Published November 10, 2022
If James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, released his 1966 hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” today, he’d have some updating to do.
Girls perform better than boys in school. Women surpass men in the number of bachelor’s and graduate degrees handed out each year and have for some time. The wage gap between men and women is now predominantly due to childbearing rather than to sex-based discrimination. Men have higher rates of loneliness, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
All the while, a nonprofit–industrial complex has mobilized around pink-branded goals such as closing the gender wage gap and increasing female representation in traditionally male industries. Last year, the Biden administration released a National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, which offered “an intersectional approach” on “ten interconnected priorities” to “address longstanding gender discrimination and the systemic barriers to full participation that have held back women and girls.” So many buzzwords, so little time.
Calling attention to the struggles facing men and boys, meanwhile, is often rewarded with a stink eye in polite company. Conservative writers, from Nick Eberstadt to Christina Hoff Sommers to Kay Hymowitz to Oren Cass, have raised concerns about the plight of working-class men. In return, they have been accused of trying to turn back the clock to the 1950s, or of ignoring the barriers that still keep women from “having it all.”
In his new book, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves does these conservatives a tremendous service. Of Boys and Men successfully launders their concerns to make them palatable to a center-Left audience. If even a senior fellow at one of the think tanks of establishment liberalism is now able to openly address the “urgent crisis of boyhood and manhood,” can politicians and the media talk about it as well?
Of Boys and Men is exceedingly readable; members of Congress would be able to finish it on their next flight back to D.C., and every one of them should do so. As in his previous book, Dream Hoarders, Reeves demonstrates a talent for incorporating scholarly work without overwhelming the narrative he is trying to tell.
And that story deserves attention. Men, particularly those without a college degree, have had trouble adjusting to an economy that increasingly prizes emotional intelligence and that can mechanize or offshore tasks requiring brute strength or physical endurance. “While women’s wages have risen across the board over the last four decades,” Reeves notes, “wages for men on most rungs of the earnings ladder have stagnated.”
At the same time, cultural changes have helped women be more economically independent, reducing the necessity of the male role as breadwinner. As a result, Reeves says, “many men are left feeling dislocated.”
The individualistic push in culture and in family law “liberated” romantic companionship from marriage, “liberated” the role of parent from the bonds of family, and “liberated” individuals to divorce more easily. Now, working-class men have been likewise “liberated” to face a life of increasing isolation, alienation, and expendability. Recalling Gloria Steinem’s famous advertisement for feminism, Reeves asks, “What is a bicycle for, in a world of fish?”
Reeves sees both the Right and the Left as having failed to respond adequately. He argues progressives are “in denial” that gender inequality can be a two-way street. The Left, he says, should move past the “zero-sum thinking” that holds “even acknowledging the problems of boys and men will somehow weaken efforts for women and girls.”
And he is candid about the fact that many social programs have had little effect on low-income men. Interventions such as the highly touted Kalamazoo Promise scholarship, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth’s promising case-management approach, and federal job-training programs can help women finish their education and get out of poverty. But such efforts have done little for men. (Apprenticeships, shop class, and other “hands-on” ways of developing skills, however, could offer more promise.)
Meanwhile, he faults the Right for being overinvested in narratives of victimhood. “Many conservatives fuel male grievances for political gain,” he worries. And many on the right “overweight the importance of biological sex differences for gender roles” and “see the solution to men’s problem as lying in the past.”
His critiques draw some blood. Conservative populists, in particular, have the tendency to offer an oddly glamorized vision of backbreaking manual labor that would be unrecognizable to those who toiled in the coal mines or factories of the past. Reversing course on female educational attainment, so that more women would be content to be full-time stay-at-home moms, is not only impossible but politically toxic (not least to conservative women). And the popular understanding of masculinity as something wrapped up in beer, broads, beards, and beef might sum up the interests of what The Lamp’s Matthew Walther has called the “barstool conservative,” but it does nothing but indulge men in the “extended adolescence” identified by Hymowitz in her book Manning Up.
The problems Reeves identifies are real and deep, and require soul-searching and better responses from policy-makers and our cultural institutions. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the policies he suggests quite live up to the scale of the issue.
For instance, his chapter arguing for delaying boys’ entrance to kindergarten for a year (known as “redshirting”) partly relies on studies by education researcher Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. But Schanzenbach herself wrote in a 2017 Education Next piece that “redshirting at the kindergarten level bestows few benefits and exacts some substantial costs,” not least of which is one fewer year in which to earn a salary. Likewise, Reeves’s emphasis on getting men more involved in “HEAL” occupations — health, education, administration, and literacy — struck me as somewhat of a mismatch. The goals of eradicating what he calls the “national shame” of 97 percent of early-childhood teachers being female, or increasing male representation among social workers or psychologists, don’t seem entirely responsive to the needs of men who prefer work that doesn’t require long hours sitting in a classroom to prepare for.
Rather than creating new male-specific career initiatives to counterbalance the female-oriented ones, politicians should get back to basics. An agenda aimed at better career and technical education would benefit workers of either gender with little interest in spending two, four, or more years in college, without dabbling in social engineering. Is it naïve to ask policy-makers to simply focus on creating the conditions for productivity growth, tight labor markets, and rising wages rather than worrying about the gender composition of specific industries?
On the home front, Reeves bravely calls out progressives for downplaying the importance of fathers out of fear of running afoul of different identity groups. He describes “a world where women don’t need men, but children still need their dads,” which is at least half right.
But Reeves seems to think we can create a new model of fatherhood without reviving the institution that is most likely to make committed fathers. “Pro-social masculinity no longer means having to get married or having to be the main breadwinner,” he says, “but it does mean stepping into the role of father.”
Yet we now have over a half century’s worth of evidence that men are much less likely to be committed fathers without the bond that marriage creates to the child and the child’s mother. Social scientists can dispute whether marriage causes men to act more responsibly or whether more-responsible men are more likely to get married. But whichever way that linkage runs, marriage plays an essential role in providing something to commit to, and live for.
Trying to invent a new social script around committed fatherhood seems a lot more challenging than trying to revivify an older one around new norms of mutual partnership and support. A committed two-parent household, after all, is not just better for the kids but lessens the strain on Mom as well.
Conservatives should meet Reeves halfway on developing new policies around parental leave and making it easier for parents of either gender to move in and out of the workforce at different times. But liberals would ideally match that by joining in the project of reducing economic barriers to marriage, and, as Reeves endorses, expanding pathways to work that do not require four years of sitting in a classroom. These steps, aimed at helping working-class men to be true partners, rather than necessarily sole breadwinners, would help create something for their lives to be oriented towards. And they seem more likely to succeed than focus groups on how to get more men to sign up for nursing school.
Even if we no longer live in a “man’s world,” the Godfather of Soul was still right about something: “Without a woman or a girl,” he sang, a man is too easily “lost in the wilderness, he’s lost in the bitterness.” Too many men are lost, lonely, and adrift. Reeves’s solutions alone may not be enough to change the fortunes of working-class men, but Of Boys and Men at least gives the chattering classes permission to talk about how we can better help them escape the wilderness.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.