market is just there’s this huge gap. And so actually, I will come back to your question. Because although I think a lot of this conversation, and some of what we just talked about, has a very upper middle class, professional feel to it — and I’m not saying there aren’t problems there — but when you’re looking at people who are really at the sharp end of it, it is working class men. All the trends we just talked about — earnings, deaths of despair — are much more acute among lower income men. This lack of community, much greater. But Black men in particular face this intersection of disadvantage. So already for every two college degrees acquired by Black women, there’s only one acquired by Black men. Black men have seen almost no earnings growth, like working class men.
Meanwhile, white women have actually seen very strong earnings growth. For every dollar earned by a white woman, a Black man earns 84 cents. Whereas in ’79, Black men earned more than white women. White women have blown past Black men in the labour market. And so you’ve got to think intersectionally here — you’ve got to understand what’s going on at that different level. And just educationally, economically, it’s really hard, I think, to avoid the conclusion that Black boys and men are worse off, not despite being male, but in many cases because they are.
Because they’re seen as more of a threat, they’re criminalized, excluded, et cetera. And so I think that the really sharp end of this crisis is really being felt by Black men. And when I talk to Black men about this in my own life — one of my godsons said to me once, he said, “Look, this whole idea of toxic masculinity, you seem to think that’s a new idea. Well, Black men have been living with the idea of toxic masculinity for about as long as we can remember. Our masculinity has always been seen as toxic.”
So it’s kind of like a “welcome to the party, white guys” conversation. Because I do think that sense of the pathologizing of masculinity has always been true for Black men at that intersection. And so there’s a lot to be learned from that experience.
TH: It is interesting, though, that a lot of this toxic masculinity conversation comes from the progressive left now. I mean, that is noteworthy, isn’t it?
RR: Yeah, almost all of it, I would say, now. Interestingly, I would have said that when it was being applied to Black men, maybe you get more of a conservative voice around that. But yes, this is entirely a left-wing thing. And I should say that the term wasn’t really applied to Black men specifically. We talk about super predators, wolf packs, et cetera— there are all kinds of stereotypes. For Black women too, to be clear. But for Black men, there were a lot of stereotypes around what their masculinity was like.
Toxic masculinity as a term didn’t exist outside the margins of academia until 2016. And then it sort of burst out, and became a very common term. And, I think, an unhelpful one. Because it now is just used pretty indiscriminately to describe any behaviour by boys or men that we don’t like. And so, it’s all toxic. The definition of toxicity has been spread so wide now as to become unhelpful. And also just the evidence is that it just is not a phrase that is helpful to boys and men. If you’re trying to help boys and men adapt to the modern world, then saying, “You just need less toxic masculinity” just doesn’t seem to be a good strategy.
TH: One thing I’ve been wondering about a lot, reading the book, thinking about it, reflecting on it — this is particularly relevant given that we’re speaking on the day of the American midterm elections — is how much of the political polarization that we’re seeing do you think is attributable to this rift between the sexes? How much of this shouting between the far left and the far right is actually shouting between men and women?
RR: I think there’s a lot of that. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump won with the biggest gender gap in recorded exit polling history in 2016. Biden won back some college-educated men in 2020. But now actually, we’re seeing quite a strong move of Hispanic and Black men towards the Republicans. That was happening anyway.
It’s obviously swamped by class. Class is a much bigger divide, and that does proxy to education. But because education is increasingly correlated with gender, actually the class divide is overlapping with the gender divide. So if you’re appealing to college-educated folks, then more and more of those are women.
You take the proposal to cancel student debt — two-thirds of student debt is held by women. So that was a very pro-women, pro-college educated women policy. But I would say that part of the divide is not just between men and women, it’s about men and women. It’s about the ideas around men and women. I think that’s really become a very big part of the cultural politics. And so the right have really managed to take these male problems and turn them into grievances, and weaponize them against the left by pointing out that the left just goes on about toxic masculinity, is obsessed with trans rights, et cetera. Josh Hawley has become a very outspoken critic, saying, “Look, the men are suffering because the left hates you.” It’s basically the message. And it’s quite a powerful message because the left do enough to give that plausibility.
Meanwhile, on the left, because they are really diving down and trying to get out as many women’s votes as possible, there’s just a refusal to even acknowledge that there’s anything here to see. Which of course creates a huge vacuum. Which of course someone is then going to take up. So you’ve sort of got — crudely put, I see the left as turning their backs on boys and men, and the right responding by wanting to turn back the clock on women and girls. And meanwhile, most of us are in the middle trying to figure out how to have a world that’s equal but not androgynous. And we’re as worried about our sons as our daughters, and we want gender equality. It’s hard, basically. And this culture war, this air war that’s going on above us, mostly misses the point. And you are seeing that playing out. I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon. And it frustrates me hugely to see a failure by more responsible leaders on both sides, just to address this in a more responsible way.
I do think it’s an axiom of political life that if there are real problems and responsible people don’t address them, then irresponsible people will exploit them. And I think we’re seeing that now.
TH: Another thing I wanted to spend a moment on is the manosphere. On incels. As one evolutionary psychologist in the book that you quote puts it, the “math problem of surplus men.” I have been shocked at how little sympathy there is for this type of male pain, particularly in relation to suicides, overdoses. Musa al-Gharbi from Columbia recently gave a great talk, and he pointed out that the desire to love and be loved, for physical intimacy, to build a life with someone — these are not peripheral concerns. They strike at the heart of what it means to be human. I thought we’d already acknowledged all of this in the gay marriage conversation. Why is there so little empathy for men in this context?
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