- Interview by
- David Sirota
Statistics show that men and boys in the United States today disproportionately suffer from a number of serious problems. Since the 1970s, they’ve seen their wages stagnate and are now far less likely than women to attend or graduate from college. Even more seriously, men are much more likely than women to be afflicted by “deaths of despair”: deaths due to suicide or alcohol or drug abuse. These trends are affecting boys and men across racial groups, and especially working-class boys and men.
Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. For the Lever Time podcast, Jacobin editor at large David Sirota interviewed Reeves about the crisis afflicting men, how right-wing politicians have weaponized it to promote a reactionary agenda, and how the Left might come up with a better response to men’s problems. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the most telling signals that the modern male is struggling — and specifically as a group, as distinct from the struggles of the population writ large?
Let’s start with the economy and the labor market, where the well-told story about wage stagnation is particularly acute for men. Most American men earned less in 2019 than most American men did in 1979.
Of course, it’s also true that wages didn’t grow that quickly for working-class women by comparison to other women. But women’s wages did grow across the board — just faster at the top than at the bottom — whereas for men you saw wage stagnation.
What that means is that the only reason that middle-class American households saw any rise in their household incomes at all over that period was because of women. It was women’s work, women’s wages. So there’s all kinds of downstream consequences.
Then if we turn to something like education, what we see is a massive overtaking by girls and women of men, such that there’s now a bigger gender gap in education today than there was in 1972. On college campuses, for example, women are further ahead of men now than men were ahead of women when we passed Title IX in 1972.
Some of the consequences for that are difficulties around family formation and deaths of despair. There’s been lots of discussion of deaths of despair — which are from suicide, alcohol, or drugs — but maybe a little less attention to the fact that men are at least three times higher risk of one of those deaths of despair than women are. Deaths of despair are largely a male — and largely a working-class male — problem.
There has been a gender wage gap for a very long time. Are you saying that what we’ve seen is that the gap has somewhat narrowed not just because women’s wages are going up, but also because men’s wages have stagnated or actually dropped? There’s an alternate history where everything is improving for both men and women, but it improves more quickly for women to deal with historic disparities. But you’re saying that’s not happening: it’s a negative story for men.
In terms of earnings, yes. The gender pay gap is typically measured at the median. So when people hear that women earn eighty-two or eighty-three cents on the dollar versus men, what’s being referred to there is median pay. One reason why the gender pay gap has narrowed over the last few decades is that women’s wages have risen quite sharply at the median — 30-something percent or more — but part of it is because male wages have dropped at the median.
That’s not the main reason for the narrowing, but it’s one of the reasons, and I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that that’s bad news. If we’d seen similar levels of women’s wage growth at the median, and we hadn’t seen wage stagnation for men, it’s not clear to me that that would have been a worse world. I don’t think many people want to close the gender wage gap by crashing male wages.
At the top of the distribution, men and women have seen rising wages. Up toward that eightieth or ninetieth percentile, women have seen faster wage growth, but both men and women have seen it.
My overall understanding of these labor market trends over the last few decades is that we’ve seen a narrowing of the gender wage gap, for the reasons we just discussed, and a sharp widening of the class wage gap. They’re pulling in different directions. So the gap between the median and the top has gotten much wider, but the gap between men and women at each level has gotten narrower.
I want to ask about the maleness part of this, in looking at wages, jobs, education levels, health care, deaths of despair, and so on. How much of this is related to maleness, however we define that, rather than other factors like economic inequality, geography, or education? How do we narrow in on this as a problem of maleness specifically?
There is enough evidence that some of these problems do break quite strongly along male-female lines, so as to justify the attention on men in particular. The male suicide rate is four times higher than the female suicide rate. It has risen by 25 percent in the last decade and rose very sharply between 2020 and 2021, 8 percent for young men alone. And there wasn’t an increase for women.
That isn’t to say that female suicide isn’t a problem; of course it is. Sometimes, when I’m drawing attention to the gaps in education, people will say, no one cared when it was the other way around, when women were that far behind men. To that, my answer is: yeah, people did care. And we did a whole bunch of stuff about it, and quite rightly too. We passed laws; we had significant campaigns to try and overcome it.
To some extent, it becomes an empirical question as to whether there’s enough of a gender gap here on whatever the issue is to say, we should look at that. I would say the same is true the other way around. For example, the gender pay gap we’ve just talked about — just because 40 percent of women earn more than the average man now doesn’t mean there isn’t still an issue about gender pay gaps.
I’d look at the data on it and say, is there a strong enough pattern here to make you think this is worth looking at through that lens? There’ll be a whole bunch of issues where you’re like, “There isn’t much to see here in terms of gender.”
But there are other issues where there clearly is, in one direction or the other, and then I think we should be gender sensitive. We should also look at how that intersects by class, by race, and so on. So we might talk about the gender pay gap, but we shouldn’t forget the fact that white women now earn a lot more than black men.
That wasn’t true in 1979. So white women have seen very strong increases in their wages, such that for every dollar earned by a white woman, a black man earns about eighty-four cents, which is similar to the gender gap.
The point of that is not to say that the gender gap isn’t important and real. It is just to say that it’s very important that we don’t look at these things just through one lens, but try to look at them through different lenses.
What is fueling this dynamic? Is it mostly the economic issues that you mentioned? Does it have to do with the changing nature of our culture? Is it something in our politics?
I put it under three headings. Number one is, almost independently of everything else, the education system isn’t doing very well by lots of our boys and men now. We have a ten percentage point drop in the share of male teachers, incredible underinvestment in apprenticeships and vocational forms of learning, and all kinds of changes in school environments that mean that we’re not serving them very well.
That’s not to suggest that there aren’t plenty of girls who aren’t being served well too. But overall, young men hit the labor market or college or whatever less well-prepared as a result of the education system. The single biggest risk factor for dropping out of college, controlling for everything else, is being male. They struggle throughout education; they might struggle to land in the labor market.
The second bucket is that the labor market has been transformed in the last forty or fifty years in such a way as to make it much more difficult for men with modest levels of education to do OK.
We can have a very long discussion as to why that is: globalization, deunionization, loss of all kinds of jobs, and so on. It’s not because women came into the labor market; it’s because of these other external shocks to the labor market.
Then bucket number three is the most contentious one, in a way. The fact that women have seen such a massive increase in their economic independence means that the basis upon which men and women form families and relationships has been significantly transformed. In the space of not much more than a generation, the presumption of the male breadwinner has largely unraveled. In my view, that’s a great thing.
However, I think that has left a lot of men struggling to catch up with a culture where their role as a breadwinner has been undermined by economic brute facts, and then has been undermined by changes in their relationships to women, and they’ve come into it ill-served as well. So you have underskilled men facing a labor market that’s become a bit more hostile than the one their dads faced, and women who are saying, “Well, I might not need you.” I think all of those feed off each other.
In the past several years, we’ve seen right-wing politicians like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz talk about the so-called attack on masculinity. We’ve seen YouTubers whose entire business model seems to be repackaging and selling one version of masculinity. We’ve seen gun marketing trying to fuse masculinity with the idea of buying weapons, owning weapons, shooting weapons.
Why do you think these messages have become so effective? What do you think would be a more constructive counternarrative to those kinds of messages?
I think they’re effective because, first, they identify some real problems. Hawley’s a great example of this. If you read some passages of Hawley’s book or [listen to him speak], I’m like, yeah, that’s the same data that I’ve got. Yes, I’m with you so far, senator.
But then what he does is he says, these men are struggling, and you know why? And he doesn’t say because of what’s happened to the economy, or because of what’s happening elsewhere. He says, “Because of the Left. Because the Left is obsessed with toxic masculinity, and birthing people, and so on. The Left hates masculinity. The Left hates men. The Left would rather have a world where we got rid of men.”
It’s a straw woman that he creates. He says, “It’s feminism’s fault,” and “If you’re feeling pissed off, if you’re struggling as a man, I hear you, it’s their fault, vote for me. Do I have any policy prescriptions? No, because I’m a culture warrior and so I don’t need to actually be able to do anything about it.” But what he and what others do is successfully wrap together these real anxieties that a lot of men fee or that women feel on behalf of the men in their lives.
He says that’s also about the Second Amendment, and that’s also about Americanism; that’s also about religion. It gets wrapped up into this sense of being a real Christian American white man. Masculinity, Hawley says, is the tip of the spear of the Left’s attack against America.
I don’t think that’s even plausibly true. But I know why he’s doing that — because it’s visceral. You can attach a bunch of other things to that visceral sense of your identity as a man being under attack.
That doesn’t only work with Christian white men, although I’ve just mentioned them. I was very struck by a poll that found that half of American men now agree that “today, men are sometimes criticized just for acting like men” — that’s the quote in the survey — and black men are more likely to say that’s true.
A more positive response would be to say, we get it, here are a bunch of problems. For example, would it be a terrible idea to have an office of men’s health focused on issues around suicide and male mental health? Would it be a good idea if the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recognized the suicide gap facing men and had some work around that?
Would it be a terrible idea to have a recruitment drive for male teachers? We have a massive recruitment drive for women into STEM and, most recently, women into construction. I’m here for that. But what about the fact that we have emptied out, not only education, but social work and psychology of men?
You have an infrastructure bill that will create jobs largely for men. Two-thirds of the jobs in the infrastructure bill will go to men: black men as much as white men, and Hispanic men a little bit more, because they’re so represented in the construction industry. Don’t hide from that fact, as the administration does when they’re challenged on it.
Own it. Make it a feature, not a bug. And say, “Here are all the things we’re doing on behalf of women.” There’s lots more to do for women. But the fact that this bill is the first piece of legislation for a long time that will specifically help working-class men of all races and ethnicities — I’m proud of that as a Democrat, because working-class men have had it pretty rough for the last few years.
Why not say that? Simple things like that, I believe, would take the wind out of the sails of the attack from the Right. The silence on these issues from the Left creates this huge political opening for the Right. And they’re seizing it.