Richard Reeves on Why Men are Struggling
Yascha Mounk and Richard Reeves discuss the cultural and economic challenges facing boys and men and how to fix them.
Richard Reeves is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Dream Hoarders and, most recently, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Richard Reeves discuss how the upper middle-class has cornered the market on economic opportunity; why helping men does not mean undoing progress for women; and whether the problems facing men and boys are more structural than we often think.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I want to start by talking about one of your previous books, which is called Dream Hoarders. It makes a convincing case that the problem in the United States is not necessarily, as Bernie Sanders says, the “millionaires and the billionaires,” but rather the people who are in the upper middle classes, the people in the top 20% of society. It's not the super rich who hoard all of the dreams, but rather (probably) you, me, and many of the people who listen to this podcast—people who are highly educated, who have nice jobs, who aren't plutocrats by any stretch of the imagination.
Tell us a little bit about the “dream hoarders” and why we should think about inequality and lack of opportunity in America in those terms.
Richard Reeves: I think that's where the real economic cleavage is. It’s not so much the difference between the top 1% or 0.1% and everyone else. It’s the folks who are measuring their income in hundreds of thousands of dollars (not hundreds of millions of dollars) and everybody else. The bottom 80% of the income distribution in the US looks pretty similar today to how it looked in the late 1970s. There hasn't been much increase in income inequality there. What's happened is that the people at the top pulled away from everybody else. And that really started to happen with the top 20% or top 15%. These people are comfortable, with six-figure incomes, college degrees, probably married, etc.
I think that's an important cleavage for a number of reasons. One, there are a lot more people in the top 20% than in the top 1%. More votes, more political power. It's easy to talk about how plutocrats have all the political power—but combined, the upper middle classes run everything: every institution, every media outlet. They are the professional class. Second, they can do all kinds of things to secure their position. They can rig the housing market in such a way as to exclude other people from affordable housing. They can rig education by making it incredibly expensive and hard to access, and by pulling all kinds of strings to get their kids in. They can essentially rig two of the most important markets for opportunity, housing and education, in favor of themselves, which means that their kids are likely to inherit an upper middle class position, too. I think that's what's driven a lot of our political divides. I think that a lot of the populist anger we're seeing is not against the plutocrats, as much as Bernie Sanders might wish it to be. It's against the professionals.
Mounk: So, there’s a growing divide between the top 20% and the people below that. But why isn't there a kind of trickle-down phenomenon? Why is it that the success and the improvement of living standards for the top 20% during the last 30 or so years has come at the expense of everyone else?
Reeves: There are two mechanisms by which this group, the upper middle class, are able to sustain their position and pass it on to their children. One is through standard meritocratic processes. They acquire for themselves huge amounts of human capital—but they also acquire it for their kids. And so the kids win in the race, fair and square, but helped by the fact that they've had such an incredible start. Now, that's “fair” in the narrowly meritocratic sense. This is obviously something you've talked a lot about on this podcast, including with Michael Sandel.
The “holding” aspect comes in because they’re not just winning in those markets; they are rigging those markets in ways that benefit themselves and exclude others. The way the housing market works, for example, is that you have a mortgage interest deduction, which allows people to buy expensive houses. And then they use zoning to exclude others from their neighborhoods. We know that the more liberal areas have more exclusionary zoning, which also means exclusionary access to other goods, like the schools in those areas. (It's a notable fact about the US that, whereas racial segregation in our neighborhoods has declined somewhat, economic segregation has increased.) In addition, through the application of various mechanisms, like early admissions, legacy preferences, gaming of scholarships, etc., they're also able to hold more of the places at higher education institutions.
Complexity is the friend of the upper middle class. Take the Byzantine college application process: complexity is great if you know how to game it. Complex systems are harder for other people to navigate. Simplification is the friend of equality.
Mounk: You have an exciting new book coming out called Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
Why should we think that men and boys are struggling?
Reeves: Quite a lot of modern boys and men are struggling in a number of domains, in particular in the education system, in the labor market, and in terms of their relationships within family life. The broad story here is that we have moved towards gender equality, generally, as women and girls have caught up with and in many cases overtaken boys and men on some fronts. That both allows and requires us to take more seriously some of the inequalities that run the other way. The gender gap in getting a four year college degree today in the US is wider than it was in 1972, when the Title IX laws were passed— but now it’s the other way around. Back then, men were 13 percentage points more likely to get a four year college degree; now, women are 15 percentage points more likely to get a four year college degree. There is now a bigger gender inequality in higher education than when Title IX was passed. And there are lots of other examples in the labor market. Most men in the US earn less today than most men did in 1979.
A separate problem is that some men are dropping out of the workforce altogether. A lot of traditionally male jobs, if they haven't disappeared, have seen significantly reduced wages in areas like manufacturing, heavy industry, and so on, in part because of growing competition from overseas and in part because of growing competition from automation. The value of that labor has declined. If we go back to earlier periods, before international competition came along, some of the unskilled men were actually being overpaid against productivity, so they were gaining some rent there as well, as a result of very high levels of unionization and the exclusion of other groups who could be competitive.
It's worth saying that men at the top of the distribution today are doing better than men at the top of the distribution were before. The dream-hoarding men are still doing very well indeed, although they haven't seen increases quite the same as women at the top.
And then in the family, the dramatic alteration of the economic relationship between men and women, as a result of the entirely positive increase in women's economic power, has posed hard questions for the role of men in the family. 40% of children are born outside marriage now in the US, four times as many as back in the late 70s. Marriage has become much, much less common for those lower down the socioeconomic scale. More importantly, fathers who can't fulfill this obsolete model of fatherhood, which was primarily about breadwinning, are benched. Given the economic trends I've just described, that's not surprising. Rather than reinventing fatherhood, recasting it for a world of greater gender equality, we’re allowing it to become somewhat obsolete. And we see men getting detached from family life and from their kids as a result.
Mounk: But why are men struggling? One way to explain it is to say that women have been excluded in deep ways for a very long time, and now, thankfully, we've overcome many (but not all) of those obstacles. Perhaps, men are also suffering a little bit from the loss of rent they were able to gain in the past. And another interpretation would be to say that there are parts of our society that actually favor women over men.
How do you think we can explain why this transformation has been so rapid and so extreme?
Reeves: There's some truth to all of those stories. But it's false to say that the decline or the difficulties of many men is a result of the rise of women. That's a false, zero-sum calculation, in my view. I think there are separate reasons by and large, particularly in the economy. Now, it might be true that some men are feeling a sense of loss of the status that was automatically attributed to them as a result of being male. My former colleague Dayna Bowen Matthew says “Equality always feels like a loss to the people who were previously unfairly ahead.” I think there's some of that going on. But I think it’s mostly a decline in absolute terms.
And nor, I think, is it because there's some sort of inherent weakness in men, that if men could just get over themselves (as the left would say), or get back to themselves (as the right would say), they'd be okay. That mistakes the problem, which is largely structural. There are structural disadvantages facing boys and men in the current education system which were invisible until the women's movement really took the brakes off what women could do; structural problems in the economy, which we've already touched on; and I think there are structural problems in the family: the basic glue that used to hold families together—the economic dependency of women on men, the role of men as breadwinners, which tied them to both women and children—has been successfully dissolved by the women's movement. That means that the men who are on the other side of that equation don't quite know what their role is.
Maybe the reason why one in four boys are now defined as having a developmental disability isn't actually because one in four of our boys are disabled in that way. Maybe it's the system that's not serving them very well. It's not to say there aren't individual issues here. But I'm very troubled by the fact this is a very, very rare instance of a debate where both left and right are incredibly individualistic in their analysis of the problem, rather than looking at the structures that are affecting us.
Mounk: Talk us through the case of education, which I think has the most striking set of disparities. What are the structural disadvantages? Surely, boys have the same opportunities, because statistically speaking they are born to the same families with the same socioeconomic standing. And the parents are as keen to give them educational advantages as they are to their daughters. So where's the structural disadvantage?
Reeves: This is why the gender gap is very interesting, precisely because everything else is equal. The fact that you see huge gender gaps in education, especially at the bottom of distribution, I can't emphasize that enough—the gender gaps just get bigger and bigger, the further down you go. Even with siblings, you can look at how girls and boys from the same families are doing at school. They are the same families, the same schools, the same parents, the same household income, the same neighborhoods. You've controlled for a lot of different factors, and you still see these huge gaps.
I think the structural disadvantage is largely a result of two things. The big one is that the education system presumes that girls and boys mature at the same rate, when they don't. Boys mature much more slowly than girls. Chronological age is used as a proxy for development: when you should start school, when you should move on to the next grade, and so on. But there's actually a very big gap in the brain development of girls and boys, and that gap is at its widest in adolescence. A 15-16 year-old girl is between a year and two years ahead of a boy the same age, in terms of the development of the prefrontal cortex, sometimes called the CEO of the brain. That's the bit that says, “No, you should study, not go out, and you should turn your homework in, and you should plan ahead, and have you thought about which college you're going to?” Girls are better at that than boys anyway. But most importantly, they get better at it much sooner. The boys catch up in their 20s.
That period is incredibly important in the US education system. And so, when you look at the GPA distribution, if you take the top 10% in GPA, two thirds of them are girls. That is no surprise to anybody that's actually done any brain science in this area. In all the debates about the differences between male and female brains, the biggest one of all is not how they develop, but when they develop. Now that we've taken the brakes off women, their natural advantage in the education system is leading to these incredibly superior performances.
And the second thing that's happening is that the teaching profession is becoming more and more female over time. 76% of K-12 teachers now are female, and that's rising all the time. The evidence suggests that that actually does lead to worse outcomes for boys and men, for reasons that are a bit unclear. But the results nonetheless are pretty compelling.
Mounk: I think this is another case where the political scripts on the left and right are flipped. In general, progressives tend to believe very strongly in the role-model effect: that it's incredibly important, for example, to have a teacher of your race or your cultural background, perhaps of your religion, because that really helps you see yourself as a potential future educated person and so on. I know that some economists like Tyler Cowen, who are pretty skeptical about a lot of this literature, actually believe that the “role-model” model of equity is strong. But I think a lot of progressives would say, “Well, if most teachers are women, that's fine, and why should we be worrying about these boys who are underachieving?”
It could be that role-models are more strongly coded via ethnicity or race than they are by gender. But one should at least be open to the argument that, if you strongly believe in the role-model effect in a cultural or racial context, it would be a little bit surprising if it didn't also play some role when it comes to gender.
Reeves: I think there’s an additional dimension to this. Gloria Steinem said that you get your ideas of what men and women are like from your infancy. It took me ages to persuade my own kids that they could be doctors or teachers, because all the doctors and teachers they saw happened to be female. There's a nice phrase from the women's movement, which is “You can't be it, if you can't see it.” But that's equally true in this era, too. So, if you take early-years education, here's where I think the fact that there are basically no men (it's like 2%) in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms is important. We have more women flying military jets, by a factor of two or three, than we have men teaching pre-K—proportionally, as a share of the occupation.
Now, I'm going to risk people's wroth here and say, I think it's more important to get men into kindergarten classes than it is to get more women into the cockpits of fighter jets. What message are we sending our kids about the role of men, if there are literally no men in those pre-K classrooms? I would have thought that feminists in particular would be all over this issue, saying, “Look, if we surround our boys and girls just with women in these early educational settings, can we then be surprised if their views about gender are not changing very quickly?”
Mounk: Joe Biden likes to say this in all kinds of contexts: to compete with other countries, we need to use the potential of everybody, and some people are not as productive as they might be. How do you formulate to people who listen to this that, among all the problems in this country, this should be a priority?
Reeves: Well, we can have more than one problem that we're paying attention to. As it happens, my wife is trying to raise money now for a startup business, and so I know quite acutely that only 3% of venture capital money goes to female founders. There is still quite a bit of work to do there. But I think the really deep problem here is on a couple of levels. One is just basic human flourishing. In a just society, we pay attention to how people are flourishing as individuals and groups, and so if you have a group that is three or four times more likely to take their own life than another group, which is true for the suicide gap, we want to pay attention to that. If you saw a group that was going backwards economically, you'd want to pay attention to that. I don't know a single parent that doesn't want their son to flourish in the same way as their daughter, and vice versa. I just don't.
I think that the failure to address some of these problems sensibly and responsibly creates a very dangerous cultural and political vacuum. It is an axiom of politics that if there are real problems that responsible people aren't addressing, irresponsible people will exploit them. If you do have these growing and genuine problems facing many of our boys and men, and if they don't hear responsible people visibly, audibly addressing them, we shouldn't then be surprised if they become vulnerable to the attentions of a demagogue or a populist. This dislocation that a lot of men are feeling, left unaddressed, can lead some people to the right. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump won in 2016 with the biggest gender gap in exit polling history. It's not a coincidence that he picked up some votes among black and hispanic men in 2020. And so that's why I want people of goodwill, particularly those on the center left, to say, “Okay, we should look at this issue, we should pay attention to this issue, we should do so explicitly.” And I think it is a huge political opportunity for them to do so.
Mounk: It's striking just how much of a gender gap there now is in American politics, and not always on the topics where people assume there is one. In broader questions like, “Do you prefer Democrats or Republicans," and "how do you feel about Donald Trump?” and so on, there's now a very strong gender divide, which I believe is actually stronger among young people. A few years ago, everyone was debating about Jordan Peterson, which some listeners may have strong feelings about. I always thought that he said some things that were sort of straightforwardly true, along with many things that I disagreed with. But there was a visceral moment of media panic about his rise. And that really was the fault of everybody on the center left, because we were not able to speak in clear and orienting ways to young people who may be trying to look for a path. It would have felt very strange for anybody in my sort of social milieu to say, “I'm going to write a book that tries to appeal not exclusively, but in some ways primarily, to young men who are a little bit lost in life, and tell them: here are some basic rules for how you should go about conceiving of a meaningful life.” If we're not filling that space, it is unsurprising that somebody with whom I have some robust political disagreements, would end up becoming a star by moving into that empty space.
Reeves: It's a vacuum. Anybody that doesn't take seriously the appeal of people like Jordan Peterson, especially to young men, just isn't paying attention. I treat some of his work in my book and have many criticisms of what he's done, but I also have a great deal of admiration in some ways for the fact that he does make a lot of these young men feel listened to. He clearly has genuine compassion for them. I don't like where his ideology goes, and he thinks out loud, so he's bound to say something stupid or crazy. Every ten sentences are going to contain three horrific ones. But there is this reservoir of unmet questions and a sense of dislocation and disequilibrium which he has been able to exploit as a public intellectual, but which successful populists are also able to exploit.
We have a Gender Policy Council now in the White House. They just put out a report, and there isn't a single gender inequality it treats that goes the other way, not a single one. For me, that's just a huge missed opportunity. Let's say 90% of the things discussed were still about women, but it also talked a bit about deaths of despair, incarceration, how boys have fallen behind in education—just two or three issues. I think that would have paid massive political dividends. I don't think that's quite permissible on the left right now, and so it is leaving this gap, and I really do fear that it could get worse before it gets better. As we approach the midterms, I feel that the Democrats are doubling down in some ways on their current agenda, which I think may have the effect of worsening the gender divide even more than we've seen it in recent years.
Mounk: Final question, very simple. What do we do about all of this?
Reeves: Well, we start by not using the phrase “toxic masculinity.” If we could just abandon that, that would be great. We must allow ourselves to think two thoughts at once, accepting the fact that there are real problems being faced by many boys and men that are not of their own making, and which we should address as parents, as individuals, as community leaders and institutions, without in any way having to give up any pre-existing commitments that many of us have towards the women's movement and what needs to be done there. And we need to support those politicians and leaders who are actually willing to take this issue head-on in a responsible way. Right now, the responsible people are running silent on this issue, and the irresponsible people are making hay with it. Let's start to have this conversation in a way that's trusting and open. I think merely accepting there are some problems here that we should address is step number one, and I don't think we've made that step yet. But I sense in my early conversations around this that there is an appetite for it. And I do feel that if we don't start addressing it now, it'll be harder to address in ten years.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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