Millions of Men Are in Crisis—and It’s Time We Talk About It, Says Scholar Richard Reeves. Here’s How to Start
When the news hit this week that Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman checked himself into the hospital to receive treatment for clinical depression, we saw an outpouring of love. Many praised Fetterman’s honesty and said it would help tear down the stigma of depression and anxiety. The U.S. Surgeon General tweeted that he hopes “Senator Fetterman’s courage will serve as an example for others.”
As a national figure, Senator Fetterman is shining a light on an important topic and receiving incredible support. But the reality is that millions of boys and men are struggling in this country—and they’re suffering in solitude.
The suicide rate among males is nearly four times higher than the rate among females. Deaths from drug overdose and alcohol are also much higher among men. There’s a growing chasm in education achievement as well: Young women are more likely to graduate high school on time; they’re more likely to get a college degree; and in 2020, the decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male students than their female counterparts.
During the last few decades—a time when women have made major strides when it comes to gender equality—boys and men have struggled.
Richard V. Reeves, a journalist, Brookings Institution scholar, and father of three sons has spent the last two decades researching this crisis of boyhood and manhood. In his book, Of Boys and Men, Reeves looks at the economic and social changes that have led to boys and men losing ground at school, work, and home—and what that means for all of us.
The Sunday Paper sat down with Reeves to discuss this urgent and complex issue, why talking about the struggles among boys and men is often viewed as controversial or anti-feminist, and what all of us can do to ensure we strive for equality of compassion along with equality of opportunity.
A CONVERSATION WITH RICHARD V. REEVES
You have been studying all kinds of inequality and poverty for a long time. How did your research turn to boys and men?
I raised three boys, all of whom are now in their 20s now. My boys are white, upper middle class; they have the resources and space to figure things out. But when I was trying to explain to my sons that there used to be a time when women weren’t ahead in education, they were shocked. For them, and for most boys these days, it’s a given that girls are going to hand it to them in the classroom.
My work has always been driven by a desire to figure out the obstacles to human flourishing. What are the economic and social factors getting in the way of people being able to lead good lives? That led me to look at higher education and housing, and as I looked at that, I kept seeing these gender gaps that we weren’t used to thinking about when it comes to gender and equality. And I didn’t think these facts—the many ways boys and men are struggling right now—were getting enough or the right kind of attention.
In fact, what I saw was these stats being picked up and successfully weaponized. And I came to believe this truth about societies and culture: If there are real problems in society and responsible people don’t address them, then irresponsible people will exploit them.
For various reasons, it’s been hard for mainstream institutions to say, “Look, here’s a bunch of ways boys and men are struggling right now—let’s deal with this!” Thankfully, I think people are realizing a world of floundering men is hard to turn into a world of flourishing women.
There was a widely shared New York Times article last week on men needing purpose more than respect. Why do you believe it struck a nerve?
This idea of moving beyond respect to purpose—it’s a really important move. I would go one step further: The universal human need is to be needed. That sense of neededness is critical, and it is more fragile and more socially constructed in men than it is in women. I think what’s going on here is that we’re not paying enough attention to the task of ensuring everybody—men and women equally—have this sense of being needed by family, employers, our communities, and society.
The truth is that we’ve always had to construct this role for men. There’s a quote in my book by anthropologist Margaret Mead, which I love: “Every known human society has rested on the learned nurturing behavior of men. This behavior, being learned, is fragile and can disappear easily under circumstances that no longer teach it effectively.”
The rise of women and the securing of women’s economic independence—which, I argue, is the greatest economic liberation in human history and an absolutely wonderful thing—has had the effect of exposing the fragility of male identity.
Women’s economic independence has exposed the fragility of male identity?
I do not say this as a slur; I mean it in a much deeper sense.
It has been the task of every culture to think hard about how to construct masculinity. Because we’ve been quite rightly focused on gender equality, and we’ve made huge progress at that.
It’s hard to simultaneously have the thought: Wait, now what does it mean to be a successful man? What does male purpose look like in a world of gender equality and female independence? We’ve never really had to ask the question in this way before.
Today, 40 percent of women earn more than the average man. In 1979, just 13 percent of women earned more. Today, 40 percent of breadwinners in U.S. households are women. These are glorious changes! But the transformation is remarkable.
When my dad became unemployed, there was no question that his job was to get another job. There was a simplicity and clarity of male and female roles in those days. Of course, the problem was it was based on unjust inequality. But one of the advantages was that there was a very clear script for men and women.
Now, we have successfully rewritten the script for women in an expansive and empowering way: We’ve sent the message to girls and women that they can do anything. It’s an incredibly liberating and expansive message that’s broadened and enlarged the possibilities for women. In the space of a generation, we tore up the script for my mom (be a wife and mother) and wrote a new one for my wife (you go be an educational and economic equal!).
At the same time, we tore up the script my dad had (be the provider) but we forgot to re-write it. The result? Without a script, men must improvise their way to purpose, status, and security in the world. And improvising is hard, especially for those without skills, status, or economic resources. And that can lead boys and men to some really dark places as a result.
You argue that it’s crucial to acknowledge the problems for boys and men while also considering the many issues facing girls and women? Why are so many of us reluctant to hold these two thoughts at the same time?
I was warned against writing my book, Of Boys and Men. “People will think you’re one of them—one of those crazy men’s rights activists on the fringe,” I was told. That made me sure I had to write this book. If the mere fact of drawing attention to male struggle marks you as reactionary men’s rights activist, then we’ve created this horrible vacuum in our public debate.
So, I thought in my boring, chart-filled, policy wonkiness, fact-checked, balanced, non-partisan, boring way, I can address this issue. Maybe it’ll be of service.
I’m a passionate advocate for women! But I heard from a lot of women who were extremely worried about boys and men in private but didn’t want to say anything in public because they felt it would diminish their feminist cred. What I attempted to do is build a bridge between those private and public conversations. Liberal women are more worried about girls in society, but they’re even more worried about their sons than their daughters. These are parents who went on the women’s march—and then went home to help their sons do their chemistry homework. I’m one of those parents!
You don’t have to hang your support of women at the door to have a conversation about boys and men. In fact, that would be unhelpful. We have to work out these things together.
What’s the result of our public silence about the struggles boys and men are facing today?
To be blunt: It’s made the crazy people sound less crazy than they should. People like Andrew Tate say “they” don’t care about us—they being the government, think tanks, mainstream media, and us being men—and point to all this evidence that kind of supports his case.
I want to be able to say to these men’s rights activists on the fringe, “What are you talking about? There are all these men’s initiatives going on.” But the truth is that these initiatives aren’t happening like they are for girls and women.
I think one of the reasons why we hear so much about the continued problems facing women and girls is that there are dozens of departments, agencies, and organizations looking at the issues impacting women and girls. I hugely support that work. The problem is that if there are no equivalent institutions on the other side, you end up with an asymmetric public discourse. For example, male college enrollment dropped 7 times more than it did for females in 2020. But nobody paid attention to that figure. I will run the risk of falling more on the men’s rights side by saying this, but I will say it: If female college enrollment dropped 7 times more than male enrollment, it would’ve received a lot of attention.
You write that the phrase “toxic masculinity” is counterproductive. Why is that?
The term “toxic masculinity” used to be narrowly defined, and it was never cited more than 12 times a year. After the Trump years and #metoo movement, the term exploded—and it was applied way too broadly to everything, from COVID, to war, to climate change. It’s a broad-brush term that we use on anything boys or men do that we don’t like.
At Bethesda High School, a group of boys made a list of girls they fancied and girls they didn’t. The local newspaper described the school as a “hot bed of toxic masculinity.” Really? I think what was really happening there is the difference between mature and immature masculinity.
What people talk about when they use the phrase “toxic masculinity” is really just immature. It’s boorish, not very constrained, unsophisticated, cartoonish—it’s basically Donald Trump. What he did was express a kind of adolescent masculinity: petulant, hormonal, often veering from arrogant to insecure. Masculinity as a hot mess. The thing about adolescents is they are a hot mess. As we grow up, we become less of a hot mess. In short, we grow up!
For those of us worried about the boys and men in our lives, what is your best advice?
It turns out the presumption of the rugged individualist, self-reliant male turns out to be the opposite of true: Men are sensitive to the environment, and more in need of clearly articulated roles than women at this moment in time. Boys and men shouldn’t get special treatment, but nor should we make the mistake that assuming somehow by being male, life is easier. Because that’s certainly not true today.
All of us can make sure the boys and men in our lives feel as valued as the girls and women in our lives. If a boy or man is struggling in school, at dating, in life, have some compassion.
Making sure we have equality of compassion as well as equality of opportunity is a good place to start.
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Boys and Men Project and holds the John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead Chair. He is the author of Dream Hoarders (2017) and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.
Question from the Editor: How has this interview with Richard Reeves opened your mind to the ways boys and men are struggling? What are some ways you will help shine a light on this topic going forward?