February 1, 2023

What’s Wrong with Men?


In a word, “women.” 

In my day, back in the day, there was often talk of “the war between the sexes.” Well, if there were such a war today, women would be winning it, hands down. By virtually every metric, women are now doing better, often much better, than men, and the disparity seems to be growing. Moreover, this is not just true for the United States, but is generally the case in developed countries around the world.

I learned all this from a book I am currently reading entitled, Of Boys and Men, by a distinguished social scientist named Richard V. Reeves. Of course, I’m not a social scientist myself, but I was originally a social psychologist by training and worked in that field until I became involved in near-death studies. So I have a kind of residual interest in matters sociological, even if I haven’t spent any time in recent years delving into that domain. But here, at least, we can dig into Reeves’s book to learn some basic facts about why men these days seem to suffer from a deficit of hope and purpose.

Reeves begins his book with a chapter called “Girls Rule.”  It’s all about the gender gap in education. Here are some of the points Reeves brings out in that chapter.

In the space of just a few decades, girls and women have not just caught up with boys and men in the classroom – they have blown right past them.

That’s true in college, too:

In the U.S…. the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.

Boys, according to Reeves, also struggle more with online learning. They seem to lack the motivation that girls have to “stick with the program,” literally. Apparently, they’d rather play video games or just goof off.

Boys are 50% percent more likely than girls to fail at all three school subjects: math, reading and science.

Not surprisingly, boys are less likely than girls to graduate from high school.

These differences in educational attainment are evident in grammar school, and continue all the way through college. Girls and women just do better.  

For now, I’ll just mention one last set of facts from this chapter where it really begins to make a huge difference – graduation from college and post-college education.

In the U.S., 57% of bachelor’s degrees are now awarded to women…. Women also receive the majority of law degrees, up from about one in twenty in 1970. [Furthermore,] in 2020, the law review at every one of the top sixteen law schools had a woman as editor-in-chief.

The same stats are true for advanced degrees in other fields, such as dentistry and medicine, where there have been huge jumps in favor of women.  

You get the picture: Girls rule, and, if this were a track meet, boys and men would be falling further and further behind.

But for now, let’s consider another feature of modern life that seems to have caused men to lose their foothold on what used to be solid ground for them: the women’s movement.

When exactly fifty years ago, Betty Friedan wrote her bombshell, The Feminine Mystique, the salvo that launched the women’s liberation movement, men quickly realized that they had reason to feel threatened. The king was about to be displaced from his throne, and although the queen would not replace him, his hitherto undisputed rule would gradually become history. As women became more independent and financially self-sufficient, men found themselves in existential shock, in danger of becoming de trop, a vestigial relic in an institution, marriage, where formerly they had reigned supreme.

Between men and women, the economic balance has clearly shifted in the direction of women, and for husbands this is often bad enough news, but it is even worse for men who do not live with women whether they are married to them or not, as Reeves points out.

Economically independent women can now flourish whether they are wives or not. Wifeless men, by contrast, are often a mess. Compared to married men, their health is worse, their employment rates are lower, and their social networks are weaker. Drug-related deaths among never-married men more than doubled in a decade from 2010. Divorce, now twice as likely to be initiated by wives as husbands, is psychologically harder on men than it is on women. One of the great revelations of feminism may turn out to be that men need women more than women need men. 

Indeed, as another observer acidly observed in the jargon of economics, “the underlying shift is toward the decreasing marginal utility of males.” To which Reeves dryly remarks, “True. But, ouch.”

How come? Why are men, even in marriage, increasingly dispensable or irrelevant? Mainly, it seems, because the traditional male role as the family’s breadwinner and “head of the family,” has been undermined by the economic independence of women. In contrast to women’s traditional role as housewife and mother, many women now work, and quite a few women earn more than the husbands. Over 40% of women are now the main breadwinner in their families. As a result, many men are feeling displaced. Reeves again: “Having lost their status as breadwinners and resident fathers, many men find themselves a little lost.” So they retreat to the couch to swill their beer and watch football or perhaps sneak off to their hideaway to watch a little porn.

Of course, I am exaggerating a bit here, but the general trend seems clear. In many families, the traditional male role has been diminished. In a phrase that was popularized by the feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Ouch again.

Reading about how much and how rapidly family life, at least in America, has changed, one comes away with the impression that women often are now the resourceful ones in a marriage whereas men are, well, perhaps a little feckless. 

If things are unsettling and confusing for men on the home front, what about in the work place? Unfortunately, even there the trend line is not encouraging for men. Of course top executives, predominantly still men, are doing well, and in some ways, better than ever. But what about your average Joe? For him, recent developments have proven to be additional sources of such stress that many men, even young men, have already dropped out of the labor market and are no longer looking for work. Fifty years ago, 97% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were working. Now almost ten percent aren’t. Why not?

Several factors seem to be at play here. One is certainly the increasing use of automation and robotics, making many men who can’t adapt to these changes “redundant.” Free trade policies have also hurt. For example, Chinese imports have had a devastating effect on manufacturing jobs, which mostly employed men. It’s estimated that they led to the loss of between two and three million jobs. As a result, one in three men with only a high school education are out of the work force. And as for young men, some scholars think that the improvement in video-game quality could account for much of the especially troubling decline for this age group.  

These changes, however, have not had the same deleterious effect on women because rather than having to work with machines that have become automated, they tend to work in such fields as health care, personal services and education. 

Psychologically, the lot of many working men has become much more onerous. Many have had to drop out because of disabilities – fully a third of non-workers reported disabilities in 2016. Moreover, nearly half of non-working men had to resort to pain medication on a daily basis, including opioids, in recent years. And what do men do when they detach from work? An economist named Nicholas Eberstadt has looked into this. This is what he reports:

Most of these hours of free time are spent watching screens rather than doing household labor or caring for family members. Instead of socializing more, men without work are even less involved in their communities than those with jobs. 

Finally, here is one really astonishing fact that Reeves made me aware of. Because of automation and robotics, even those men still working are losing muscle strength.

One study of grip strength … shows a sharp decline among men. Meanwhile, and perhaps more surprisingly, women are getting physically stronger. In 1985, the average man in his early 30s could squeeze your hand with about thirty pounds more force than a similarly aged woman. Today, their grip strength is about the same.

And men may be losing more than muscle strength. According to one well known study, over the past 50 years, human sperm counts appear to have fallen by more than 50% around the globe.

Although these findings are controversial and subject to various interpretations, if the findings are confirmed and the decline continues, researchers say it would also be a harbinger of declining health in men in general, since semen quality can be an important marker of overall health.

Gadzooks! What’s happening to men?

I have some speculations to offer. I think for a concatenation of reasons, many men are just giving up, losing hope, and no longer are able to cope with the demands on modern life. In the end, I think it is pushing increasing numbers of men to the brink of an existential abyss. As one researcher commented after interviewing men struggling with addiction and depression, “the more common complaint was something vaguer – a quiet desperation that … seemed to stem from a gnawing sense of purposelessness.”

Exactly. 

Let’s consider the evidence for what has come to be called “deaths of despair.” This term is meant to refer to deaths due to suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism. As is now well known, this is particularly concerning for the cohort of middle-aged, less-educated white men. Some scholars who specialize in this area of research summarize it this way:

The declining economic fortunes in the working class have combined with various forms of social breakdown – especially in family life – to create patterns of “cumulative disadvantage,” or, to put it more bluntly, “the collapse of the white working class.”   

Overall, deaths of despair are almost three times greater for men than women.

To take some specifics, men are much more likely to commit suicide than women. In the U.S., suicide rates have risen fastest among middle-aged men, but there has recently been a big increase in suicides among adolescents as well. 

Researchers find that men in particular feel the loss not only of income, but dignity that accompany a good job. “Lonely and troubled, they self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and they accumulated criminal records that left them less employable and less marriageable.”

And then there are the opioids, such as Fentanyl, which as most people now know, has been responsible for many deaths, especially in the last decade, due to opioid overdoses. But even if they don’t induce death, there is no doubt that over the last twenty years or so, they have contributed to a massive decrease among employment for men. One economist estimates that opioids are responsible for as much as almost half (43%) of the drop in male employment during this period.

No wonder that if you are in physical or emotional pain, and have lost your way, as many men have, you will try to assuage your pain by resorting to opioids, and find not just find temporary surcease from your pain, but from life as well.

What exacerbates the problems of adaptation to a changing world for many troubled men is their tendency to avoid seeking help from friends or professionals. And because they often have disconnected from or are only loosely tethered to family and religious institutions, they tend to find themselves alone.

Studies show that men have fewer friends than women, and this trend has increased in recent years. Thirty years ago, only 3% of men had no close friends; now 15% of men don’t. As Reeves notes, “Men on their own tend to be men alone.” Here he refers to John Steinbeck’s famous novel Of Mice and Men, where a character says, “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody … I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

Women don’t seem to have this problem, certainly not to this extent. They deal much better than men when a marriage breaks up because they usually can count on a network of friends and family for emotional support.

Men, it seems, would rather go a bar and drink.

This is a worrisome trend. As one researcher who has looked into the tendency for men to self-isolate comments: “We have a large number of people [in the United States] in their early 20s living in the basement   bedroom. Oftentimes it is younger men. Struggling with work. Struggling with launching.”

Men without connections, when they sit with their grievances, are not just lonely and sad. They can be dangerous.

These days in America, as we all know, we live in an age of frequent mass murders. They occur so often now, we have grown almost inured to them, but as an old-timer, I can assure you it never used to be this way. And who commits these murders?

Men.

I’ve never encountered much discussion of this, but about 98% of these mass murders are perpetrated by men, men who are nursing grievances or are just in despair. Sure, some of them are mentally ill; others hate certain racial or ethnic groups; some may be seeking vengeance against fellow employees or their bosses; some are obviously fueled by the poison of white supremacy. But think: Surely these men must know that they will be killed after they go on a murderous rampage, or, if not killed, will be seriously wounded. Or even if they surrender, they know they will be locked up effectively forever. So why do they do it?   

Because they no longer want to live, and before they die, they want to avenge themselves against a world that no longer has a place for them. And it keeps happening, more and more, with no end in sight.

Given how difficult life is for many men now, perhaps we should not be surprised that some men (and boys) can no longer face the prospect of living in a world that shuns, bullies or even reviles them. Loneliness, too, can cause one to become a killer.

Hatred of the other leads to violence and especially for relatively poorly educated white men. Such men may also feel threatened by those who don’t look like them and long for the restoration of an America that never was. No wonder America seems to have gone off the rails.

Men!

Or, more fairly, some men. Now, clearly, the second sex. Simone de Beauvoir would write a different sort of book were she to write today. 

But wait, even this isn’t fair to men. Except for their proclivity for violence and mayhem, it’s not really their fault. (Studies show that males are more physically aggressive in all cultures and these differences manifest by the time boys are 17 months old. You can’t fault them for their biology either.)  But apart from that, it’s not really that there’s anything inherently wrong with men. The problems they face in today’s society are mainly structural, not psychological.

During the Great Depression, when many millions of men lost their jobs, was it their fault? Of course not. Just as the world is not built for lefthanders, so the modern world has made life difficult for many men. They need our help and compassion, not our harsh judgment.

And to end on a hopeful note, I know that Reeves and many other policy wonks have worked up many good ideas for how to help men to become the kind of men who could, in time, begin to flourish again in America.  

All that is in the second part of his book, which I have yet to read. I hope this blog may induce you to get ahold of his book to see how we might one day begin to create a better world for both men and women. God knows, we can’t wait for a deus ex machina to spring from the wings to rescue men from their fraught and lonely lives. We will have to do it ourselves, perhaps with a little help from – women.