Opinion: What ails the American male?

photo by: Contributed

Mona Charen

Throughout most of Richard Reeves’ excellent new book, “Of Boys and Men,” I wasn’t just nodding along; I was foot-stomping. As a culture, we remain stubbornly attached to the notion that girls and women need encouragement to bring them into full equality with males in school, in the workplace, in sports — well, pretty much everywhere. There is nothing wrong with that, but as Reeves and a handful of others have observed over the last two decades, this focus is significantly out of date.

In reality, girls are outperforming boys in education — and not by a little. As Reeves observes, girls now account for 66% of high schoolers ranked in the top 10% of their classes, while boys comprise a similar percentage of those in the bottom decile. Girls are more likely than boys to be enrolled in AP and IB classes, and more likely to graduate on time than boys. The gender gap in college attendance and graduation is huge. In the United States, 57% of bachelor’s degrees now go to women, as well as three out of five master’s degrees, and the majority of doctorates (though men still strongly dominate Ph.D.s in math, computer science, engineering and the physical sciences).

Despite the constant invocations of male power and dominance in the workplace, the past several decades have seen a sharp drop in the number of men participating in the labor force at all. One in three men without a high school diploma is out of the workforce. Even before COVID, there were 9 million prime-age men (between 25 and 54 years old) who were not employed. Bear in mind that this category is separate from those who were counted as “unemployed” during this period. The “missing men” were simply out of the workforce altogether. They weren’t laid off. They weren’t looking for work. At the same time, women’s labor force participation has steadily increased (though fluctuating in response to recessions and COVID).

Our society is in the grip of a male recession. Reeves believes that both justice and the general welfare demand some creative thinking about the way we teach boys and treat men. The men who are failing to perform at school and work are also more likely to be disconnected from family, which is damaging not just to the men themselves (who are lonely and prone to deaths of despair), but to the children they father but do not parent.

Involved fathers are important. As Melanie Wasserman and others have shown, boys seem to suffer more than girls when they are raised without fathers. So we’re in a negative feedback loop. Boys raised without fathers often fail to grow up to become the kind of men women want to marry. And in turn, the shortage of marriageable men means that more kids will be raised by single moms, and on and on we go. (Same-sex couples are not included in this data.)

Reeves offers a number of sound policy proposals, starting with elementary education. Noting that boys’ brains mature more slowly than girls’, he suggests holding boys back one year from starting kindergarten. Many private schools already recommend this, and some parents have hit on the technique themselves.

He also recommends a big federal effort to get more men into teaching, particularly in the younger grades. “It ought to be a source of national shame that only 3% of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are men.” Additionally, Reeves would like to see a big national effort to get men into female-dominated fields, the so-called HEAL occupations — health, education, administration and literacy. He notes with approval the huge national effort that has gone into encouraging women to take up STEM careers, citing, as just one example, the Society of Women Engineers, which has a headquarters staff of 36 and about $19 million in assets. “The society does an amazing job of providing speaker programs, financial support to students through scholarships, professional development opportunities, as well as effective advocacy and lobbying. By contrast, the men-into-HEAL movement is essentially nonexistent.”

This is all helpful. I’m less enamored of universal pre-K than Reeves, but find the redshirting idea inspired and believe efforts to enhance male participation in fields like education and nursing to be overdue.

Where I sense that Reeves and I disagree is on the topic of marriage. He seems content to accept that unmarriage is the new norm. But that’s not true of the college-educated upper third.

Most college-educated men and women are marrying and raising children in roughly the same proportions as most Americans did in the 1950s. (This is in marked contrast to patterns among the poor and near poor.) Marriage has matured and changed. A 2019 Pew survey found that 68% of Americans favored an egalitarian form of marriage in which both parents work and both take care of the children.

Nor is it just a matter of income. Poor and working-class children whose parents are married tend to have much better outcomes than those from single-parent homes, including drastically lower chances of winding up in prison and unemployed as adults.

Reeves is, indubitably, pro-family. Why not promote matrimony with as much enthusiasm as later kindergarten? Reeves isn’t shy about recommending big “cultural shifts,” so I hope he’ll reconsider. Matrimony is a key ingredient in helping boys become better men.

— Mona Charen, policy editor of The Bulwark, is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.


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