Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling,
Why it Matters, and What to Do About It
Richard V. Reeves | Swift Press, USA | 2022, 256 pp
John Steinbeck’s gritty classic, Of Mice and Men, follows an eventful few days in the lives of two agricultural labourers, Lennie and George, in dusty California during the Great Depression. Happy endings are not Steinbeck’s speciality, and the reader observes helplessly as Lennie and George’s aspirations of independence and self-sufficiency end in defeat, falling far short of their great dreams.
The book owes its title to lines from a Robert Burns poem. The poem expresses the narrator’s regret for having destroyed the home of a mouse while ploughing his field: “But little mouse, you are not alone / In proving foresight may be vain; / The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.” The narrator regrets what he has done, emphasising the powerlessness of creatures great and small, man and mouse, at the hands of a cruel, indifferent universe. This sense of futility and defeat is echoed in Steinbeck’s novel as the men’s achievements fail to match their hopes.
Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves belongs to a very different genre, even though it clearly owes its title to Steinbeck’s book. Reeves is a policy wonk, not a novelist. But Reeves’ facts find resonance in Steinbeck’s fictions, as he reflects on the ways in which Western society has overpromised and underdelivered for men and boys.
A father of three sons, he describes how raising them made him aware of social and systemic disadvantages they faced as they grew up. Today in the US, three-quarters of Bachelors’ degrees are awarded to women. One in five fathers are not living with their children. Men account for almost three-quarters of deaths of despair, through suicide or overdose. To top it all, males are less likely than females to be helped by policy interventions.
Problems and solutions
Reeves’ book is an attempt to set out the problems faced by boys and men in key domains — education, work and family — and possible strategies to improve outcomes for them. “We must help men adapt to the dramatic changes of recent decades,” argues Reeves, “without asking them to stop being men.”
Born in England, Reeves now lives in America where he is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a fairly nonpartisan think-tank based in Washington DC. Prior to this, Reeves worked as a special advisor to Nick Clegg, the one-time Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, when the party entered their ill-fated coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
He has written on aspects of socio-economic inequality, social mobility, and the current state of health of the anglophone middle class. His most recent book turns to a subject that is gaining increasing, albeit unsustained, attention in media and social science circles — the ways in which the rapid social and economic transformations of the past century have cast boys and men adrift.
Reeves acknowledges that this book brings him into stormy waters, articulating ideas that are, in many respects, countercultural: “I have been reluctant to write this book. I have lost count of the number of people who have advised against it.” Of Boys and Men is to be commended for broaching an inexplicably contentious subject in a very balanced and carefully researched manner.
The book comprises five parts. The first section sets out how boys and men are falling through the cracks in education, the labour force, and family. The second section considers how black and working-class upbringing negatively impact outcomes for boys from these backgrounds. The third section is brief and considers the “nature” versus “nurture” aspects of masculinity.
The fourth section examines the issue through the inescapable prism of American politics, dedicating a chapter each to the liberal-Democratic and conservative-Republican paradigms of masculinity. The final section moves to solutions. While some of them sound a little far-fetched, Reeves, to his credit, at least attempts to address each issue he has identified with tangible proposals. The book is as exhaustively referenced as one would expect from a policy nerd — facts and stats abound throughout.
Boys’ performance in education paints a worrying picture. Historically high female attainment is masking worryingly low male attainment. Reeves identifies a number of factors, both systemic and biological. In the US, three-quarters of school teachers are female, and that number is rising. In one university in Iceland, the most gender egalitarian country in the world according to the World Economic Forum, seventy-seven per cent of its undergraduates are women. “In every country in the OECD,” Reeves observes, “there are now more young women than young men with a Bachelor’s degree.” Boys are in a minority, on both sides of the desk.
From a biological perspective, studies suggest that boys’ brains develop more slowly than those of girls, especially during adolescence. Reeves comments: “From a neuroscientific perspective, the education system is tilted in favor of girls. It hardly needs saying that this was not the intention.” This plays out in worrying ways in our one-size-fits-all national education systems, with Reeves noting that “When almost one in four boys (23%) is categorized as having a ‘developmental disability’, it is fair to wonder if it is educational institutions, rather than the boys, that are not functioning properly.”
What does Reeves propose to improve boys’ outcomes in education? He has three ideas: give boys an extra year of pre-kindergarten before starting them in school proper, recruit more male teachers and invest in more “hands on” vocational programs. While the latter two ideas sound achievable, holding boys back for a year while their female peers move ahead sounds more idealistic than practicable. Rolled out to its fullest extent, it would create a 12–18 month age gap between boys and girls in a single class group. This could see a twelve-and-a-half-year-old girl in the same year group as a fourteen-year-old boy; or a sixteen-year-old girl attending classes alongside a young man on the cusp of eighteen.
You might be thinking that such a pronounced age gap makes a reasonable case for single-sex schooling. But Reeves states his unequivocal opposition to it. Unfortunately he offers no argument against such a model, merely broaching and dismissing it in the space of a paragraph at the end of a chapter.
Despite these reservations about holding back boys for a year, Reeves is on hand with convincing facts to make his case. Perhaps most convincingly, he argues that the practice in fact already happens — but among affluent families, rather than low-income families who would benefit from it most. Moreover, particularly intriguingly, data indicate that the practice is especially common among parents who are teachers.
Careers and caregiving
While education is important to set children on a sure and steady path in life, what happens when they are all grown up? Reeves charts how men’s role in families has evolved away from the traditional responsibility of provider. As he very brutally puts it, “A husband may be nice, but he is no longer necessary.” He argues that while the role of mothers has been expanded to include breadwinning as well as caring, the role of fathers has not been expanded to include caring as well as breadwinning, creating a “Dad deficit” in families.
Reeves praises the traditional family: “The traditional family was an effective social institution because it made both men and women necessary.” He also acknowledges its limitations, especially for women. With girls out-achieving boys in education, and increasingly out-earning them professionally, the male role as “provider” is on the rocks. Reeves notes how this cascades into other areas of life.
For example, women still tend to consider male high earners as the “ideal” partner. And less-educated men who have no family commitments tend to be less incentivised to work. Finally, divorce can tear families asunder, especially among lower socio-economic groups. Reeves puts it starkly: “Most children in the U.S. will not spend their whole childhood with both biological parents.” Thus Dads still matter, even if they are struggling to manifest their vocation in today’s world.
For Reeves, the challenges to marriage and fatherhood are pivotal — the question of how “to reconstruct the role of men in the family” represent “the biggest challenge of all.” He makes three proposals: equal and independent parental leave; a modernised child support system; and father-friendly employment opportunities.
Recognising how fragmented family models can be these days, Reeves posits that his policies support “the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads.” He highlights how fathers really come into their own when their children reach adolescence. Data indicate that “engaged fatherhood” has brought measurable positive outcomes in areas such as teenage mental health, high school completion, literacy, and lower risks of delinquency and drug use. “Tots for Moms, teens for Dads” is Reeves” crisp summation.
He argues that fathers and mothers should be legally entitled to six months’ paid leave for each child. He suggests that, if marriages fail, shared custody ought to be the norm, with children spending equal time with their parents, wherever possible.
Finally, he proposes more father-friendly working conditions, such as the flexible working arrangements that the pandemic brought about for many professions. “A job that requires a man to work long hours to make good money is not father-friendly,” Reeves argues, “at least not in the way I think fatherhood must now be defined.”
Perhaps the argument goes a little soft here: what about working-class fathers? Or those who work in labour- and time-intensive occupations such as farming or factory shift work? And how many fathers would be willing to work fewer hours if it meant earning less money? And if they did work fewer hours, would many simply fill up this additional time, not with their family duties, but doing nixers and side hustles instead?
Reeves is clear that his book is not an attempt to erode or undermine challenges around female education, marriage, and family attainment. Rather, Of Boys and Men sheds light on a series of interconnected issues that are largely overlooked in academic, NGO, and government circles.
Given the often intermeshed nature of these institutions, what gets treated as marginal in one will often find itself marginalised in the other. In this regard, the book’s extensive information gathering from a wide range of sources over the past few decades is laudable. It allows Reeves to set out a robust and well researched argument that boys and men are underachieving in education, the workplace, and family life: “Women’s lives have been recast. Men’s lives have not.”
The book is well worth a read, and should be recommended reading for the bureaucrats setting the agendas in our health, education, and family agencies. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men ends in failure — its only female character dead, its male characters cast adrift, wandering from ranch to ranch, dreaming big and achieving little. Reeves’ Of Boys and Men is a cri de coeur that our societies and institutions act now, lest today’s men suffer the futile and fruitless fates of Steinbeck’s.