Isn’t that too sensitive, writing a book about the man’s problems? Friends of Richard V. Reeves, who wrote Of Boys And Men, advised against it. In the current American political climate, they said, they wouldn’t want to burn themselves.
Progressives would put you right in the conservative camp, among the Trump voters. Because aren’t it still women who earn less, who are more often victims of sexual assault, who are not enough in the boardrooms? Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the “left” wants to label everything male as toxic and erase biological differences between men and women.
How to navigate through these polarized culture wars, which are fiercely waged in the United States in particular? We can both address men’s problems and be passionate about women’s rights, writes British-American Reeves, a senior fellow at the leading think tank Brookings Institution in Washington DC.
Men struggle. Reeves makes that clear with an abundance of, in particular, American statistics. Today, for every 100 bachelor’s degrees for women, 74 go to men, for example. Men drop out of school more often, are more often lonely, live less often with their children. Three out of four ‘desperate deaths’ (by suicide or overdose) are men.
In 2021, 15 percent of men said they don’t have close friends, in 1990 that was still 3 percent. “Suddenly, working for gender equality means focusing on boys instead of girls,” Reeves writes somewhat boldly.
Also read Maarten Huygen’s opinion piece: The man is indeed useful
But what about the pay gap? Yes, for every hundred dollars men earn in the US, women earn 82, Reeves writes right on the first page. But those are averages. Males are especially dominant at the top: only 41 of the 500 companies in the Fortune 500 have a female CEO, only 3 percent of US venture capital investments go to companies with female founders.
The extreme inequality at the top obscures other developments lower down the economic ladder. The income of men with only a high school diploma has fallen by 14 percent since 1979, adjusted for inflation. Among black Americans, who are still often in the lower socioeconomic class, women are now more breadwinners than men. White women earn more than black men.
Among young adults, the gender pay gap is virtually non-existent, especially if they have no children. The pay gap that exists, Reeves writes, is in fact a parenting gap. The woman loses income per child because she takes on the care tasks. (For lesbian couples where both women have a child, the income remains the same.)
While women have increasingly become breadwinners in recent years, fathers have not taken on caring responsibilities at the same pace. Reeves: “The shifting economic relationship between men and women has happened so fast that our culture couldn’t keep up.”
The role of the man in the family has long been defined as breadwinner. Men derive a large part of their identity from this, Reeves writes. The women’s movement has thus made male vulnerability visible (not caused). Women were economically dependent in families, but men were emotionally dependent, it now appears.
“The true nature of male misery is not a lack of labor market participation but a cultural redundancy,” writes Reeves. According to the Pew Research Center, women give meaning to their lives (work, family and friends) in more ways than men do.
Men also do not benefit from automation, because it mainly has an impact on professions that are mainly populated by men, such as in logistics and construction. While the demand for employees in traditionally ‘female’ professions, such as care and education, has only grown.
It is not surprising that many men in the lower classes are angered by the left-progressive resistance to “toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy.” They often see no ‘male dominance’ in their environment at all.
Reeves smartly criticizes both the progressive left, which he says does not sufficiently recognize that men can also lose out, and conservative groups, who would like to turn back the clock decades to restore traditional family relationships.
Reeves is not the first to put the man first. The earliest example from his own book dates from 1958 with Arthur Schlesinger’s essay ‘The Crisis of American Masculinity’. Reeves quotes liberally from The End of Men (2012) by Hanna Rosin. In the Netherlands, Maarten Huygen made a contribution with Het nut van de man. But Reeves says he was so shocked by the men’s problems that he decided to start writing himself. This provides a fairly complete and at the same time concise overview.
Also read the review of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: Matriarchy is the future
Of Boys And Men is at its strongest when Reeves shows how policymakers (at least in the US) have a blind spot for men’s problems. Given the lead of girls in education, it is actually incomprehensible that there is a National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, but no male variant. He is rightly angry that the ‘National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality’ does not mention a lagging behind of boys.
Reeves is a policy fetishist who also comes up with solutions, although they sometimes seem a bit simplistic. For example, he proposes a national recruitment campaign to make work in healthcare and education attractive to men. At present, efforts are still being made to solve staff shortages with ‘one half of the working population’. But Reeves never mentions the low wages in those sectors.
To improve boys’ performance at school, Reeves comes up with the radical idea of having boys start school a year later. He bases this mainly on biology: the brains and cognitive skills of boys are said to develop more slowly than those of girls. The science is not quite clear on that yet, but Reeves cites research that shows that boys benefit greatly from such a year delay.
The Netherlands is very different from the United States, but Of Boys And Men offers good starting points to talk more often about the problems of Dutch men. In the Netherlands, too, boys drop out of school more often, repeat more often and move on to lower levels of education more often, according to the Education Council. In the Netherlands too, many young men (and not all of them teenagers) no longer leave their rooms. Here, too, men die twice as often as women by suicide. In one age group, between the ages of 25 and 35, men are now more likely to be out of work.
Are we sufficiently aware of this in the Netherlands? Doing more for boys and men does not mean abandoning the ideal of gender equality. “It’s an extension of it.” That thought, Reeves concludes, shouldn’t be so loaded at all.
Richard V. Reeves: Of Boys And Men. Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It. Brookings Institution Press, 256 blz. € 27,95
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A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 25, 2022