Why Men Are Falling Behind
By virtually every important measure, American men are falling behind.
Up until the 20th century women in America — and pretty much all over the world — were treated like second-class citizens.
In recent decades, however, as more opportunities opened up, women’s accomplishments happened with breakneck speed.
Female college enrollment skyrocketed. i
Women flooded into the labor force.ii
And over the past several decades, women’s earnings grew at a dramatic pace.iii
There’s plenty of work yet to be done. But America’s women can tell a story of progress.
During this same time period, however, America’s men have undergone a massive decline. And researchers have a few ideas why.
“What the hell happened to men?” It’s no longer just a question your grandfather asks when he sees a Justin Bieber video.
While women have spent the past half-century or so making massive advancements, men have simultaneously been falling behind on nearly every important measure — not because women’s success comes at their expense, but because they’re facing a distinctive set of challenges.
In school? The top 10 percent of the country’s students are 2/3 female … while the bottom 10 percent is 2/3 male.iv Boys are much more likely than girls to graduate high school late or drop out entirely.v And, unsurprisingly, they’re also a lot less likely to go to college.vi
Men in the workplace? Well … even before COVID threw the economy into a tailspin, there were 9 million men between the ages of 25-54 who weren’t in the labor force. vii One in three men who only have a high school degree aren’t workingviii — and the ones who are, make less money than they used to.
Adjusted for inflation, men with a high school diploma typically earned a little over $1,000 a week in 1979. Today, that number is down to less than $900 a week.ix
And, as you might expect, there’s a whole host of social problems that follow from this. Nearly 75 percent of what are called “deaths of despair” — from suicides or overdoses — happen amongst men. x
So, what’s going wrong here?
Well, as scholar Richard Reeves explains in his book Of Boys and Men, one factor is likely the difference between how boys and girls develop. Specifically, when they develop.
Here’s the issue: Girls (and their brains) mature earlier than boys.
It turns out that girls see earlier development in the parts of the brain responsible for things like impulse control,xi modulating emotions, and, y’know … not lighting things on fire.
The result: If boys and girls start school at the same age … the boys are a lot less likely to be intellectually prepared for it. In fact, 14 percentage points less likely.xii
And those deficits only increase over the years. In the fourth grade, for example, girls’ reading proficiency is six percentage points higher than boys. By the time they reach the eighth grade it’s grown to 11 points higher.xiii
Men are also facing growing challenges in the job market. That’s in part because they’re overrepresented in fields like production, transportation, and construction — fields where jobs are more likely to disappear thanks to automation. xiv
So, education, jobs, struggles with addiction and depression: It all adds up to a pretty grim diagnosis. Which makes you wonder if there’s anything we can do about it.
The good news: There are actually efforts underway to address these problems.
The bad news: They’re mostly not working.
In fact, there’s a remarkable pattern of otherwise successful social programs … that do absolutely nothing for men.
Consider, for example, the Kalamazoo Promise. Yes, it sounds vaguely like the name of a doomsday cult, but it’s actually a charitable program that pays for free college for public school students in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Research has shown that the program is wildly successful, increasing the number of bachelor’s degree recipients by 45 percent … amongst women. For men, it did … basically nothing. The return on investment was actually negative.xv And no one’s entirely sure why.
So, in order to help men, we’re probably going to have to find solutions tailored to men. And in his book, Richard Reeves offers a few suggestions.
One proposal is surprisingly simple: Have boys wait an extra year before starting kindergarten so they’re better prepared for school.
Research has shown that this approach tends to lead to boys who are more attentive, less likely to be held back a grade, and prone to get better test scores.xvi Another piece of evidence in its favor: Wealthy parents are already doing itxvii — which is always kind of a dead giveaway.
And when it comes to jobs, Reeves suggest that men take a page out of women’s playbook. In the same way that there’s been an active campaign to get women into STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — he suggests that we should focus more energy on getting men into HEAL jobs — health, education, administration, and literacy.
Not only are those fields growing and less likely to be affected by automation, but they also give men a chance to be a positive influence on other men. The proportion of male teachers in American schools, for instance, is small and shrinking. It’s only 28 percent in middle schools and only 11 percent in elementary school.xviii Yet, research shows that male teachers in the classroom tend to improve the performance of male students.xix
Bottom line: There are things we can do to help. And it’s not a zero-sum game. The steps we can take to help men don’t need to come at the expense of women — and, in fact, are probably better for everybody. After all, these are our fathers, our brothers, and our sons. We’re all in this together.
And also … absolutely none of us benefits from this.
- "Undergraduate Enrollment Numbers in the United States From 1970 to 2030, by Gender" (Erin Duffin) — Statista
- Long-Run Perspective on Female Labor Force Participation Rates — Our World in Data
- Earnings of Full-Time Workers — U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Of Boys and Men — Richard Reeves, pg. 24
- "The Unreported Gender Gap in High School Graduation Rates" (Richard V. Reeves, Eliana Buckner, Ember Smith) — Brookings Institution
- "The Male College Crisis Is Not Just in Enrollment, but Completion" (Richard V. Reeves, Ember Smith) — Brookings Institution
- Of Boys and Men — Richard Reeves, pg. 44
- Labor Force Participation Rate: High School Graduates, No College, 25 Years and Over — U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Of Boys and Men — Richard Reeves, pg. 13
- Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair — U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee
- The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine, p. 65
- "Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children" (Julia B. Isaacs) — Brookings Institution
- Percentage of Students at or Above Selected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Achievement Levels, by Grade and Selected Student Characteristics: Selected Years, 2005 Through 2019 — National Center for Education Statistics
- "Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Are Affecting People and Places" (Mark Muro, Robert Maxim, Jacob Whiton) — Brookings Institution, pg. 7
- "The Merits of Universal Scholarships: Benefit-Cost Evidence from the Kalamazoo Promise" (Timothy J. Bartik, Brad Hershbein, Marta Lachowska) — Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis
- Of Boys and Men — Richard Reeves, pg. 164
- "First in the Class? Age and the Education Production Function" (Elizabeth U. Cascio, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach) — Education Finance and Policy
- Of Boys and Men — Richard Reeves, pg. 170
- "The Why Chromosome" (Thomas S. Dee) — Education Next
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"Undergraduate Enrollment Numbers in the United States From 1970 to 2030, by Gender" (Erin Duffin)
- Our World in Data
Long-Run Perspective on Female Labor Force Participation Rates
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Earnings of Full-Time Workers
- Of Boys and Men
Book by Richard Reeves
- Brookings Institution
"The Unreported Gender Gap in High School Graduation Rates" (Richard V. Reeves, Eliana Buckner, Ember Smith)
- Brookings Institution
"The Male College Crisis Is Not Just in Enrollment, but Completion" (Richard V. Reeves, Ember Smith)
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Labor Force Participation Rate: High School Graduates, No College, 25 Years and Over
- U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee
Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair
- The Female Brain
Book by by Louann Brizendine, p. 65
- Brookings Institution
"Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children" (Julia B. Isaacs)
- National Center for Education Statistics
Percentage of Students at or Above Selected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Achievement Levels, by Grade and Selected Student Characteristics: Selected Years, 2005 Through 2019
- Brookings Institution
"Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Are Affecting People and Places" (Mark Muro, Robert Maxim, Jacob Whiton), p. 7
- Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis
"The Merits of Universal Scholarships: Benefit-Cost Evidence from the Kalamazoo Promise" (Timothy J. Bartik, Brad Hershbein, Marta Lachowska)
- Education Finance and Policy
"First in the Class? Age and the Education Production Function" (Elizabeth U. Cascio, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach)
- Education Next
"The Why Chromosome" (Thomas S. Dee)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- "Why Men Are Hard to Help" (National Affairs)
- The Boys and Men Project (Brookings Institution)
- "Why Are Middle-Aged Men Missing From the Labor Market?" (New York Times)
- "Colleges Have a Guy Problem" (The Atlantic)
- "The Unrecognized Tragedy of Deaths of Despair" (STAT)
- "Education and Men Without Work" (National Affairs)