The men struggle. New book explores why and what to do about it

The country has seen a dramatic shift in jobs requiring physical strength.  Less than 1 in 10 jobs today requires what is known as heavy work, a sector once dominated by men.

The country has seen a dramatic shift in jobs requiring physical strength. Less than 1 in 10 jobs today requires what is known as heavy work, a sector once dominated by men.

Jung Getty/Getty Images

Friday’s employment figures from the Labor Department showed a worrying trend among men: a shrinking share of them are working.

Consider men of the so-called prime working age, 25 to 54 years old.

Sixty years ago, almost 97% of men in this group were working or looking for work. Since then, there has been a steady decline. In October, the number was 88.5%, a slight drop from the previous two months.

In a new book, Brookings Institution researcher Richard V. Reeves is sounding the alarm about men’s struggles, both in the economy and in society, imploring policymakers and society at large to pay attention to what is happening and to intervene.

Title boys and men, the book explores the economic, social and cultural changes that have forced men to remain on the margins of the economy, including the loss of jobs in male-dominated fields such as manufacturing and the influx of women into the market labor, diminishing the need for men to serve as breadwinners for their families.

Rather than trying to recapture an era long gone, Reeves argues we should help men adapt to the jobs of the future, many of which are now overwhelmingly held by women.

In an interview with NPR, Reeves warns that if nothing is done to help struggling men, families will become poorer and economic inequality will only worsen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Richard V. Reeves' new book Of Boys and Men explores why men struggle and what can be done about it.

Richard V. Reeves’ new book Of Boys and Men explores why men struggle and what can be done about it.

Brookings Institution

You were a little reluctant to write this book about boys and men, dreading some of the criticism you might receive for diverting attention from girls and women. But you call it a false choice. Can you explain that?

The reluctance was simply due to the way the debate is framed – it’s ‘Which side are you on?’ »

But of course, most people in the world are perfectly capable of caring about two things at once.

The danger of even raising the specific challenges of boys and men is that it will be seen as a distraction from ongoing efforts to help women and girls. I think it’s a false choice. Partly because of changes in recent decades, we can and must now pay attention to both sides of gender inequality.

You say the economic relationship between men and women has transformed so rapidly that our culture has yet to catch up. The women went to work. They don’t need to depend on men to make a living.

It is important to recognize that this was the central material goal of the post-war feminist movement: to secure the economic independence of women so that they did not have to depend materially on men. This was achieved to a very large extent, very, very quickly.

In 1979, only 13% of women earned more than the average man. Today, 40% of women earn more than the average man. Forty percent of American households have a female breadwinner, up four times from a few decades ago.

It is an extraordinary success. But when it happens so quickly, it’s very difficult for our culture to keep up. It is very difficult for our ideas of fatherhood, motherhood, masculinity, femininity, family life to adapt as quickly as economic fundamentals have changed.

Author Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has three adult sons.  He says that while he was worried about three young men, he is now worried about millions.

Author Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has three adult sons. He says that while he was worried about three young men, he is now worried about millions.

Brookings Institution

We haven’t given a positive new vision for men in this new world of gender equality, and this failure to adjust and adapt masculinity – it doesn’t happen by itself. I think our collective cultural failure to do that is one of the root causes of some of the problems that we now see men and boys having.

You often hear about the gender pay gap – that women only earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. But as of this writing, that doesn’t tell the whole story. What has happened to men’s wages over the past decades?

There is still a gender pay gap, but there are two sides to this story. We have seen an increase in women’s salaries in all areas, but especially at the top. And we’ve actually seen a drop in salaries for men in the middle and lower end of the scale. Thus, most men in the United States today earn less than most men in 1979, which represents an extraordinary economic setback.

You have that whole half of the population that is down economically from over four decades ago. And that’s ironically one of the reasons there’s been this narrowing of the gender pay gap. I don’t think anyone wants to close the gap by impoverishing men.

The general pattern is one of growing wage inequality in general, but stagnating wages for the majority of American men. And that created this economic malaise.

The big shift in the labor market has moved away from the types of jobs that could be done largely through physical strength and/or with relatively low levels of education. Stereotypically, the guy with maybe a high school diploma could go out and get a pretty good union job in a factory. And those jobs are becoming increasingly scarce because of these changes in the economy.

There has been a dramatic shift from so-called “muscular” jobs, those that require physical strength, such as manufacturing. You say the solution is not to bring back more “heavy” jobs for men, but to help men adapt, to take jobs in what you call HEAL sectors. Talk about HEAL.

So I think it’s tempting for politicians to imagine that we could bring back those old jobs. It’s magic wand, honestly. There is very little that can realistically be done to reverse the trend of such profound economic changes.

But where do the jobs come from? Many of them come from the HEAL sectors — health, education, administration and literacy. In some ways it is the mirror image of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

HEAL sectors include things like medicine and nursing, but also teaching, many care professions, social work, psychology, types of jobs that require more verbal or written skills than language skills. math. By my calculations, for every STEM job we’re going to create by 2030, we’re going to create about three HEAL jobs.

There are indeed shortages in some of these professions, in areas such as teaching and nursing. These are actually sectors that are looking for workers, but in fact they have become more female in recent decades.

About 27% of STEM workers are women today, which is not enough, but this figure has fallen from 8% in the 1980s. But in HEAL professions, there are fewer and fewer men. There are fewer men in classrooms, there are fewer male social workers, and there has been a drop in the number of men in fields like psychology.

Among psychologists under 30, only 5% are men. It’s a profession that was actually a bit masculine in the 1980s. Go back to 1980, and 40% of elementary and middle school teachers were men. Now it’s at one in 10 in elementary schools.

One of my sons works in preschool education. He can speak quite movingly about the stigma you will face as a man. People will question your motives. At worst, some people will suggest, jokingly or not, that you might be motivated by pedophilia. “What do you like about young children? is the kind of question you hear.

There are some pretty nasty stereotypes around men in these professions. And so we just have to be realistic about it and say there are obstacles. This means that we have to work very hard to try to make these professions seem appropriate for men.

We’ve had decades of scholarship to bring women into STEM. I think that was great, but I think now we need scholarships to get men into HEAL.

Beyond employment, you also say there are societal benefits to having men in these roles. Teachers for example.

Fifty percent of our students are male. I think the fact that they see so few male teachers — that’s a problem.

If you have a mental health problem and want a psychologist, there will be men who prefer a male therapist. I certainly did better with a male therapist.

You take areas like addiction counselling. Most drug addicts are men, but most addiction counselors are women. Most special needs oriented children are boys, but most special needs teachers are women. Etc.

So there’s this growing mismatch between the gender of the user and that of the provider. I’m not saying it’s always important, and in some cases it might be better if it’s a woman. But there is enough evidence to suggest that it is sometimes good for a man to take care of a boy or another man.

You notice that there’s not a lot of recognition of these issues that are specific to men and boys. What are the consequences of a persistent silence on the issue?

I think the consequences of not facing these problems and not solving them is, first, that they will get worse. They’re not going to resolve. They will need intentional public policy to deal with it.

And on a deeper level, this unresolved unease can metastasize politically into grievances. And that can then be exploited by some clever populist or online personality or whoever.

Right now, there are enough young men, and men in general, who feel neglected, ignored, or rejected. It creates really fertile ground for some really bad things to be sown. And I think we are reaping the consequences of our own negligence.

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