MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is out this week, I'm Micah Loewinger. This January saw a record number of mass shootings.
NEWS CLIP A mass shooting in Florida that the police chief there calls the most people he has ever seen shot at one time.
NEWS CLIP Authorities saying that three people have been shot at the Potomac Avenue metro station there.
NEWS CLIP Heartbreak and outrage tonight in West Baltimore as our city sees yet another mass shooting.
MICAH LOEWINGER These kinds of tragedies have historically shared some things in common. At least half featured weapons purchased legally. The perpetrators usually range in age from their late teens to early forties. And then there's this.
NEWS CLIP According to the Violence Project, a nonpartisan research group, 98% of these crimes have been committed by men. That's from data going back to 1966.
MICAH LOEWINGER But men don't just hurt others. They self harm, too.
NEWS CLIP Numbers show men are 3 to 4 times more likely to die by suicide than women.
MICAH LOEWINGER A recent New Yorker piece, “What's The Matter With Men” chronicled how boys are falling behind in school and in the job market. All data points that have been boiled down to meet zingers on the talk shows.
NEWS CLIP That's a lot of maleness coming to the fore and announcing itself in violence and racism because they're lonely and lost...
NEWS CLIP They have grown up in this culture, which everyone from politicians to oh – Gillette and many major firms have said, you know, men are the problem. Masculinity is the problem.
MICAH LOEWINGER And on the Internet, the manosphere has found its most viral messenger yet in Andrew Tate, an influencer who was arrested in Romania on allegations of rape and human trafficking.
ANDREW TATE Not only should women clean up, women should clean up, unprompted. I pay for things unprompted. You don't have to ask me. I'll get my wallet out, don't even check the price of the bill. My card always works. So when you walk into a house and you see mess, why is your lazy ass not doing the right thing and start picking and cleaning up? This is the whole world we live in now. Double standards. It's okay for me to do the masculine thing, but it's not okay for you to do the feminine thing. Women should clean.
MICAH LOEWINGER Everywhere I look, I see coverage of big problems affecting or caused by men. Yes, some of this is political rhetoric – fanning flames, but some of it reflects real anxiety. A 2020 academic study titled the “American Family Survey” found that conservative and liberal parents alike said they were more worried for their sons than their daughters.
NEWS CLIP I have an eight year old son and I'm seeing him absorb what manliness might mean.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is the moderator of a YouTube debate organized by VICE last month between so-called modernists and traditionalists featuring non-binary people, gay men, black men, white men and Asian men.
VICE CLIP When I was young, being a man, you had to be tough. And now, to me, being a man is a lot different. Now to me, being a man is knowing when to be soft, knowing that you don't always have to run the charge. You can actually listen.
VICE CLIP My take on masculinity is not about talking as much as doing. A man has to be efficient, competent, and be willing to do what it takes for themselves and their loved ones.
VICE CLIP I believe manhood is clearly defined by God. It is the perfect example of what a man should be.
VICE CLIP I'm not really masculine myself, so I feel like I'm like the wrong person to ask.
MICAH LOEWINGER Richard Reeves is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters and What to Do About It. He says the mainstream political discourse around men is fundamentally broken. Richard, welcome to the show.
RICHARD REEVES I'm happy to be here. I should be clear at the outset that my focus here is on the approximately 95% of men who are cisgender and heterosexual. It's not that there aren't many, many other issues, some of which overlap for other men, but this is squarely focused at that particular group of men.
MICAH LOEWINGER You write about how many advised you against writing this book. I also want to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance of the thesis and the book that some listeners might identify, which is that men and boys are struggling at a time when men still very much run our society. And there are many ways you could quantify this. There are three times as many men in Congress than women. Less than 10% of the Fortune 500 companies are run by women. And casual misogyny is pervasive throughout our culture.
RICHARD REEVES The way you answer the question depends on where you look. So if you look at the apex of our society, it's absolutely true that there is still a long way to go. And I would say, especially in the U.S. in terms of female representation in politics, for example, and in boardrooms and in other areas of society. And as it happens, I'm married to a woman who's trying to raise money right now for a start up business. And so I know in a very personal level that only 3% of capital venture money goes to female founders. I'm reminded of that on a, I think, a daily basis. But those challenges remain largely at the top of society. But if we look further down, then we see a very, very different picture for working class men, for black boys and men, those with less economic power. There's a very different story. So it can simultaneously be true that men at the top of the distribution are doing better on many fronts, including in terms of earnings. It can also be true that most American men are earning less today than most American men did in 1979. And so this is very much a class and a race story. And the problem is that if your world, let's say, is one of the upper middle class right at the top of society and you're looking up, then it's hard to see the boys and men who are struggling. But that's because you're looking the wrong way. You might be leaning in – to use Sheryl Sandberg's famous phrase – but you're not looking down.
MICAH LOEWINGER I want to kind of tick through some of the points of your research. Let's start with education. What are some of the markers that men and boys are struggling?
RICHARD REEVES In 1972, when Title IX was passed to support women and girls in education, men were about 13 percentage points more likely to get a four year college degree. Today, women are 15 percentage points more likely than men to get a four year college degree. So there's been this huge overtaking in education. We also see that in high school, where girls account for two thirds of the top 10% of students ranked by GPA, whereas boys account for two thirds of those at the bottom. In the average school district in the US, girls are almost a grade level ahead in English and dead-even in math and in the poorer school districts, a greater level ahead in English and quite a long way ahead in math as well. You don't see such big gender gaps in upper middle class or richer households, richer neighborhoods, partly because the parents with resources are able to actually invest more heavily in their boys. And so to some extent overcome some of the disadvantages they might otherwise face in the education system.
MICAH LOEWINGER You cite as one of the potential causes of this education gap, the different speeds at which our brains develop. You point out that men's prefrontal cortexes only catch up with women in their early twenties.
RICHARD REEVES The way the education system is currently structured does build in something of an advantage for girls and women because the prefrontal cortex of girls develops early than boys, largely because that's triggered by puberty, which occurs earlier in girls than boys. And the prefrontal cortex is an interesting part of the brain because it's the bit that helps you turn in your chemistry homework on time. It's the bit that is sometimes called the CEO of the brain. It's about non-cognitive skills, organizational skills, etc.. And so to turn your chemistry home again on time, you have to take your chemistry homework home. You have to remember to take it back in. You have to remember that you have a chemistry class to go to. So it requires a whole bunch of skills that are not really about smarts. It's not true that girls are smarter than boys or the other way around. There's no evidence for a gap in terms of that. And interestingly, S.A.T. and A.C.T., the standardized test, there's really no gender gap there. But in GPA, there's a huge gap because GPA rewards turning in your homework on time.
MICAH LOEWINGER Which I think sets us up to talk about some of the discrepancies that you've observed in the labor market, where men's participation fell by seven percentage points in the last 50 years. That's 96% employment to 89. Notably, the largest drop has been among young men ages 25 to 34. That would be my age group. And you point out that one in three men with no more than high school level education are unemployed, which is a staggering 5 million people. What happened there?
RICHARD REEVES It used to be true that men could actually do pretty well even without much education for all kinds of reasons, including sexism, but also just because there were a lot more jobs around. or sometimes called strong back jobs. So you had a high school education, you could go to a factory, etc.. But those jobs just aren't there in the numbers they were any more before. And so less skilled men in particular are really struggling in the labor market. And those are the ones also whose earnings have dropped so that even if they're in work, we've seen a stagnation of male wages in the middle and bottom half of the distribution.
MICAH LOEWINGER Sometimes this is crudely framed as like the brawny jobs versus the brainy jobs.
RICHARD REEVES The Bureau of Labor Statistics actually has a measure of jobs that require physical strength, and the number of jobs that require any kind of serious physical strength has now dropped to below 10%. It's not that there are none, but it used to be closer to 30%.
MICAH LOEWINGER And alongside this is a pretty striking mental health crisis. Young men are four times more likely to die by suicide. And according to Pew, drug overdose deaths among black men in the U.S., more than tripled between 2015 and 2020.
RICHARD REEVES I was very struck by a study published in the British Medical Journal by a scholar called Fiona Shand, where she and her colleagues looked at the words that men use to describe themselves before suicide or attempted suicide. And the two most commonly used words were “useless” and “worthless.” The sense of like use and worth. I do think it's an uncontroversial statement to say that it's pretty universal human need to be needed. Your family needs you, your employer needs you, your community needs you. You have a specific role in society. And I see suicide rates and other mental health problems as symptoms of a deeper malaise, which is, for many men, a loss of purpose, a loss of meaning, a loss of a sense of how should I be in the world? And that's a crisis that we should take very seriously. And the solution is not to say – yes, let's go back to the old world, where men were heads of the household and the primary breadwinners. And that worked really well – because guess what? It didn't work very well.
MICAH LOEWINGER Speaking of turning back the clock, now that we have a snapshot of these disparities, I want to talk about our albeit broken political conversation and how it's metabolized some of these data points. I think it's really clear how the American right has capitalized on this big time.
SENATOR JOSH HAWLEY I want to focus tonight on the deconstruction of men, not because I think men are more important, but because I believe the attack on men has been the tip of the spear in the Left's broader attack on America.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Missouri Senator Josh Hawley speaking at the National Conservatism Conference in November 2021.
RICHARD REEVES It's pretty clear what he's doing here. He's taking this sense that men are struggling. That many boys are struggling in school. Many men are struggling in the labor market. Many dads are struggling to be in their kids' lives. Those are facts true and in many cases getting worse. And what Hawley is doing and many others are doing is channeling that and helping to turn it into a grievance and then saying, yes, we see you're struggling and guess whose fault is It's the fault of the left because they don't care about you – and in fact, they think you're toxic. They think you're the problem. They think, to borrow a phrase from a lot of men's rights activists, "that women have problems men are problems." And they're turning that against the left. My take of this is that if real problems are not addressed by responsible people, by mainstream institutions, they metastasize into grievances. And once they become grievances, they can be exploited for political ends without any tangible solutions. The best that he can do or has done so far is to say we should bring back marriage and bring back manufacturing. Okay. Good luck with that, Senator. There hasn't been a single marriage promotion policy that's worked in the U.S. and bringing back manufacturing is a pretty tough thing to do. Even Donald Trump couldn't talk manufacturing back into existence. Then it just goes against many of the trends in the global economy. So that doesn't matter. The point is not to offer solutions that are actually workable. The point is simply to activate the grievances. And so reactionary politicians around the world, as not just in the U.S. to look at South Korea, look at East Germany, look at Brexit, are actually really working with the grain of this male malaise and turning it to their political advantage. But there are no policies. The cupboard is bare in terms of actually doing anything.
MICAH LOEWINGER Meanwhile, you believe that the left is basically in denial that this is even a problem. That there are these systemic issues affecting men. This is not the language that you often hear on the left – you believe.
RICHARD REEVES I think the problem is that the response from the left has largely been one of an echoing silence. The left really hasn't engaged with these issues very much at all. It almost seems intellectually impossible for those on the left to say, well, actually there are some inequalities going the other way now as well and take seriously the issues of boys and men. And I get it. There's this kind of visceral reaction. There's a reflex, even perhaps among people listening to our conversation have this reflex – 'like really?'
MICAH LOEWINGER Well, we're both white guys and we're speaking on behalf of all kinds of people in this conversation.
RICHARD REEVES Sure. And so that 'really?' response is entirely appropriate. And so it's like, yeah, really, look at these data points and then we can discuss it and so on. But don't suggest that it couldn't even be possible that there are these inequalities going the other way. If the right is trying to turn back the clock to some extent on women, I think the left are too often turning their back on boys and men or worse, sometimes suggesting that if there are problems that boys and men are having, it must be their fault. And so this is the rare occasion when the left is willing to use a kind of very individualistic diagnosis of what's happening. Typically, the left are more comfortable as structural suggestions as to what's happening. There's this sense from the left is like, even if we agree, you're struggling where they're going to say it's your fault. You just need to shape up and maybe you're a bit toxic as well.
MICAH LOEWINGER You've used that term toxic masculinity. I'm sure it means different things to different people. I'd like to know how you define it and why you don't like the term.
RICHARD REEVES It used to be quite a useful term and obscure corners of academia. It was used by people looking at very violent offenders – men for whom their ideas of what it meant to be a man had become psychologically very strongly connected to violence. Then it broke out into the mainstream in about 2016. And my problem with it is twofold. One is it's just used completely indiscriminately to describe any kind of behavior that the user of the term disapproves of. The other big problem with it is just by putting the word toxic next to the word masculinity, it gets very close to the kind of Puritan ideas of original sin. There is something toxic within you and it allows, again, reactionaries, allows those on the right to be able to plausibly claim "they don't like you. They're not on your side. They think you're toxic."
MICAH LOEWINGER I think my favorite version of the toxic masculinity critique, which you cite in your book comes from YouTuber Contra Points, a.k.a. Natalie Wynn in her 2020 video titled 'Men.'
NATALIE WYNN We say look, toxic masculinity is the reason you don't have room to express your feelings, and it's the reason you feel lonely and inadequate. So while feminism tells women you hate your body and you're constantly doubting yourself because society did this to you and needs to change. We kinda just tell men you're lonely and suicidal because you're toxic. Stop it. We tell them they're broken and without really telling them how to fix themselves.
MICAH LOEWINGER I think in your book you also point to moments where the political left – the Democratic Party – has missed opportunities to proudly use government to help men, because perhaps, as you argue, because of fear of what celebrating men might signal.
RICHARD REEVES President Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law and bit more than two thirds of the jobs from the infrastructure bill will go to men, predominantly working class men, and a little bit disproportionately working class men of color, it looks. Did the administration say that? No.
MICAH LOEWINGER Which would have prompted questions, you know.
RICHARD REEVES Yeah. But let's have that conversation. On the other hand, student debt cancellation was described as a gender justice issue because two thirds of student debt is held by women, because women go to college much more than men. You know, the college debt thing was going to – by and large, help upper middle class women. The infrastructure bill is going to help working class men, especially Hispanic working class men. And so it seems to me that should be possible for administration to say there's all kinds of problems. Some of these problems affect different groups, but actually working class men have not been doing very well in America in recent decades. And the infrastructure bill is going to help working class men.
MICAH LOEWINGER When it comes to employment opportunities, you see potential in encouraging men to get into jobs that have been historically women dominated — health, education, administration and literacy, or the acronym that you use, HEAL. What would this fix about issues of the labor market and what are some of the strategies you suggest?
RICHARD REEVES What's really striking is that as we've desegregated most of the professions and occupations that were previously very male dominated, it's not true for all but things like law and certainly the higher status ones. A lot of the STEM jobs, most scientists in the US today are women. Medicine, etc. have really just become quite gender equal now. But areas like social work, teaching and psychology have become more gender segregated in recent decades. They've become much more female. So those are professions that were pretty gender equal in 1980, but now they're very strongly skewed towards women. So it's gone from like 40 50% male representation to 20% male representation. If we think it matters, which I do, to be able to access male therapists or to have men in our classrooms. Then the fact there are fewer and fewer over time should be something that we're paying attention to and maybe even doing something about.
MICAH LOEWINGER At the top of the conversation, we touched on the fact that men still, you know, largely hold the reins of power, especially if you look at, as you described it, the apex of society, and that there has been such a large gender imbalance for so long, the playing field has barely evened out. And in many areas it hasn't. And the fight for gender equality has also made room for people in the LGBT community to succeed as well. So I guess I'm trying to get at what's at stake here if trends continue and boys and men fall behind.
RICHARD REEVES Turns out that it does matter if there's a big gender inequality in education, for example, like for men as well as for women, Actually getting a decent education is increasingly important in the labor market. And so looking forward, if men are struggling in school and college, they're not going to earn as much. And that's just bad. It's bad for families, it's bad for society. A world of floundering men is unlikely to be a world of flourishing women and children because we typically are kind of in households and communities together. So that's really what's at stake here. I think that for a long time it made sense to look at the world through kind of one lens, which was let's look for the gender inequalities where women and girls are behind boys and men. Just keep looking for those, keep working on those. And so the idea of gender equality was synonymous with the cause of women and girls for, I don't know, let's say 10,000 years until yesterday, culturally speaking. And so the adjustment that requires the kind of mindset adjustment that requires is huge. I get it. I feel the cognitive dissonance myself. But there are now just enough signs in mental health, in employment, in education, where there just really are some kind of growing problems for boys and men that if we don't address them now, that they're not going to fix themselves.
MICAH LOEWINGER Richard, thank you very much.
RICHARD REEVES Thank you. Great conversation.
MICAH LOEWINGER Richard Reeves is the author of the new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
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