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Richard Reeves on why the modern male is struggling, and what to do about it

Construction workers line up on a safety rail at the site watched the topping off ceremony as Samuels & Associates tops off Parcel 12, an air-rights project being built over the Massachusetts Turnpike at Newbury and Boylston streets and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston on June 7, 2022. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Construction workers line up on a safety rail at the site watched the topping off ceremony as Samuels & Associates tops off Parcel 12, an air-rights project being built over the Massachusetts Turnpike at Newbury and Boylston streets and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston on June 7, 2022. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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Many men and boys today are struggling.

At work, school, at home, in themselves.

And scholar Richard Reeves thinks it’s even hurting our politics.

“We do need a positive script for masculinity, but it has to be compatible with gender equality,” Richard Reeves says. “And the left turn their back on boys and men, and the right respond by wanting to turn back the clock on women and girls.”

Today, On Point: Richard Reeves on what he calls male malaise — and how true gender equality means supporting men, too.


Richard Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies. Director of the Future of the Middle-Class Initiative. Author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do about It. (@RichardvReeves)

Interview Highlights

On why the modern male is struggling

Richard Reeves: “I do think it’s pretty clear now that in the education system and in terms of many aspects of mental health, boys are really struggling. That isn’t to say that girls aren’t also struggling, but in different ways. And certainly in terms of the education system, girls and young women have just blown right past boys and men. There’s actually a bigger gender gap in education today than there was 50 years ago.

“It’s just the other way round, to the one that it was when we’re used to talking about gender equality. And of course, then if the boys are struggling, it’s going to be harder for them in the labor market. So these things are all connected. And then of course, it’s harder in family life, too. So I think it’s very important that we can hold all these thoughts in our head at once.

Why does understanding male malaise matter?

Richard Reeves: “It matters, first of all, because it matters for their chances of a flourishing life. I mean, just at the end of that excellent conversation you had with David, he talked about these maladaptive behaviors of what’s happening to men. But one of the results of the struggles that men are having is something called a death of despair. From either suicide or drug overdose, alcohol, all of which are much higher among men. So men are about three times higher risk of a death of despair from one of those three causes than women.

“And the rate has increased by more than 50% in the last two decades. And so you see actually this sense of drift, but worse than that, of redundancy among men. There’s a very good study of male suicides by Fiona Shand and her colleagues, that really struck me. They looked at the words that men used to describe themselves just before they committed suicide or attempted suicide. And the two words most commonly used by men as self-description were useless and worthless. And if you end up with an economy or a society where people, regardless of who they are, feel like there’s no use for them or no worth to them.

“Then you see the consequences in terms of these overdose deaths, suicides, etc. So just on a purely human level, we should care. But also, we should care because actually a world of struggling man is not a great world for lots of women. What’s happening is that because so many men are struggling in one way or the other, women are actually ending up having to do a lot more than they would otherwise do.

“They’re working what Arlie Hochschild calls the double shift of both being the breadwinner and the carer. And we obviously want an egalitarian division of labor, but it’s quite clear that women are having to pick up quite a lot of the slack that’s being left by the struggles of men. So it’s not only worrying about boys and men is compatible with ideals of gender equality. I would argue it’s now necessary to achieving those goals. Otherwise, you just end up with a world where women are having to do more and more, and men are struggling to do anything at all.”

On the changing concept of fatherhood

Richard Reeves: “For about as long as we know, that role of provider has been central to male identity and to the construction of masculinity. What it means to be a successful, to be a good man, is to be a provider. And what’s happened in the last few decades is that role has become, you can’t presume it anymore. The central goal of the women’s movement was to secure, postwar women’s movement anyway, was to secure more economic independence for women. And that’s been not fully achieved, but really significantly achieved.

“We now live in a world where 40% of women earn more than the typical man, where 40% of breadwinners in the U.S. are women. This is a gigantic social change which is entirely positive, looked at through one lens, and we should certainly celebrate it. But on the other hand, it does raise this question, which is, well, what about the men? What does it mean to be a guy in a world where that role of provider can no longer be presumed? What it means is that we urgently, desperately need to update our models of fatherhood, especially, and of masculinity, to fit with this new world.

“And the problem is that for different reasons, neither left nor right are taking that cultural task seriously. And because of that, there’s a lack of a script, honestly, for a lot of men, a lot of men will say they know what they’re not supposed to do. But actually, when you ask them, what are you supposed to do? They don’t ever have a good answer, that creates a massive vacuum.”

What would positive masculinity look like?

Richard Reeves: “What does mature masculinity look like and how is it both distinct from, overlapping with, and complementary to femininity? Both of your callers, I think have spoken to this first in different ways. And I think, first of all, it’s just a recognition that on average, we are going to see some differences between the preferences of men and women. For example, around their pursuing things rather than people. Some of the ways they spend their time, etc.

“But I’m going to give you a quote, nearly 100 years old from a headmaster of Stowe School in England. And he said his job was to turn boys into men who would be acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck. Now, I’ve been asked to modernize that phrase. I can’t really improve on it, because what it’s getting at is a sense that as a man, you have to learn how to conduct yourself in society, how you interact with women in a way that’s respectful, recognizing difference, but absolutely insisting on equality.

“But also when the ship starts sinking, there is something quite important there about the role of men. Men are willing to take more risks physically than women, again, on average. But there’s a big difference there, and we should be celebrating that, too. And so recognizing that there is something about physical courage, but also this ability to conduct yourself in society is incredibly important. It’s back to these relational skills you’re talking about before, and we only get there by recognizing that there are some differences between boys and girls, and men and women.

“And so we have to be educating our boys to conduct themselves in this world as men, but also as equal partners to women. That’s a difficult task for sure, but I really don’t think we’re … taking the fact that the task exists that seriously at the moment, because we’re tending to just try and expunge masculinity, which just drives people to the right.”

Book Excerpt

Courtesy of Brookings Institution Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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