Boys are badly trailing girls in education. Men are struggling to find a role in the modern workplace, increasingly taking their lives and losing touch with families and children. Scholar Richard Reeves’s groundbreaking new book proposes radical solutions to the modern masculinity crisis. He talks to our Writer at Large Neil Mackay

MEN are in trouble. Boys are in trouble. Big trouble. In education, the gender gap is growing inexorably – with girls far outstripping boys. In employment, men’s wages are plummeting as they increasingly fail to navigate a job market that has changed radically to make employment fairer for women.

With family, men are becoming steadily more dislocated: one in five don’t live with their children. Men also account for two out of three “deaths of despair” from suicide or overdose.

As the world has changed, levelling the playing field for women, millions of Western men have failed to come to terms with a remodelled society. Men face an existential crisis: confused over their place in the world, lost at home and work, and suffering from an epidemic of loneliness and plummeting self-esteem. If we care about boys, how do we respond? Can Western societies both continue the fight to improve women’s rights – a battle that’s far from over – and start addressing the “masculinity crisis”?

Enter Richard Reeves and his new book Of Boys And Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It. If there is anyone who can navigate this fraught subject even-handedly it’s this “card-carrying feminist”. He is the consummate liberal: former director of Britain’s progressive think tank Demos, Nick Clegg’s director of strategy when he was deputy prime minister, and currently senior fellow with America’s esteemed Brookings Institution.

Amid social media culture wars, questions around gender seem impossible to address with nuance and compassion. Raising the problems besetting men is often seen as “anti-feminist”. Reeves hopes his liberal pedigree and “feminist ally” credentials will help him argue that society can be both “passionate about women’s rights and compassionate about the plight of men and boys”.

He is calling for nothing less than a complete reimagining of what it means to be a man in the 21st century: “prosocial masculinity for a post-feminist world”.

Class and race

CLASS and race are central to the problems affecting men. The crises in the workplace, school and family are exacerbated for working-class and ethnic-minority males.

“We now see really big gender inequalities in education – just the other way around to the way we’re used to seeing them,” Reeves says. “That’s happened incredibly quickly – in my lifetime.” Women outnumber men in almost two-thirds of British degree courses. “When I was born, 30 per cent of college degrees went to women. By the time I went to college in the late 1980s, it was about parity – like 45%. Now it’s nearly 60%. The world my dad went to college in, and which my kids went to college in, is completely transformed.”

Girls now consistently outperform boys at school. That education gap “is troubling in terms of what it means for outcomes for men because many jobs that previously men could have done without succeeding in education are less available than they were in the past. It’s harder to go straight from school to factory.” The result is “reduced labour force participation among men, and slow wage gains among many men, especially at the bottom”.

Family collapse

WITH boys trailing in education and men struggling to adjust to the new world of work, the modern male is increasingly dislocated from society.

“There’s a rise in the number of men who aren’t big parts of their kids’ lives, as a result of all kinds of changes – changes in marriage, women’s economic independence. There’s been a combination of swirling social, economic and cultural changes in an incredibly short period of human history that’s left many boys and men disorientated. It’s clear from the data. In Britain, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. So there are reasons to be worried.”

Reeves’s research led him to conclude that “the education system is structured in ways that favour girls”. That’s no fault of girls, obviously, but down to the fact “boys just develop a bit later than girls on average”. By adolescence, girls are “a long way ahead. Neuroscience tells us something every parent knew throughout history: 16-year-old girls have matured more than 16-year-old boys”.

The “pre-frontal cortex” tells girls “finish your physics homework, don’t go out with your mates”. This advantage, Reeves notes, “couldn’t be seen as clearly when we had breaks on women’s educational aspirations, it was only once the breaks were taken off women that they blew right past. It took the women’s movement to expose the way the education system structurally disfavours boys”.

The teaching profession is also increasingly “feminised”, says Reeves, with fewer men becoming educators. In Britain, roughly 70% of teachers are women. Vocational training – which Reeves says “suits boys a bit more” – suffers from “historic underinvestment”.

In employment, “it’s a brute fact that changes in the economy in the last 50 years have denuded the labour market of many jobs that men were traditionally able to do even with low levels of education”. Jobs increasingly demand “social skills”, not “physical strength”.

Pay gap

THE gender pay gap – which sees men earn more than women – hasn’t vanished, Reeves makes clear, but it has narrowed at a rapid rate. In 1979, only 13% of women earned more than the average man – now it’s 40%.

It is children who create that 10% lag. “Women are tracking men in terms of earnings,” Reeves says, “basically until they have kids. Children explain the gender pay gap, not discrimination. Women are still much more likely to take time out raising children. So the pay gap is now a parenting gap – that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, it means we need a different conversation about what’s driving it. It’s not what employers are doing – employers are by and large not paying women less. That was true, but we’d a concerted attack on that.”

So with males struggling at school and work, and women mostly acting as primary care-givers for children, that’s all having a disastrous effect on men in terms of how they fit into society and especially “what it means to be a father”. Reeves adds: “The old model of masculinity, breadwinning and fatherhood was bundled together.” Women are now the breadwinner in just “shy of half of households”, he says.

“The solution isn’t to wave some conservative magic wand and reverse the last 30 years – the solution is to say fatherhood has to be updated for a world of gender equality. We’ve expanded the role of mothers to include breadwinning without expecting them to stop being mums. We haven’t expanded the role of fatherhood to include parenting, caring as well as breadwinning.”

New dads

PLACING importance on active, caring fatherhood becomes even more crucial for men “if they’re not the breadwinner” as it helps them feel they “matter”. “If you’re economically redundant the danger is you become socially redundant because you’re not fulfilling the traditional role. Fatherhood matters for fathers as much as kids. It matters to men’s sense of purpose. People need to be needed.”

Reeves cites one medical study exploring the “last words” men attempting suicide used to describe themselves. “The top two were ‘useless’ and ‘worthless’.” This male mental health crisis is an “indicator” that something has gone badly wrong. Economic and social “shocks have seriously derailed many men, many are left reeling. There’s this huge well of uncertainty and anxiety”. Reeves fears that without proper nuanced debate, dangerous extremists and misogynists, from the men’s rights movement, will move in to claim the discussion.

Progressive voices must lead the conversation “rather than denying [the problem] exists or blaming men and saying well, if you’re struggling it’s your fault”.

Boys and school

REEVES has solutions. His big ideas include sending boys to school a year later than girls to address the imbalance in development. Teachers overwhelmingly support the idea, he has found. They see the problem firsthand. However, many policymakers view the proposal as “breathtakingly radical”.

More male teachers are also needed. When women teach traditionally “male” subjects – previously deemed maths and science – girls excel. Copying the idea of increasing female educators in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), Reeves wants more men in “HEAL” subjects: health, education, administration and literacy, subjects focused on caring, learning, arts and social skills, all highly prized in the workplace.

Annually, fewer men enter teaching. Reeves wants “male-specific scholarships” for teaching and “concerted recruitment efforts”. Governments are aware of the problem but not acting. “It’s incredibly irresponsible. What are we going to do? Wait until teaching is 90% female, then try and turn it around?”

Tackling the education gap would help men “adapt to the changed labour market”. Today’s jobs are often “people-oriented” with “massive growth in health and education” sectors. It’s essential to get more men into “caring industries”which are currently female-dominated.

“There’s not really much choice. If men want to find work, we’re going to need more nurses than shipyard workers. To deny that does nobody any favours. The danger of our current debate is there’s a nostalgia about our ability to bring those jobs back. It’s not that those jobs don’t matter, we should support them, but we need a steely look at the labour market.”

Social engineering

WE can’t shy away from “social engineering”, Reeves believes. “Social engineering helped women into traditionally male occupations” through scholarships and subsidies. “The same can be true now to help men.”

Paternity leave is a social engineering lever. Reeves praises new Finnish laws giving parents 160 days parental leave each. Only 63 days can be transferred between parents, meaning dads must “use it or lose it”.

“In a world where we’re sharing breadwinning responsibilities, we must allow men into caring roles. To maybe risk the wrath of some women, that requires mums to allow dads in too, and not assume dads are second-class parents. It’s not only men who must recast the role of fatherhood, it’s sometimes wives, partners and girlfriends.”

Parental leave should extend throughout childhood and teenage years. Equalising parental leave means both men and women take an equal career “hit”.

For mental health, more men need to be recruited as psychologists and counsellors – professions also female-dominated. Men, like women, often feel more comfortable talking to professionals of the same sex about intimate problems. “These questions of mental health – addiction, isolation – are expressions of a broader set of problems, a malaise, which at its root comes from a sense of uncertainty, dislocation and not feeling needed.

Many men have come to feel they aren’t necessary for the wellbeing of their families, the development of their kids, the success of their company, and the flourishing of their community. We should treat mental health problems as symptoms of something much deeper culturally about the failure to properly address the problems of boys and men – which to some extent are by-products of the many positive changes [for women], but which unaddressed will fester and become even harder to solve.”

Creating a society that’s fair for both genders – and women still need greater equality in many areas, Reeves stresses – is like trying to hit the biting point in a car: it needs just the right mix of clutch and accelerator. In the West, we’re stuck at the learner-driver stage, with women still not reaching full equality and men falling behind.

Culture wars

ONLINE culture wars, Reeves says, render this conversation “so fraught” that “merely raising the problems of boys and men” can be seen as declaring “you’re an alt-right men’s rights lunatic”. Reeves deliberately underscores his liberal, feminist credentials including support for “quotas for women in the US Congress. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in and out of government to promote gender equality”.

Many warned him not to write his new book due to the inevitable flak.

But staying silent would mean “the only people in the debate are the fringe, the loonies”. That would see problems politicised rather than addressed.

“I had this moment where I was like ‘honestly, Reeves, if you aren’t willing to write this f*****g book, then who is? Get over yourself – get out there. Do the best you can’. If you stay out of the debate because you’re afraid the only people who’ll go in are the crazies. These problems are too deep for that.”

Many families across the West worry about their sons’ futures, but the public discussion is “toxic and desiccated … There’s nobody who doesn’t want their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons, and nobody who isn’t worried if their sons are struggling. This is a conversation we need to have – in good faith. If I can create that space, I’ve done my bit.”

Everyone matters

SOCIETY needs to care about both women’s rights and the crisis for men, he adds. “There’s so many areas of life where there’s so much more to do for women,” Reeves says – particularly around breaking the glass ceiling for top jobs, and violence.

The tech industry is vastly male-dominated, skewing how the digital world operates.

“There’s also a whole bunch of areas where it would be good for women and girls too if we paid attention to boys and men. There’s much more to do for girls and women, over here and over there, there’s stuff now to do for boys and men. Guess what?

“People are perfectly capable of thinking two thoughts at once, now that we’ve reached this point in history.”

Reeves says that without “the massive success of the women’s movement” in the West “we wouldn’t be having this conversation”.

Clearly, “nobody” is having these conversations in countries like Afghanistan where women are brutally repressed. “It’s a product of the extraordinary triumph of women that we can even contemplate the fact that there’s two sides to this story now, because for most of human history there’s only been one side. The fight for gender equality was synonymous with the fight for women. That was true until the blink of an eye ago, but it’s not true now. There’s now some gender inequalities running the other way. But how amazing we’ve got to this point.”

Reeves says feminist women he has spoken to agree that the male crisis needs urgently addressed. “They want people to feel cared for, needed, empowered, that’s what the women’s movement is about.” Helping create a positive vision of masculinity is “the spirit of the women’s movement”. To leave problems festering is an “affront” to feminism.

Male privilege

SOME feminists are rejecting terms like “toxic masculinity”, Reeves says. “Stereotyping any group is bad. We’d resist attempts to do that to women. It pushes men away rather than inviting them into a conversation. It reminds me of the Puritan idea of original sin.”

Terms like “male privilege” are meaningless when applied to African-American working-class men, he says. “Who actually wants ‘male privilege’?” Reeves asks. “There’s almost nobody out there longing for patriarchy.”

Unless mainstream society starts talking honestly, Reeves fears the issue being weaponised by extremists who are the last people needed “in the conversation”. Some right-wing politicians in the West are already blaming male problems on feminism, “whipping up a sense of grievance”.

That has led to the growing phenomenon of the “angry man” which has its worst, most dangerous expression in far-right movements like the Proudboys. “Politicians like Donald Trump are modelling an adolescent, immature masculinity. That’s really dangerous and troubling.” The weaponisation of male grievance has even led to acts of terrorism against women from the Incel movement.

Reeves points out, though, that overall male violence is dropping. More men are “checking out, than acting out … This handful of men acting out are somehow seen as representative of men in general – that’s not only empirically wrong, but very damaging. It tars all men with a very small brush.”

Women, he says, “want men who have learned how to be mature, who understand and control what it means to be a man in the world without being ‘better’ than a woman”, adding: “Masculinity must be redefined in a positive way, but not in any way that’s superior to femininity, or through the lens of patriarchy. That’s unfair, corrosive, and it’s now largely been swept away in our society. Thank God for that, and the women who led that effort.”

Surely, Reeves asks, we can talk about the world without it being “zero sum”: a “battle of the sexes”?

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