Boy in his bed using smartphone to make a video call. (Photo by: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via AP Images)

Something is rotten in the world of men. Across America, boys are now significantly less likely than girls to earn a high school diploma (a gap of 6 percentage points), go to college (14 points), or enroll in grad school (nearly 20 points). Outside a small cohort of men who continue to dominate elite institutions, most are earning lower wages than they did 40 years ago. One in five fathers don’t live with their children, and men account for two-thirds of “deaths of despair”—drugs, alcohol, suicide. Men of color face the added disadvantage of racial discrimination. As men lose track of their traditional identity as breadwinners, leaders, and fathers, domestic and political violence ensues. Right-wing and extremist groups stand ready for disaffected male recruits. It’s not just that women’s fortunes have improved. Men are in decline, and that creates societal problems that cannot be ignored.

Over more than two decades, a lot of ink has been spilled on the question of the declining achievement of men and boys—in education, in work, and in families. Some readers will likely think about the changing role of men in terms of current-day right-left culture wars. But many academic and policy analyses—from large studies by economists to a recent global review by the World Bank—zero in on the roots of these differences in schooling, especially kindergarten through 12th grade, and the ripple effect they have on later life. In short, bad schools are worse for boys and lead to long-term problems that affect their economic and social status, identity, and overall well-being.

Into this fray jumps Richard V. Reeves, a seasoned analyst of social and racial gaps in economic and social opportunity. Reeves, a senior fellow and director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively about inequality and social mobility. With his new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, Reeves offers a thoughtful and deeply researched analysis of these trends. He also demonstrates the unique challenge of offering solutions that address the twin challenges of long-standing societal bias against women and declining male achievement—without sacrificing one for the other. The trouble with Reeves’s carefully considered and tested solutions is that, given the scale of the problem, they may not be bold enough.

Why are men falling behind? Again, for Reeves and other experts, it’s all about education. Seventy-five percent of primary and secondary teachers are women, and classrooms often require skills less developed in boys: the ability to sit and concentrate on one thing, for example, and to learn verbally rather than with one’s hands. But even more important is the timing of brain development. Boys enter critical growth periods later, especially during adolescence, when brain centers governing attention and social cognition start to mature. Reeves writes, “The correct answer to the question so many teenage boys hear, ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?,’ is something like, ‘Because, Mom, there are sexually dimorphic trajectories for cortical and subcortical gray matter!’ (Returns to video game.)”

Poor performance in school leads to poor performance in the job market leads to poor performance in the dating and marriage market—the cascade effect created by a developmental deficit resonates throughout life. Reeves largely sidesteps the influence of culture and politics on male decline, except to criticize both the left and the right for allowing ideology to drive their thinking rather than research and evidence.

Part of what makes the book effective is Reeves’s balancing of intimate anecdotes with meticulous statistical analysis. Take Reeves’s godson, Dwight, whose story opens a chapter dealing with the specific problems Black men face. Dwight grew up in Rosemont, West Baltimore, a Black neighborhood with high rates of violence and poverty as well as low-performing schools. When he was 11, stray gunshots passed through his bedroom window. His mother moved the family out of the neighborhood, working two full-time jobs to afford it. Dwight won an academic scholarship to a private Catholic school and then to two colleges. Yet today, as an accomplished, highly educated Black man, he wears glasses with plain, nonprescription lenses to make himself look less threatening. He managed to defy nearly every obstacle stemming from his background, except for how people perceive him based on race.

The literary technique of telescoping from the up-close and personal to the global and allegorical works here by making the complexity of educational policies, for instance, feel close to home. It also, by and large, allows Reeves to tiptoe through the minefield of gender and sexual politics without setting off any explosions.

But Reeves also directly acknowledges the challenge of exploring the problems confronting males without seeming to dismiss or even diminish those faced by females. “I have been reluctant to write this book,” Reeves writes in the preface. 

I have lost count of the number of people who advised against it. In the current political climate, highlighting the problems of boys and men is seen as a perilous undertaking. One friend, a newspaper columnist, said, “I never go near these issues if I can avoid it. There’s nothing but pain there.” Some argue that it is a distraction from the challenges still faced by girls and women. I think this is a false choice.

Gender equality, he argues convincingly, is not a zero-sum game. Reeves points out, again and again, the ways that the problems of boys and men affect everyone. Women have assumed more and more responsibility as breadwinners for their families without being relieved of many or even any duties associated with child-raising or maintaining homes. These changes have left both women and men feeling resentful—women because they feel stressed, stretched, and unsupported, and men because they feel lost, devoid of purpose, and close to useless. The journey from such sentiments to divorce, domestic violence, and deaths of despair is all too often a short one.

There also is the problem of how unintended consequences of well-intentioned reforms actually end up hurting those they were supposed to help. Reeves shows that college campuses, for example, increasingly have become female enclaves. This has produced a painful irony by making it more difficult for young women to get into elite colleges and universities.

Reeves deals with this development in a section he labels “Affirmative Action by Stealth.” He writes,

The steady feminization of college campuses may not trouble too many people, but there is at least one group whose members really worry about it: admissions officers. “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment,” writes Jennifer Delahunty, Kenyon College’s former dean of admissions, “fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.” In a provocative New York Times opinion piece, plaintively headlined “To All the Girls I’ve Rejected,” she said publicly what everyone knows privately: “Standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.”

It is here, and in sections covering early education, that Reeves begins to explore his overarching thesis. He contends that always treating boys and girls the same does not result in anything resembling either equality or equity. “Equal,” he argues, does not mean “congruent” or “identical,” and questions of fundamental fairness sometimes are best addressed by allowing boys and girls to follow different paths. The key is in recognizing differences in developmental pacing and other factors while seeking to treat men and women with equal respect—while offering them equal opportunities.

Perhaps the most powerful section of the book includes the two chapters in which Reeves takes both the left and the right to task for refusing to adjust their thinking and their positions in the face of overwhelming evidence. He writes that progressives too often think the solution to boys’ problems is for them to deny their masculinity and be like their sisters, while conservatives aim to turn back the clock to restore the patriarchy by encouraging young males to be like their fathers.

Perhaps the most poignant exploration of the human costs of our inability or unwillingness to grapple with these problems comes in the chapter “Class Ceiling,” where Reeves notes that men account for 70 percent of opioid overdose deaths and that nearly half of the men who were out of the labor force in 2016 said they had taken pain medication the previous day, often in heavy doses. The journey to disaster from such a starting line is often a short one.

After nine chapters that exhaustively outline the problem, Reeves uses the final three to offer a few carefully calibrated solutions. If Reeves’s book falters, it is at this point. Because he has so effectively made his case that the problems of boys and men are approaching crisis status, the reader hungers for interventions that are sweeping and powerful.

It is not that his solutions do not make sense—they do—but the scale seems wrong. When he spends the first three-quarters of his book detailing all the ways in which boys and men totter on the edge of apocalypse, his suggestion that we allow boys to start kindergarten a year later to give their brains time to develop doesn’t seem sufficient. (He dubs that idea “redshirting,” after the college sports practice of benching freshman athletes to let their bodies mature.)

The same goes for his other solutions, which include creating incentives for more men to enter fields—teaching, nursing, and so on—once considered women’s domains and encouraging a more sophisticated understanding of the roles that men can and should play within family structures so women don’t have to continue bearing disproportionate burdens. With marriage in decline, for instance, men are losing a traditional source of stability in their lives. Reeves suggests focusing on fatherhood instead—an institution that can give men purpose and a helpful role to play, whether they’re married or not. Perhaps his most ambitious policy demand is for paid parental leave on a scale seen only in countries like Sweden (240 days per parent). He goes even further by calling for six months of nontransferable leave for new fathers, a policy no country has yet adopted. Again, these are good ideas, but nothing on the scale needed to meet the challenges the author has laid out with such force.But perhaps that was Reeves’s intention. It’s possible he wants Of Boys and Men to show that reforms that are too sweeping can have unintended consequences, damage that no one anticipates. In the meantime, the book would argue, even the hardest and most daunting journeys must begin with small but measurable steps forward.

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Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education.