Richard V. Reeves, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is internationally recognized for his scholarship on equality of opportunity, with a focus on divisions of social class and race. But in recent years, he has become concerned about a less-scrutinized axis of inequality: the myriad ways in which boys and men are falling behind girls and women educationally, economically, and on many indicators of social well-being. In his new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, Reeves examines the difficulties that millions of boys and men are having in school, at work, and in the family.
As an advocate for gender equality, who has devoted considerable study to closing the pay gap for women, Reeves rejects right-wing calls to repeal feminism. But he also contends with those on the left who believe that focusing on men’s problems distracts from the challenges still faced by girls and women. “We can hold two thoughts in our head at once,” he writes in his new book. “We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.” And the problems of boys and men falling behind — in absolute terms as well as relative to women — are real and serious. For example, the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students. The wages of most men are lower today (in real terms) than they were in 1979. One in five fathers is not living with their children. Single and divorced men account for hugely disproportionate numbers of drug-related deaths.
In this podcast discussion, Reeves discusses his experience as a father of three boys, the reasons why he came to write Of Boys and Men, and how it relates to his earlier studies of inequality, including his 2017 book Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It. He talks about his growing up in the middle-class English town of Peterborough, his education at Oxford, and his work with Tony Blair’s Labour government as well as for Liberal Democrat leader (and self-proclaimed “radical centrist”) Nick Clegg. He also shares some of his proposed policy solutions to address problems boys and men are facing. These include:
- “redshirting” boys by having them start school a year later than girls;
- recruiting more men (especially African-American men) as teachers;
- and generally getting more men into what are now largely female-dominated jobs in health, education, administration, and literacy while continuing to increase women’s participation in STEM fields.
What he is ultimately working toward, in his words, is not only better outcomes for men but also “a positive vision of masculinity that is compatible with gender equality.”
Richard Reeves: For a long time women have had to be fighting misogyny from without, but now men are fighting and struggling for motivation from within. And I do think that this motivation point is important, but we have to look at the structures and systems and norms and signals that cause us to be motivated. This doesn’t come out of thin air.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to The Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m very happy to be joined today by Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Future of the Middle Class Initiative and co-directs the Center on Children and Families. He is British by origin and was director of strategy to U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg from 2010 to 2012. His work at Brookings focuses on the middle class, education, and social mobility. And he is the author, most recently, of a book which will be released September 27 entitled Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. So welcome, Richard! Thank you for being here.
And first of all, congratulations on Of Boys and Men. It’s a wonderfully written work, but it also makes a serious argument that the problems of boys and men are both real and dangerously neglected. I’d like to start by asking you how you came to the topic. You are best known for your scholarship on equality of opportunity, with a focus on divisions of social class and race. But as you put it in the preface to your book, you’ve gone from being a dad worried about raising your three sons to a scholar worried about millions of boys and young men who are struggling in school, at work, and in the family. Can you tell me something about how you came to write about the subject of inequalities across gender as well as across social class and race?
Richard Reeves: Sure. So of course there is an autobiographical element to all scholarship, and I think it’s as well to just recognize that rather than deny it. And so, yes, I think the experience of raising three boys (both in the U.K. and the U.S.) to adulthood has made me more sensitive perhaps to the challenges particularly of young men — they’re all in their twenties now. But I should stress that those are from upper-middle-class backgrounds; they’re not the boys I’m most worried about, except on a personal level. But it was the work on class and family and gender that I’ve long been interested in that drew me to this subject. I’ve done a lot of work, as you’ve mentioned, on inequality and class divisions. I’ve done a lot of work on race. But as I was looking at some of the trends around inequality, I kept stumbling across these big findings for how many boys and men are really struggling in education, in work, and in the family. And those cut across lots of the other inequalities that I was focused on before around class and race.
I came to see that gender inequality in the direction that you might not expect us to write about — which is, in other words, the gender inequalities where boys and men are on the downside of the inequality — is actually a really important part of the inequality debate, and one that’s not getting enough attention. And the deeper I dug, the more worried I got, to the point where I decided that this was worthy of book-length treatment and in particular some discussion of some solutions — because even to the extent the problem’s acknowledged, there’s very little out there in terms of what do we do about it.
Geoff Kabaservice: You also wrote in the preface that you were reluctant to write about this subject. Why was that?
Richard Reeves: I was reluctant to write about it in this way — in such a straightforwardly focusing on the problems of boys and men way — because the politics of sex and gender, particularly in the U.S. right now, are quite polarized. And so it’s difficult to write about what I see as these real problems for boys and men without in some ways departing from a commitment to gender inequalities, to tackling gender inequalities the other way. You’re faced with the false choice, essentially: either you care about women and girls, in which case you’re on the left, or you care about boys and men, in which case you’re on the right and basically just want to go back in time to the world before feminism.
And so even raising the problems of boys and men, and then having specific policies aimed at boys and men, is I think a difficult task in our current environment. And so it was partly for that reason. And inevitably there are… You’ll get attacks from both sides, but it was partly because I felt like there was this dangerous vacuum being created by the polarization, where it was becoming almost impossible for people of goodwill to just have a discussion about some of these problems facing boys and men without running the risk of being seen to have departed from their tribe in one way or another.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m grateful to you for taking on this subject, because although I don’t have children of my own, I have a lot of friends who do, and they have seemed particularly worried about their sons. And again, on an anecdotal level, but I remember that maybe a dozen years ago I was guest-teaching at American University here in D.C., and the female-to-male ratio at the university was then close to 70/30. I don’t know to what extent that has changed or remained the same, but what was even more interesting was that the ratio of female-to-male accomplishment, if you want to put it that way, was more like 95 to 5. Women almost exclusively were graduating with honors, leading the clubs and societies on campus and, on a more prosaic level, just doing the assigned reading and speaking out in class. And the men were pleasant enough, but they were almost entirely disconnected from the educational process. And as far as I could tell, they seemed to spend most of their time smoking marijuana and playing video games.
At the time I thought this was a consequence of the misbalanced gender ratio. They were living in that paradise spoken of by the prophets Jan and Dean in their 1963 single “Surf City,” in which there would be two girls for every boy. But your book has really made me appreciate that what I saw in that classroom was the consequence of deeper structural forces at work. And just to address the educational imbalances… You have a newly launched Substack entitled “Of Boys and Men,” and one of your early posts notes that in 1972, men were 13 percentage points more likely than women to get a bachelor’s degree, and that’s when Title IX was passed to help women. Now women are 15 percentage points more likely than men to get a bachelor’s degree. So gender inequality in higher education is wider today than it was 50 years ago, but the other way around.
Richard Reeves: Yeah, that’s right. That’s one of the facts I think that you trip over and makes you think, wow. I knew there was a gender gap in education — that’s not a secret I think to anybody that’s paying even passing attention to the trends — but I didn’t realize how wide the gap had gotten and how in many areas it really is accelerating. And so that fact that we have wider gender inequality today than when Title IX was passed I think is a really important one to discuss. And of course there’s a reasonable discussion to be had about why and how far does it matter and how far does it play out to the labor markets and so on. But the brute fact of that inequality I think should give us pause. And then I think we should have to ask some hard questions as to what’s going on there.
And I appreciate the way you’ve made the distinction that I try to make very strongly, between the individualization of this problem and looking for structural causes. And that’s not to suggest that there aren’t individual responsibilities here. This is an old debate, of course, between left and right, between individual agency and structural factors. But actually, weirdly, when it comes to boys and men the left and right are in loud agreement that it’s an individual problem. It’s just that they think the problem is different. So the left tend to view the problem as being masculinity — as too much of it, it’s too toxic, you just need to get it out. As I say, the left tells you, “Be more like your sister.” But the right say there’s just not enough masculinity. These guys are lying around, drinking, video games and pornography. If they just could man up and take on their masculine responsibilities, we would be fine. So they’re saying, “Be more like your dad.”
But both of them agree that it’s at the level of the individual. And what I was really struck by when I look at the education system, I don’t think this is an individual problem. I think it’s a structural problem. And in particular, the way the education system rewards certain kinds of outcomes, certain kinds of behavior which are typically more to be found among girls and women. And also that boys just develop later, just in terms of their brain science and brain development and non-cognitive skills. So that puts them at a disadvantage, especially in high school. And so, weirdly, the women’s movement, by taking the brakes off women’s educational advancement, has exposed structural inequality in the education system, which disfavors boys and men. We have an education system that is more female-friendly than male-friendly. We just couldn’t see that before, because the girls weren’t going off to college. Now we can see it. And the gaps are pretty wide.
And I will say one last thing on this which is that when I’ve talked to people who were interested in these issues in the ’60s and ’70s, nobody predicted this overtaking. Everybody was focused on getting to equality. There isn’t a single article or a single scholar that was saying, “Once girls catch up they’re going to keep going. I’m just going to see the gap getting wider and wider.” No one predicted it. It surprised everybody, but it’s not really getting enough attention yet.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. So the disparities between male and female accomplishment in education are pretty obvious now, but you also note that there are some other top-line problems facing men today. The wages of most men are lower today than they were in the 1970s, while women’s wages have risen across the board. One in five fathers are not living with their children. Men account for two out of three “deaths of despair,” either from a suicide or overdose. 65,000 more men than women died of COVID in this pandemic. And you also note that many of these problems are compounded for boys and men who are on the receiving end of other forms of inequality such as social class and race, with black men in particular facing not only institutional racism but gendered racism.
And as you just said, the problems of boys and men are structural in nature but rarely treated as such. As you put it in your book, “Boys are falling behind in school and college because the educational system is structured in ways that put them at a disadvantage. Men are struggling in the labor market because of an economic shift away from traditionally male jobs. And fathers are dislocated because the cultural role of family provider has been hollowed out.”
Richard Reeves: I actually think the gap in deaths of despair is even probably a bit wider than you suggested. I think it’s about a threefold difference in the male-female gap. The economic fact, again, is an important one. I think the fact that most men today earn less than most men did in 1979 is a very important economic fact. So if American men — this is in the U.S. — if American men were a nation and we were measuring how well that nation was doing economically through their earnings, it’d be poorer today than it was four decades ago. That’s remarkable. It’s remarkable to go backwards. It’s one thing to not grow very much, but it’s another to go backwards. And again, it’s important to distinguish between the different classes, because at the top, men at the top are earning more than men at the top did in 1979. But the male wage distribution in general has actually slid back a little bit. And that has all kinds of consequences for culture, for family formation, for men’s prospects, and also for just how men feel about themselves, honestly.
There is a cultural element to it, too. But then we’ve got to look at why. And it is some of these shocks to the economy that have taken place through free trade (which I support), through immigration (which I support) — but recognizing that there are some downsides to a lot of positive changes. And I think in general our unwillingness sometimes to recognize the byproducts of some of these changes and tackle them properly has really left a lot of men on the sidelines. And I think that plays out in family life, too. And again, it’s these working-class men, especially men from the bottom of the economic distribution and black men — who in no way could be described as patriarchs, if patriarchy means anything now. And so it’s really those men that I’m most concerned about and where I think the deepest problems lie.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’d like to, if I could, step back from the book for just a moment. And I wonder if you could tell me something about yourself, your background, early influences, how you came to the general subject that you study?
Richard Reeves: I grew up in the U.K., as you can probably tell. And I grew up in an industrial town just about an hour north of London. My parents were upwardly mobile and had landed there because my father ended up working manufacturing on the white-collar side, having worked at Ford. And he actually was hit pretty hard in the manufacturing recessions of the 1980s, to the extent he actually was out of work for a while. And I think to some extent I’ve been really influenced by my parents’ upbringing in various ways. Their upward mobility, I think, was one of the things that really motivated some of my work around inequality. And that sense of anger that I inherited, I think, of any barriers that were put in front of people by class, gender, race and so on. But I also think that it’s now clearer to me that, both as a father myself but also as a scholar, just watching my father be a father from his generation where his bedrock responsibility was bread winning and then to be unemployed, twice… And when he was first unemployed, actually every day getting up and putting on his tie, shirt and tie, and shaving and then going into the spare room to bash out resumés to get a job. And I remember him saying to me, “My job now is to get a job.” And he also taught us to swim and all the other stuff that fathers do — and mothers I should say too. I think that was a modeling for me too, but it also made me realize both the upsides and downsides of the traditional male role model. But what I very strongly felt was he was a father as the core part of his identity. And that’s I think influenced me quite strongly as I’ve worked on this book.
What was that industrial town where you grew up?
It was called Peterborough. They had a big factory there called Baker Perkins, a lot of agricultural work too. I worked in a frozen pea factory as a teenager. My mum was actually a night nurse at one of the factories for a while — which makes it all sound a little bit more sort of Dickensian than it was. We were an affluent family by most people’s standards. But it was very much what Americans would call a middle-class town — voted for Brexit quite strongly in the Brexit referendum, which is always a good test of what kind of constituency was it. So, yeah, just an hour north of London. But then I left from there to go to university. And then I zigzagged between journalism, politics, academia, and think tanks for all of my time in the U.K., and actually ended up working in the coalition government for Nick Clegg as his director of strategy. So I’ve done my dose of politics. And I worked for the first Blair government as well, actually. So I’ve dabbled in politics for a few years here and there.
Geoff Kabaservice: I took a master’s degree at Cambridge University, so I actually went to Peterborough a few times. It was a good music town at that point.
Richard Reeves: Yes. It has a beautiful cathedral as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: It does.
Richard Reeves: It was genuinely mixed town. Lots of immigration. I think the school I was at was… I think it’s now 50%, but it was a very high proportion of Pakistani immigrants kids at the school, so very, very racially mixed at that time. That had been after a big immigration wave, obviously from the Asian subcontinent. Mixed in all kinds of interesting ways.
Geoff Kabaservice: And was that a school that we here in the United States would refer to as a public school?
Richard Reeves: Yes, it was for sure — a very large what we call a comprehensive school, and mixed in all kinds of ways. And I think this influenced my work too, because it was comprehensive. Actually, a lot of the kids who were of Pakistani origin lived nearer to another school, but it was a Church of England school and at that time you had to be in the Church of England to go to that school, so they all came to our school. Plus we had a center for disabled kids at the school, partly because it was on one level, which meant the kids in wheelchairs could be there. And we took quite a lot of students who’d been in juvenile services too. And so it was actually genuinely very, very mixed on all kinds of levels. And then there were kids like me from pretty affluent backgrounds. And it had an incredibly strong orchestra and debating team, which was done at lunchtime. One of the things that actually got me away to university was I discovered that I loved debating, and here I am still doing it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Were you unusual in your comprehensive school in going on to Oxford?
Richard Reeves: Yeah. I think I was the third from my school to go there, to go to either Oxford or Cambridge. I don’t think many have been since. So it was pretty unusual. I think I was there at quite an unusual period in the school’s history. And weirdly it was only because a girl who was a bit older than me, Sarah Shaikh, who went to Oxford to do law, she told me to come visit her and I went to visit her. And my head was turned and I went back and actually started working, and I actually managed to follow in her footsteps. But it was only that personal connection. I knew her through the debating team. A teacher set up a lunchtime debating club, which we loved, and I did it with Sarah. Sarah Shaikh went off to university and she basically almost forced me to go visit her. And I visited her, and she’s really the reason that I went to Oxford.
Geoff Kabaservice: Which college were you at there?
Richard Reeves: I was at Wadham College. Its main claim to fame, as far as I am aware, is that it has the most symmetrical front quad. I’m sure that I’ll get hounded by my fellow Wadhamites for saying that, but I do remember that about it.
Geoff Kabaservice: And how did you experience Oxbridge, if you want to put it that way?
Richard Reeves: I enjoyed it greatly. It was another interesting moment for me in terms of thinking about social class, which has animated a lot of my work, because it was… I think at least at that time most of the kids, probably a bit more than 50%, were from private schools as opposed to state schools or public schools, and very few from the sort of school that I was coming from. And so in that sense it was a bit of an adjustment. But one of the things I actually discovered was that the really posh kids were generally fine; they actually were perfectly nice people. I found the inverse snobbery of the other kids from working-class backgrounds more annoying. It became this massive chip on their shoulder. There’s this great line from Tracey Emin, the British artist. She says, “One of my problems is that the chip on my shoulder hasn’t noticed how successful I am now.”
And I really felt that at Oxford. There were all these working-class kids that sort of carried their working-class back credentials around with them, and they just continued to be… And I was looking at them like, “You are at Oxford. At some point surely the chip has to start shrinking a little bit.” And I made great friends with people who had been to Eton and various other people. And so in that sense I find inverse snobbery almost as toxic as snobbery, because it’s the same thing. It’s the same writing-off of certain people because of their backgrounds rather than treating them as an individual, rather than looking the person in front of you in the eye and saying, “What kind of person is this?” So that did have quite a big influence on the way I think about these things.
Geoff Kabaservice: I encountered that same kind of working-class chip-on-the shoulder phenomenon at Cambridge. Although, confusingly, really posh people, like at King’s College, also affected all sorts of working-class-style glottal stops, so sometimes it was a bit hard to tell who was who.
Richard Reeves: People pretended… Well, Blair did that as well of course. It became a thing to… And I didn’t sound like this when I went to Oxford. So, you were at King’s, is that where you were studying?
Geoff Kabaservice: No, I was actually at Jesus College. But King’s was by far the poshest thing going at Cambridge, at that time at any rate.
Richard Reeves: Right. But also if you switch countries, then the accent confuses people anyway.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s true too. So how did you classify yourself politically back then? Because you did go to work for Nick Clegg, who was a Liberal Democrat and liked to call himself a “radical centrist.” So of course that’s interesting to me. But I’d just be curious to know how you considered yourself politically then — and now for that matter?
Richard Reeves: Yes, that’s my journey. I would’ve considered myself to be Labour. I worked for a Labour think tank…
Geoff Kabaservice: Demos?
Richard Reeves: No, actually I worked for the Institute for Public Policy Research with David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Patricia Hewitt, various people. And so I was very much in the New Labour crowd. And then when Blair won in ’97, I went in to work for Frank Field, who was Blair’s minister for welfare reform for a while. And that was in between working for The Guardian and The Observer newspaper. But all through that period, I would describe myself as Labour, and I was very Blairite. So to that extent I was very strong on the Blairite side of the Labour divide all along, so in that sense pretty centrist even at that point.
Then I spent many years writing a biography of John Stuart Mill. And one of the results of that was to make me realize that I really was a liberal, and sufficiently so that it wasn’t enough to try and stay within the Labour party and be a liberal within the Labour Party, but that it was time — particularly under Nick Clegg’s leadership — to become a Liberal Democrat. And so when I became the director of Demos, the think tank over there, I did a lot of work in this space. Nick actually came and spoke and wrote for us. And we did a lot of stuff with the Conservatives as well, and with Labour — we did a lot across the board. But that point I was out as a liberal and as a Liberal Democrat, and writing that “If you’re a liberal, vote Liberal.” And then obviously the coalition formed and Nick asked me to join him in government. So I did about the first half of the coalition government with him, doing some speechwriting and policy.
Geoff Kabaservice: All kinds of questions I could ask you about that… Obviously it didn’t work out that well for the Liberal Democrats being in coalition in David Cameron’s Conservative government, at least electorally. But I wonder how you feel about radical centrism generally? Is it still something you look to?
Richard Reeves: Yeah. You asked how I define myself. I like that label. I like “vital center” too. I think that what we’re trying to get at with both those phrases is to get past the idea that the center is boring, that it’s moderate, that it’s split-the-difference politics. And instead I think to found it around… I like liberalism because I do think that having this commitment to the flourishing of individuals — and, in a very John Stuart Mill sense, finding cultures, societies, and structures that allow them to do that — is still the very best bet for building good societies. And I find the post-liberal arguments that are going on right now to be entirely unconvincing. There are some interesting points being made by the post-liberals, but it just runs into the sands. Liberalism is absolutely the right way to think about politics in my view, but it does sound soggy if you’re not careful about it.
What I liked about Nick — and I think it’s true — is that he was actually a liberal to his fingertips. He was an actual liberal. He recognized that liberal societies are messy and raucous, and it’s a job of work to build a liberal society. It’s not something that runs itself like a little machine that you can set to run. You’ve got to roll your sleeves up, you’ve got to work. And Nick in that sense… It became clear to me as I got to know him: “OK, this guy really means it.” And that wasn’t true of all the Liberal Democrats, quite a lot of Social Democrats and other Democrats from the SDP days. And so that’s a political philosophy — and in fact a moral philosophy — that really I think I discovered latterly was really what had been driving me all along.
Geoff Kabaservice: Despite having wrestled with the terms moderation and centrism for decades now, it’s not entirely clear to me what they mean. I think everyone agrees that a moderation that simply tries to split the differences between left and right is probably worse than useless. But your book strikes me as an example of a kind of approach, which maybe we can call moderate or centrist, which seeks solutions to societal problems by looking in the spaces between the entrenched ideological positions of left and right. In the case of Of Boys and Men, progressives refuse to accept that gender inequalities can run in both directions, and to the extent that they accept that there are distinctive problems for boys and men, they write them off as the consequences of “toxic masculinity.”
Conservatives often are more sensitive to the struggles of boys and men, but their solution, as you pointed out, is to try to restore a patriarchal society complete with traditional gender roles. And what I like about your approach is, as you write, “What is needed is a positive vision of masculinity that is compatible with gender equality.” So really trying to avoid the problems of both left and right while finding actual solutions.
Richard Reeves: Yeah. And I’m acutely aware that there’s a danger here of both-sides-ism. And also there’s an intellectual vanity that can trip you up: It’s like: “Look, the left is getting this wrong, the right is getting this wrong. Here’s me coming through, the superior to all of them.” And there is a certain satisfaction to that framing. And so I’m aware of the dangers here. But I do try to give credit where it’s due as well to both sides. I think that there’s a lot of conservative thinkers, for example, who were warning that actually one of the consequences of greater gender equality and economic power for women may well be to dislocate men. They were really worried about that.
Geoff Kabaservice: You even cite George Gilder, who was saying that in the ’70s.
Richard Reeves: I do. And every time you do that, of course, if you’re looking over your left shoulder, you’re like, “I’m going to get attacked for this.” But you have to write without worrying about that. And I think they were right, they were right to worry. I don’t think things turned out like… they thought there’d be marauding bands of unmarried men going around, and of course crime rates have dropped very significantly rather than that. But I think they were right to worry about the dislocation. What they were wrong to do is say, “That’s why we should stop feminism.” As a liberation movement it was just unstoppable and had all the force of morality behind it. But they weren’t wrong about that. And the left aren’t wrong to say that there are still huge issues facing girls and women, and we absolutely need to continue to focus on them. And there are many circumstances where women are in a power relationship with men that inhibits their autonomy.
But they’re also both wrong about a lot of this stuff. And most importantly… I don’t know if I use this analogy in the book, but it’s like trench warfare. It’s just like, “If we give these people an inch, they’ll take the whole lot. They’ll overrun the entire sector.” It is like World War I-style warfare where everyone’s dug in and terrified of losing even a tiny bit of ground: “If we give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” And I do think in the case of sex and gender, it’s true. And so I didn’t set out to say, “I’m going to steer a path through the middle. Whatever the left’s saying, whatever the right’s saying, I’m going to come between them.” It was more just this growing frustration with both sides of this missed opportunity. So I didn’t sort set my GPS by taking the two and say, “Go between those two positions.” Honestly, I think that if I thought that one side or the other was doing better on this issue, I’d like to think I would’ve said so. I just genuinely don’t think they are.
Geoff Kabaservice: I want to briefly allude here to your 2017 book, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. This book was a big influence really on everybody here at the Niskanen Center, not least for the ways in which my colleagues Brink Lindsey and Steve Teles grappled with similar issues in their book on The Captured Economy. And in cartoonishly brief terms, that book looks at the way that the upper middle class, which you define as the top 20% of earners, has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. What’s the connection between Dream Hoarders and Of Boys and Men?
Richard Reeves: It’s the intersection between those pulling apart of class boundaries that you just described there. Very good job, by the way; that’s a pretty good pemmican of Dream Hoarders. I should capture that myself when I forget what it was about. It is that… It’s this need to look at gender through a class lens and vice versa. Because at the top, in those upper middle class households, actually men are basically doing pretty well. Their wages are higher than men in the same position. And they are tending to share households with women who are doing unbelievably well by comparison. But it scrambles the idea of this simple gender binary. So it is the case now that 40% of women earn more than the median man. In 1979, it was only 13% of women who earned more than the median man. You have to pause on that for a moment.
What that means is the distributions are just overlapping much more tightly now. Now, it’s not 50%. When we get to 50% of women, then we’ll have got to absolute gender equality in the labor market. So we’re not there yet, and there’s all kinds of reasons for that we could get into, largely about family. But wow, that’s a different world. And the class gap… While the gender gap pay gap has narrowed, the class gap has widened and the race gap has remained very stubborn. And so women at the top of the distribution are earning way more than men in the middle or the bottom. And white women are earning much more than black men. They didn’t use to, but they overtook them in the ’90s. And so I think those are the sorts of things that we really have to be looking at as we’re talking about this.
And I really worry — this is a connective tissue between the two books that you’re helping me draw out — that for upper-middle-class folks, you look around and you very often say, “What’s the problem here?” That’s true of all kinds of things, whether it comes to health issues, obesity, marriage rates, and in this case men: “I don’t really see the problem here.” But when it comes to gender, the problem is that we might be leaning in, to use Sheryl Sandberg’s famous phrase, but not looking down. And life is very different indeed for men further down the ladder — especially black men, but also white working-class men and working-class men of all races. And the combination of narrowing gender gaps on average across the board and widening class gaps means that it’s very important to widen the lens here and look at the prospects not just of the men at the top who still dominate boardrooms and Congress and so on, but the men lower down.
Geoff Kabaservice: As you put it, “Facing left, there is simply no way to reduce economic inequality without improving the fortunes of less advantaged boys and men.”
Richard Reeves: That’s my view, yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s another divide here, although you don’t often explicitly allude to it, which seems to be a generational divide. I hope you don’t spend as much time as I do looking at memes online, but you’re probably familiar with a sort of genre which is young people saying, “When my parents were my age, in their late twenties or early thirties, they had a home, a car, they were already started on a family. Here I am on the couch in my parents’ basement playing video games with only a bag of Doritos to my name.” And I suppose that is a question: What happened to make apparently the chances for young people, particularly young men, so different 50 years ago versus today?
Richard Reeves: Well, it’s true to say that the old scripts that both men and women used to have were simultaneously constraining but also simplifying, like all scripts. The thing about a script is it’s pretty easy to follow. And so for men in particular the script was: “Get educated. Maybe get a bit more educated. Why? So that you can go and earn more. Why? Because you’re going to have to take care of a family, and your prospects of earning more are going to be important to forming a family and who you form a family with.” I’m not suggesting it was that explicit, but that was just what you did. It is what my dad did. It was laid out for you, and similarly for women. So my dad went off to university to earn more so he could do more. My mom was told, “Be a nurse or a teacher,” and left school at 17 because that would allow you to raise your kids. No one questioned it.
And so the tearing-up of those scripts by the women’s movement, which has been a profoundly liberating change, has also been a disorienting one. And I think it’s been particularly disorienting for men, because there is a new script for women which is: “Become economically independent. Make sure you can stand on your own two feet. Become powerful so that you don’t have to rely on a man.” That was one of the main purposes of the women’s movement, and it’s been achieved with spectacular success, even if not completed. Wow, are things different from 40 years ago. What about men? What’s the new script for men in this world where women don’t need them? And we haven’t really invented one yet. And so without a script, I do think there’s a danger of dislocation, disorientation, and drift. And that’s what I think you’re seeing in a lot of young men.
It’s like, “Why should I do X? And we don’t have a great answer for that for a lot of young men now. And I think that’s why this is quite a deep cultural problem as much as it is in economic or a social or political oner. We’ve really radically transformed the economic relationship between men and women in the blink of an eye, and we haven’t helped men to adjust to this new world. And the result is that many of them are left reeling or — to use the stereotypes you just used, but there’s some truth to them — on the couch, on the sofa. But it’s not clear to many of them why they shouldn’t do that: “What’s the script that I’m supposed to be reading from now?” And they don’t know.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the ways that I think about the connection between Dream Hoarders and Of Boys and Men is that Dream Hoarders is largely about some of the consequences of the United States moving toward a meritocratic society, and many of the negative consequences of that happening. And part of the reason that I got into history was just that it’s fun to think about the strangeness of the past, how much it is a foreign country. And the key figure in my first book was Kingman Brewster, who was really the person who brought meritocracy to Yale University in the 1960s. As part of that, he also was the person who co-educated a college that had been all-male since its founding in 1701. And the way in which coeducation was talked about back then really boggles the mind.
It was thought then that young women, by going to college, particularly to an expensive college like one of the Ivies, would incur what was called “a negative dowry.” That is to say, they’d come out with college debt, and what man in his right mind would want to take on that negative dowry by marrying these women? So actually giving them an education at a place like Harvard or Yale would be a negative for their life’s chances, particularly of getting married. No one at that time thought that actually this would allow that particular incoming generation of young women in the late ’60s and early ’70s a huge leg up in the professions, and that increasingly there would be an earnings premium attached to precisely the kind of jobs that rewarded people who came from that sort of education. So I think meritocracy is definitely part of what has sidelined men, because as you say, they aren’t as interested in education, they mature more slowly in school. And also because the nature of men’s work has been so radically changed by forces like automation and globalization.
Richard Reeves: That’s interesting. I think the way you’re framing it is the… So, first of all, meritocracy has been good in the sense that it’s allowed the people who are the best for the job or best in class to rise. But it’s also exposed structural disadvantages for some groups. But also, as Amartya Sen famously said, the thing about merit is you’ve always got to watch for who’s defining what’s meritorious — and it’s typically the winners that define merit. But I think it’s possible to claim that some of the things we see as meritorious now are at least as likely to be found in women, and in the women’s skills and education, as they are in men. And so that could be part of the sidelining, and men are struggling to catch up. But I think your point about college is super interesting. I think it’s one of the reasons, probably.
Women didn’t go to college very much at all, of course. It was 10% or something in the late ’60s. But another fact that kind of blew my mind was that up until the early 1970s — and I was born in ’69, I’m in my early fifties, and so this is within my lifetime — until that point the typical woman who did go to college and get a four-year degree was married within a year of graduating. And of course we know what marriage meant in those times, but married within a year of graduating… Whereas now almost if you’ve got four-year college degree it’s into your early thirties — late twenties, early thirties. It’s just one of those little signs of just how far the world has changed when it’s even the women who went to college — it was a small number — were married within a year of graduating, which is I think a sign of both these cultural and social changes that underlie a lot of what’s going on here.
I think that what you are pointing to is this sense that… There’s all these facts and figures in my book, as I’m trying to make it as authoritative as possible. But very often what’s happening is there are these subcurrents, there are these cultural subcurrents which connect these different data points but are really beneath them. And so this question of motivation that you were referring to earlier, of agency, of “oomph” of whatever it is, “You go girl” or whatever… That sense of propulsion that you can’t really measure, but you can see outcomes from it.
And so, again, I was really struck by the fact that women are now twice as likely to study abroad. That’s conditional on being in college in the first place, but for every subject. Twice as likely to volunteer for AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. And why is that? There’s no obvious reason why. And also it’s ignored generally. So that’s terribly intriguing to me. And that’s a change that has really shifted the ratios. And I think it is just this sense of propulsion. So, to extend the metaphor probably too far, it’s like a lot of these young women have got two massive engines on the back of their boat when they’re going, and the guys are just tinkering with the engine and paddling along by comparison. Or they are in a sailboat: “Why is she going so much faster?” And she’s got two massive Yamaha engines on the back.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something else interesting about your analysis is that you point out that this is an international phenomenon to some extent as well. 58% of college students in the U.K. are now women. And I think one of the stats you also mentioned is that internationally boys are 50% more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects: math, reading and science. So this is something that we’re seeing not just here in the United States but in many developed societies as well.
Richard Reeves: That’s right, especially the education point, but actually a lot of these trends: labor force participation and obviously economic inequality too. But the education one is so consistent, in advanced economies especially — I think it’s important to make that distinction — that it’s really hard not to think there’s something structural there and there isn’t something about the way that the education systems are operating that isn’t putting boys and men at a slight disadvantage. It’s just like when every country in the OECD has more young women with tertiary education than young men, and that was the opposite just a few decades ago. And so that’s one of the reasons why I think we have to look to structural explanations. Because when it’s happening everywhere, it’s not something wrong with what’s happening, it’s not the U.S. K-to-12 education system. There’s something deeper.
And as I alluded to earlier, I think one of the main problems is this treatment of girls and boys at the age of 15 as if they’re actually the same, developmentally speaking, when they’re not. The boys are a long way behind on average. But also this motivation: what are the incentives? I think that girls and women feel very strong incentives to get highly educated so that they can be economically independent. I think that’s a very powerful message to them. And you just don’t get quite the same incentive structure for boys and men. Arguably their incentives have softened. Because, as I said, my dad went to college so that he could get a better job so he could raise his family better. But now, I’m not sure that many young men feel that motivation anymore. And so the motivations around education have perhaps actually reversed between men and women.
Geoff Kabaservice: Possibly. Although another one of the stats that stood out to me was that in 2020 the law review at every one of the top 16 law schools in this country had a woman as editor-in-chief. And it is definitely still a matter of importance, shall we say, to get that kind of position for the sake of your future career.
Richard Reeves: Yeah. And there’s also been these studies of high school valedictorians being at least — I couldn’t nail this fact down enough to put it in the book, but 75% of high school valedictorians. I think the editor of every newspaper at the Ivy League was a woman in that same year or the following year. And it’s a bit what you’re talking about, Geoffrey, about your own experience too. It’s not just this general trend for girls and women to be doing better than boys and men in education, but really these top honors. It’s really: Where are laurels going to right at the top here? And there I think the gender skew just gets even stronger, even more than anything else.
There is another example that speaks a bit more to this weird little motivational thing. The New York Times does this competition every year, a high school essay-writing competition, and the winners get to get published. And I went through them and it was almost all girls. And so I emailed them and I just said, “Are you tracking the gender of the applicants?” And they said, “Yeah, it’s probably three-quarters girls.” They went and looked for it for me. And again, what’s going on there? What is it? And I think, again, it’s this purpose, this agency, this ambition, this aspiration. Whatever we’re talking about, there’s an aspiration gap here too. I have this line in the book where I said that for a long time women have had to be fighting misogyny from without, but now men are fighting and struggling for motivation from within. And I do think that this motivation point is important, but we have to look at the structures and systems and norms and signals that cause us to be motivated. This doesn’t come out thin air. It’s: “Well, why should I be motivated? Why should I get better educated?” And as I said, the danger is we have a great answer for that for women now, but we don’t have such a great answer for men.
Geoff Kabaservice: My sister is an advanced nurse practitioner dealing with psychiatry and psychology in Tennessee. And she sees a lot of men from this very red state, these very left-behind areas. And a lot of what she says is these men are just missing the things their parents had in terms of work, family, and religion to some extent. And I was reminded of that when you quoted one author writing on the phenomenon of male suicide, saying that men are afflicted by “a gnawing sense of purposelessness.” And you wrote that “The true cause of male malaise, I believe, is not lack of labor force participation but cultural redundancy.” And I thought that was very telling.
Richard Reeves: Yeah. And of course those things all get wrapped up together. It’s this sense of men being benched, or benching themselves in many cases. And I think that’s partly because if they fail to fulfill the traditional role of breadwinner and we haven’t updated their role, then there’s a sense of, “Well, then I’m benched.” But I actually cite the work of Kathryn Edin, who’s now at Princeton. And she led a research team that led to a paper on “The Haphazard Self” which looked at men in working-class communities. And it was precisely the point that your sister was making, which is that these men used to have these anchors, institutional anchors for identity and purpose, and they were the ones that you’ve just identified. And absent those, their point is that these people are trying to construct a self but that they’re doing it haphazardly. They’re improvising. This is the language that Kathryn Edin uses, their sense of improvisation.
And improvising is really hard, improvising a self is hard. And I say this as a Mill-ian liberal. Mill absolutely understood that you need help to do that, and that there are institutions and cultures that help you to do that, there are norms and institutions. It’s just that those institutions can be revised and individuals can sometimes depart from them — which isn’t this sandblasted landscape that the post-liberals claim. And men in particular have lost some of those anchors more strongly than women have because fatherhood doesn’t have the same anchoring role as motherhood.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think this might have been a depressing book if not for the fact that you work in a think tank and therefore you have solutions. So I’d like to go through some of them. One of the ideas you put forward is the subject of an article that you just put out in The Atlantic a few days ago called “Redshirt the Boys.” This is the term from the athletic world, where a student is redshirted by staying behind a grade so that they can be bigger when it comes to actually entering the football game or whatever it is. But your idea is basically to introduce a one-year chronological age gap for boys by keeping them back a year. Is that more or less accurate the way that I’ve described it?
Richard Reeves: It is, yeah. And I think the broad point you make, and I appreciate you saying this, is that I do lean pretty heavily on solutions in the book. And that was something I really forced myself to do there. I’m pretty sure it’s Yascha Mounk who talks about “the chapter 11 problem,” which is there’s all these books that you have ten chapters just outlining in exquisite detail just how screwed we all are. And then the publisher or someone says, “Well, you’ve got to have some solutions.” And so, Chapter 11 says, “Let’s have pre-K and, I don’t know, something else, more free college.” And you can tell it’s tacked on and sometimes you wish it wasn’t there. But I just felt like — probably partly because of what I do for a living, but also I wanted to move the debate onto an argument about solutions rather than just about problems.
And so one of them is this idea that boys should start school a year later than girls. And the reason for that is that because, especially in adolescence, there is quite a big developmental gap on average between girls and boys. And that particularly comes in the form of development of the prefrontal cortex, which is the bit that helps you get stuff done — “the CEO of the brain” is how it’s sometimes referred to. And so it’s like planfulness, organization, ability to defer gratification, look to the future — all the stuff that helps you get a good high school GPA, fill out a college essay, et cetera.
I had one of my kids refuse on principle to apply anywhere that required a college essay — that would be more work. But that wasn’t true of his female classmates who were churning out college essays every night. But that kind of planfulness you get… And the boys do catch up, but later. And the biggest gap seems to be at about 15-16, which is a critical period in education and particularly skills that are rewarded in the current education system. So by having the boys be a year older than girls, what it would mean chronologically, what it would mean is that they were developmentally a little bit closer. So in that sense I think it would be more equitable. It would level the playing field somewhat.
Geoff Kabaservice: You point out that the upper middle class, because they read authors like Malcolm Gladwell, who’s written about this in Outliers — they already do practice this.
Richard Reeves: I’m getting lots of emails now from people saying, “Oh, this is great! I’m going to do this!” — which is what a lot of my colleagues worried about, which is “You’re just going to raise the issue again, which is going to make lots of upper-middle-class people do it.” And their boys benefit the least, compared to lower-income boys, from that extra year. And so that is a real danger with this kind of work. But it’s really, as a matter of public policy, I think it’s important that more lower-income parents have the opportunity to do this so that the boys are on something more of a level playing field, because otherwise the boys are behind all the way. And there are all kinds of challenges to it. I’m getting lots of very interesting feedback on the proposal.
Obviously I did a lot of work with a lot of the authors coming into it. But one of the things I’ve wondered is that everyone’s assumed that the only way to do this is for boys to go a year later than currently. But of course another way to do it is for girls to go a year earlier, because they are just that much more ready maybe. And that would mean that the boys would go as they currently do, but they wouldn’t be in classrooms where they’re being out-competed all the time by the girls. And the US does have a relatively late starting age. I haven’t really fully thought this through yet, but I very clearly don’t say what the those ages should be. It’s just that it’s very clear that at 15, 16 especially, if you’ve got a classroom of 50/50 boys and girls, everything else equal, the girls are going to be ahead just because their brains have developed much more quickly.
One of the reasons for that is they hit puberty quite a bit earlier. And interestingly, there’s some evidence that COVID seems to be pulling forward puberty a little bit more for girls as well. There’s been some research on that earlier. And so, that could — again, we don’t know how that’ll play out, but there is just this fact that girls become young women earlier than boys become young men. And to the extent the education system rewards the skills that typically come with young womanhood or young manhood, then it’s no surprise the girls are doing so much better. The miracle is really that the gap isn’t bigger than it already is. The question is: Why didn’t we see it before? And the answer is because of sexism. Girls didn’t go to college before, so we couldn’t see how much better they were. But what we’ve done is we’ve leveled the playing field in school, and what that’s done is it’s made it clear that some of the players are better than others. And they’re better because they develop earlier.
Geoff Kabaservice: You point out in passing that boys would benefit from more physical education in school, a later school start time, better food. But you put more emphasis on a proposal to get more men teaching boys. And particularly in the early years, particularly black men, and particularly teaching English. Tell me more about that.
Richard Reeves: Again, it’s one of these things where it’s quite hard to see exactly what the causal arrows here are. But it does seem like the boys benefit from having male teachers, especially in subjects like English. The evidence seems to suggest that girls benefit from having female teachers in subjects that are not traditionally seen as female, like science/STEM subjects. But the boys seem to do better when they have men teaching subjects that boys struggle in, like English, without affecting the performance of girls. And so the general picture is that K-12 education in the U.S. — and this is true in the U.K. too, and some other countries — is becoming progressively more female. It’s an occupation where, far from getting gender-desegregated, it is becoming more and more segregated. The same is true, by the way, of psychology, counseling, social work, many other professions. 76% of K-12 teachers are women now. In elementary schools it’s over 90% — there are lots of elementary schools with no male teachers at all.
And this is just happening and it’s not really getting any attention — not really seen as a problem, even though there is this evidence, as I suggest, that male teachers are particularly good for boys. And there’s evidence that if, particularly around race, if you intersect with race too, that black boys seem to benefit in particular from having black male teachers. There’s quite a lot of a push now for more racial diversity in the teaching profession, and I welcome that, but there’s almost nothing being said about gender diversity and almost nothing being said about this. And my fear is it’ll just keep going and keep going, and one day it’ll be 85% female and maybe someone will say, “Hold on, maybe this isn’t great. Maybe we need more men.” But by that point it’s become so gendered as an occupation that you are really going against the grain to try and persuade boys and men to go into it.
And so we’re approaching a dangerous tipping point, I think, where teaching is seen as a feminine profession. And one consequence of that could be that boys come to see educational success as female. And that actually, given Akerlof and Kranton’s work on identity economics, I really worry that educational success might start to be seen as a bit girly, a bit feminine. It already is to some extent, but that could get really locked in. And then you’ve got a very dangerous vicious cycle, I think.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. And social conservatives like Mona Charen have also worried about what’s going to happen to these women who are at lopsided gender-ratio colleges when they want to get married. And they tend to want to get married to men who have as much or more education than they do and who earn more than they do, and they’re going to find a much smaller pool of available mates in that sense.
Richard Reeves: Yeah, they’re going to have to adjust their expectations. And I think they will, by the way. I think they will.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve spoken with people like Oren Cass about the need to invest in more vocational education and training, although he didn’t really approach it from the same male-friendly point of view that you did. But I’m particularly interested in your coining of this term “HEAL jobs” — that’s H-E-A-L, and that’s an acronym for health, education, administration, and literacy. How would you get more men into such jobs and why should we?
Richard Reeves: Well, it’s a couple of things there. One is that I actually strongly agree with Oren on a lot of his work around vocational training, including in these HEAL professions, which I’ll come to. But I think there’s an important more general point here, which is one of the reasons why there’s a bit of a reluctance to invest in some of these vocational approaches is precisely because they are so skewed towards men. And the evidence is that they help boys and men. So if you look at the analyses, for example, of technical high schools, which I write about, I call for a thousand new technical high schools. Actually, there’s really good evidence that they help boys. No evidence they help girls. They don’t hurt girls, but they don’t help them at all. And the same with apprenticeships: 93% of apprentices right now are men. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the national apprenticeship bill is stuck in a Senate committee and has been for a year. It’s just because there’s this worry that it’s…
But I see that now as a feature rather than a bug given what’s happening to boys and men in education. And so the fact that vocational education seems to help boys and men more, I now think of as a good thing given what’s happening on the other side of the equation around academic education. And then one of the things that I think would be particularly helpful is to use more vocational opportunities to get men into these HEAL professions — health, education, administration, and literacy, which is the opposite of STEM, basically. And so the same effort we put into getting more women in STEM, I want to see us getting more men into HEAL.
And that’s for a few reasons. One, because those are really growing professions, growing areas, and so there are jobs there. My calculations are that for every one STEM job we’re going to create between now and 2030, we’re going to create three in HEAL. Secondly, a lot of those areas do have some quite serious potential labor shortages. Now, the shortage of teachers is actually a complex story, but we are going to need more nurses and we are going to need more teachers. And we shouldn’t try and solve those labor shortages with only half the workforce. And then thirdly — and in some ways I think I would now start with this if I was doing it again — I think it’s suboptimal if the users of services are 50/50 female/male, or maybe even more male than female, if the vast majority of providers are female. Clinical psychology is an example where it’s gone from 39% male to 29% male in the last 10 years alone. And if you look at psychologists under the age of 30, only 5% of them are male. So psychology is just galloping towards being basically a female profession. And I think there are some men who actually would prefer to speak to a male psychologist sometimes. I did when I was in therapy. And it’s not crazy that boys might want a male school counselor sometimes, and even in the care profession when you’re needing really intimate care in a social care environment or a nursing environment.
And so there are all kinds of reasons why it’s good for the men, it’s good for the professions, and it’s good for the users of those services. So we should throw some money at that problem. Where are the male scholarships, scholarships for men going into nursing and teaching? Where are the subsidies for employers hiring men in those professions? The answer is there are none of them, but there are all kinds of the equivalents for women into STEM. I think that socially it’s just as important now and we should invest appropriately.
Geoff Kabaservice: Specifically you call for a billion-dollar national investment in the twin goals of seeking 30% female participation in STEM and 30% male participation in HEAL jobs by 2030.
Richard Reeves: We’re nearly there for women in STEM. It’s 27% STEM jobs now by women, and women now account for the majority of scientists in the U.S. They are ahead in a lot of the STEM subjects in college. So, really great progress, still much more to do in terms of women in STEM. Meanwhile, there are fewer men in HEAL. The percentage of men in HEAL jobs is dropping. And so when you see one trend line going one way, you want to keep it going of course, but another trend line going the other way, I’m not sure that ignoring it completely for the reasons we’ve just discussed is the socially responsible thing to do.
Geoff Kabaservice: And among the other policy solutions that you put forward, one is paid leave for fathers as well as mothers: six months, 100% of income, on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. More of a tendency toward shared custody arrangements. Child support payments being more calibrated to father’s ability to pay. And more flexible job arrangements as well.
Richard Reeves: Yeah. I think that’s a great summary, thank you for that. Let me just step back a little bit and say, What are we trying to do here? Because I think that’s important context. What I’m trying to do with these policies and more generally is to try and rebuild fatherhood as an independent social institution. And this is where a lot of social conservatives very strongly depart from what I’m arguing here. Because my view is that the old view was that marriage was the way to bind men to children indirectly… So it used to be that women were economically dependent on men, men were dependent on women to raise the kids. The women had the direct relationship with the kids and the dads had an indirect relationship with their kids. So if you think of an org chart, it’s like a dotted line basically from the dad to the kid and then direct lines from father to mother and mother down to the kids.
And that world is not coming back, even if we wanted it to — which I don’t. And so we have to recognize the fact that marriage is not the vehicle anymore through which we essentially help continue to bond men and fathers to children. So what that means is it needs to be fatherhood itself. And so one of the reasons why I have this rather radical proposal for paid leave — and I think it is radical, back to where we started this conversation, Geoffrey — and it’s radical for all kinds of reasons: how long it is, how generous it is. But actually in some ways the most culturally radical thing about it is its equality. It’s independently available. So if dad doesn’t take it, it doesn’t transfer to mom. And what that does is it basically sends a very powerful signal and practice that dads matter as much as moms.
And I think that’s not a message that’s really being heard right now. And so if the message is that dads matter as much as mom because they’re our breadwinner — well, as soon as they fail to be a good enough breadwinner, they’re benched. If it’s that dads matter as helpers to mom — well, if they’re separated from the mom, or maybe they’re never even with them, they’re benched. And when 40% of kids are born outside marriage — born outside marriage, that’s even before we get to divorce — trying to reimagine the marriage contract that was a pretty stable if deeply unfair way to organize family life for a very long time is a fool’s errand. But that doesn’t mean we should just bench the fathers as a result. Fathers still matter, and I have some evidence for how they matter. And that’s the argument for giving them exactly the same rights to leave as mothers.
Again, pretty controversial on the left and the right. The right don’t like the idea that I’m saying we have to free fatherhood from marriage — that is basically what I’m saying. Of course the right don’t like that, because they still think, I think naively, that they can rebuild this marriage based on economic dependency. But the left don’t like it because they’re like, “Wait, you’re going to give it to the dads? Why aren’t you giving 12 months to the moms, especially if they’re a single mom?” And so they see it as a zero-sum game, to which my answer is: unless you get more fathers involved, that’s bad for mothers and women too. But again, I think it’s one of these debates that it’s proving quite hard to have right now. And anything like this smacks of “fathers’ rights,” which is of course automatically seen as a bad thing. And so this stuff can be a little bit difficult to persuade people of. But I think the egalitarian case for it is pretty strong.
Geoff Kabaservice: I love these proposals, but I worry about the political context into which they are going. You cited Josh Hawley’s speech at the National Conservatism conference last year, where he made a lot of hay about claiming that the left hates men and that’s why they’re doing badly. And yet he doesn’t really have any proposals. On the other hand, another one of the actually fairly depressing aspects of your book is that policy solutions often don’t work for men while they work for women, or vice versa in some cases. And I think this stems from what you identify as the failing of the left on issues relating to boys and men, which is just an unwillingness to acknowledge any biological basis for sex differences, as well as what you call the fixed conviction that gender inequality can only run one way, and that is to the disadvantage of women. So to what extent are you optimistic that there could be some movement on both the positions of left and right to achieve some of these solutions?
Richard Reeves: If I’m being candid, at a political level I’m pessimistic in the short run. But at a cultural level, I’m much more optimistic than I was when I started writing the book. At a political level, I think that, for now anyway, both sides are going to dig in. I think the Democrats are going to dig in as “the women’s party,” to label it. And many of the policies they’re pursuing point in that direction; even something like college loan forgiveness is of course a hugely pro-female policy overall. And various others because they want to turn out suburban women, especially white women, in the midterms. And I think the right will continue to play into this sense of “The left are after masculinity, men, family, religion, et cetera,” and stoke fear in the way that Hawley did in that speech, because I think that’ll get their base out. So I think to the extent both sides are playing to their bases right now, that doesn’t make me hopeful at all.
Culturally, I’m more optimistic. Because as I’ve talked to people about this, including very, very socially conservative folks but also diehard liberal feminists, they’re like, “Yeah, I’m listening.” And even if they don’t agree with all my proposals, they’re like, “Yeah, there is something here.” And it’s almost like people need a permission space to talk about this stuff. And one of my goals — this is now a sort of editorial goal, a rhetorical goal for the book, as opposed to a substantive one — was to try and create a permission space to have this conversation, particularly for people who are in the center. You could be afraid, if you’re in the center, that even talking about this stuff means: “Oh, so you agree with Josh Hawley then?” “No, no, no, that’s not what I mean!”
And so that’s the goal, partly… And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception from many folks in the center and a sense that yes, this is a conversation we need to be having, but we need to be having it sensibly, respectfully, try to do it authoritatively, try and do it in a solutions-oriented way, and try and look for solutions. And you’re right that I have a whole chapter, which is actually an essay in National Affairs as well, on how so many policy interventions, especially in education and training, really seem to have better effects for women and girls. That’s great. It means they worked for some. But they didn’t really work so well for the boys and men. So what should we be doing instead for the boys and men?
And we’ve talked about a lot of those things already around vocational training, maybe redshirting, et cetera. And that’s fine. It’s fine to say some things seem to be working for some groups and not others. Let’s be a little bit more targeted, perhaps, in some of these policies. But it requires you to recognize that there are gender differences in the first place. And one of the things I’m being accused of is “gender essentialism.” That’s the sort of thing you get accused of by even suggesting that there might be any differences, inherent differences, between boys and girls or men and women that might explain some of these patterns — which in my view they do to a certain extent. And again, it’s another false binary.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did you by any chance see Alex Lee Moyer’s 2020 documentary TFW No GF?
Richard Reeves: No. Someone else has mentioned that to me though.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s about incel and Frogtwitter subcultures. And one is always a bit suspicious of documentaries; they’re highly constructed rather than being direct representations.
Richard Reeves: Well, the manosphere is a dangerous place. But one of the arguments that I make is that if responsible people don’t address problems, irresponsible people will exploit them. And I think that that’s really happening, and that some of the things we’re most worried about… I’ve seen it in my own kids, you know. I now think that a Ben Shapiro phase is kind of like a rite of passage for American boys. So boys now almost have to go through that phase because they just need to hear someone saying some of this stuff. And then they go, “Yeah, actually, maybe not.” They grow out of it. So when my kids were into Ben Shapiro or somebody, I said, “It’s just a phase, it’s just a phase.” And sure enough it was. But if there’s nothing… This is where Hawley’s attack sounded so good to a lot of people. When he said, “The left think men are the problem. They think that masculinity is toxic,” it sounds true to a lot of people because the left do say some of that. But more importantly, there isn’t much there that they say that’s positive about boys and men.
And I think that the renaming of the Women and Girls Council as the Gender Equality Council in the Biden White House was a huge opportunity, a huge opportunity to say “Guess what, we’re about gender equality now, and there are some that go the other way, and we’re going to talk about those as well.” They absolutely didn’t do that. It’s completely asymmetric. And I just feel like that wouldn’t be too hard. I just feel like if you just pointed out some of the things we’ve talked about here, around suicide rates, deaths of despair, some of the educational problems that boys are having, especially black boys… We talked about my redshirting proposal, but one in four black boys are held back a grade by the time they finish high school. And so if just a few of those were put out there, I think it would completely blunt the attack from the right that the left don’t care about boys and men. And it would also be true that these are real problems that they could then address. And I feel that’s an opportunity that being missed on the left to do that.
And I think there’s an opportunity missed on the right, which is to say, “We’ve been saying this for a long time. We’ve been warning this is an issue for boys and men. So how can we engage in a conversation around this which is completely compatible with gender equality?” Women are getting more and more equal by the day. That is a good thing. It is not going to change. And so wishful thinking about a world of economic dependence of women on men is not going to help men today, because they’re the ones whose wives are the breadwinners. And they’re trying to raise their kids. They’re trying to make it work. And so I think there’s a missed opportunity on both sides here to have a really productive conversation about these problems, if only we can get past the trench warfare that they’re currently engaged in.
Geoff Kabaservice: And there’s real common ground for solutions that would make a big difference to our national happiness.
Richard Reeves: You’d think so. Some of these things about… And when I put these ideas out there, it’s a very interesting discourse. “Let’s have a really aggressive recruitment drive of male teachers into K-12. Who thinks more men into K-12 will be good idea?” Almost nobody says no to that. They think it’s a good idea. But then no one says anything. So what happens is it just lands, but is anyone going to do anything about it? Is anyone actually willing to spend any political capital pursuing that idea? Well, that remains to be seen. Because, again, that’s a great example because it’s really uncomfortable for the left: getting the teachers’ unions on board, spending money to attract men when all these women… It’s tough.
And the right are like, “We think K-12 education is the problem anyway. Let’s just give everyone a voucher and the market will sort itself out.” And actually probably what would happen is a lot of parents might choose schools that have more mix. I have a friend, very left wing, who moved her kids out of public school and into Catholic school. And it was partly about the COVID thing, but she has sons, and she said, “There’s a lot more men teaching at that school, and I think it’s good for them to be around men.” And this is a real liberal person. So I think that there’s demand there that’s not being met. And hopefully you could find some more vocational education. And even the redshirting proposal, let’s discuss that. And maybe there are better ways to help boys in education, but at least we’re having the conversation then about how do we solve this problem rather than denying there’s a problem in the first place.
Geoff Kabaservice: Richard Reeves, thank you again for joining me. Congratulations again on the publication of Of Boys and Men. And I really look forward to the national debate that I hope this book will start.
Richard Reeves: Fingers crossed. You’re doing your part. Thank you so much for that conversation, I loved it, Geoffrey.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.
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