Early in 2019, the men’s razor company Gillette raised eyebrows with a new commercial. The ad depicted stereotypically disordered male behavior—aggression, catcalling, and a “boys will be boys” indifference to both—and contrasted it with a new generation of men taking a stand against that patriarchal past: a father breaks up a fight between two boys, a young man cuts off another’s unwanted advances toward a female stranger.
Many on the right complained that Gillette drew a glib equivalence between masculinity and toxicity, and the commercial was admittedly both myopic and preachy. But the conservative dismissiveness of the ad largely settled into a defensive, abrasive machismo. The ad was simplistic, but its critics missed an opportunity to think through the meaning of masculinity, and about the importance of male—and especially paternal—role models.
Conversations about sex and gender are surely just as difficult now as in 2019. Any talk about masculinity can easily veer into the same sclerotic patterns of the Gillette hubbub: a left that paints with uncritically broad brushes, and a right that gets defensive and dumbs down its beliefs. Richard Reeves’s latest book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It, manages to avoid predictability, blending statistical insight and easygoing wit to craft a fruitful exploration of the male malaise.
Reeves, a liberal economist at the Brookings Institution, bookends Of Boys and Men by presenting the educational, economic, and cultural challenges men face, and he proposes policy and social solutions for each. They’re all insightful and (unsurprisingly) subject to debate, especially, in my view, his discussion of fatherhood and marriage. But one of the most important lessons of the book—which Reeves introduces to reassure readers that they can care about both women’s equality and men’s struggles—is that “we can hold two thoughts in our head at once.” In that vein, we can disagree, even deeply, about some of Reeves’s premises or proposals, while also recognizing that Of Boys and Men models the sort of intellectual dexterity needed to tackle complicated matters in our polarized times.
Men Falling Behind
Reeves begins his book by pointing out how boys are falling behind in the classroom. He surveys data showing they are 14 percentage points less likely than girls to be ready to start school at age 5, as well as 6 percentage points less likely to graduate high school on time. Look ahead at college, and young men are 15 percentage points less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s. Women are narrowing gaps between themselves and their male classmates in typically male-dominant subjects (such as STEM), while stereotypically female subjects like nursing and teaching remain so.
Men are also being outdone in the job market. Worries about the wage gap—which Reeves handles with careful nuance—or about a C-suite glass ceiling have some legitimacy, but overemphasizing them paints an incomplete picture. The lack of female representation among Fortune 500 CEOs tells us that a small—albeit influential—proportion of men are doing very well. But by the same token, the people struggling the most economically are more likely to be men. An astounding one-third of men with only a high school diploma (approximately 5 million men) are out of the labor force.
To address these labor market problems, Reeves draws from the women-in-STEM push and calls for similar efforts for men in health care, education, administration, and literacy—or as he calls it, HEAL. In the same way that Melinda Gates pledged $1 billion to promote women in STEM, Reeves proposes an equal “men can HEAL” push. He envisions a combination of government and philanthropic funds for training and scholarships, and for marketing these often well-paying careers. Child care administrators and occupational therapists, two examples Reeves cites, respectively earned on average $70,000 and $72,000 in 2019.
One of the most discussed policy proposals in the book deals with educational gaps, which Reeves wants to address largely by “redshirting boys,” or delaying their start in kindergarten by a year. It’s not that young boys are less able than their female counterparts, but rather that they cognitively develop at a different pace, about two years slower than girls. For Reeves, giving boys the “gift” of an extra year before starting school “recognizes natural sex differences, especially the fact that boys are at a developmental disadvantage to girls at critical points in their schooling.”
Reeves’s reasoning reflects an important aspect of his approach: he acknowledges the importance of biology, and thinks that understanding biological factors should moderate a tendency, frequently seen on today’s left, to confuse equality with sameness. After examining data on men’s and women’s different career interests and outcomes, for example, Reeves concludes that we should at the very least consider that biology and “informed personal agency” play some role in occupational choices. He rejects attributing all gender gaps to sexism, or expecting perfect 50–50 representation in all fields.
People of different political stripes can debate the scope and specifics of both the HEAL movement and redshirting boys, among other proposals in Of Boys and Men, but Reeves leaves the possibility of fruitful deliberation very much open. He helpfully frames his discussion of education and jobs so that potential disagreements will be about means, rather than fundamental ends.
But the same can’t be said about the third aspect of the male malaise Reeves identifies: the cultural status of fatherhood.
Fatherhood without Marriage?
Reeves recognizes a sense of aimlessness has taken hold of many men’s most personal relationships: between men and women, and between fathers and children. But he primarily wants to address the latter problem, and to do so by envisioning fatherhood as an independent institution, considered separately from marriage. We should address and improve relationships between fathers and children first, irrespective of whether fathers are married to their kids’ mothers. Our safety net should expect more than mere economic support from fathers—particularly among noncustodial parents—and reward them for involvement in their kids’ lives. In a nutshell, our culture and policy should reconcile themselves with the reality that we live in “a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads.”
Why doesn’t Reeves concurrently advance a marital renewal? For one thing, he regards the traditional model of marriage as too rigidly predicated on the expectation of a male breadwinner, and by extension on the economic dependence of women. From it flows a notion of fatherhood that may have encouraged family formation in the past, but that is now “unfit for a world of gender equality.” The decline of marriage poses problems, but it’s largely indicative of positive gains in autonomy for women, in his view.
Reeves emphasizes that many unmarried, nonresidential fathers are very involved in their kids’ lives. Black fathers, for example—44 percent of whom are nonresidential—are more likely than white nonresidential fathers to help around the house, take kids to activities, and be generally present, according to one study he cites. Reeves argues that our cultural expectations of fatherhood “urgently need an update, to become more focused on direct relationships with children” (emphasis added). Since about 40 percent of births in the United States take place outside of marriage, he concludes that insisting on a model that assumes an indissoluble link between fatherhood and marriage is just anachronistic.
But Reeves doesn’t fully reckon with the gravity of divorcing fatherhood from marriage. Chapter 12 of Of Boys and Men, which Reeves dedicates to his independent fatherhood proposal, advances particular policies to support “direct” fatherhood unmediated by marriage, from paid parental leave to child support reforms, to encouraging father-friendly jobs. But he spends surprisingly little time directly arguing against the empirical and philosophical case for fatherhood within marriage as distinctly positive.
For example, Reeves writes that “there is no residency requirement for good fatherhood. The relationship is what matters.” Fair enough. But which model—fatherhood within marriage or nonresidential fatherhood—tends to facilitate more of the positive interactions needed to build healthy relationships between fathers and children? In general, the one where more of those interactions can potentially take place. A study by Penn State sociologist Paul Amato suggested this, reporting that from 1976 to 2002, 29 percent of nonresident fathers had no contact with their kids in the previous year, while only 31 percent had weekly contact.
In fact, contact with their biological father plays a positive role in advancing the two other major concerns Reeves has for boys: work and education. A 2022 report from the Institute for Family Studies found that “[y]oung men who grew up with their biological father are more than twice as likely to graduate college by their late 20s, compared to those raised in families without their biological father (35% vs. 14%).” According to the Census Bureau, approximately 62 percent of children lived with their biological parents in 2019, and 59 percent lived with married biological parents. In other words, growing up with a biological father is deeply intertwined with growing up with a married father—there are very few cohabitating biological or single biological fathers.
Beyond social science, there’s also a conceptual issue at the heart of Reeves’s proposal. It’s undeniable that many working mothers don’t need men in the same way past generations did—if what we mean by “need” is economic support. But it’s also very clear that mothers do need men. Without men, well, they wouldn’t be mothers (and vice versa) for the very simple yet profound fact that the sexes need each other in order to fulfill their biological end. This is more than a semantic trick—it’s a recognition that mutual dependence is at the heart of our biology. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, men and women could not exist without each other—and that realization should caution us against overemphasizing independence.
Moreover, shouldn’t fatherhood also entail modeling what lasting commitment to a spouse looks like? Reeves is right to stress that fatherhood should mean more than just economic support, but he misses the fact that prospects for decoupling marriage from fatherhood are similarly discouraging in this regard. In a study by the late Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, 80 percent of unmarried parents were in a romantic relationship (with each other) at time of the birth of their child. But here’s how McLanahan summarized her five-year follow-up with them:
Despite their “high hopes,” most unmarried parents were unable to maintain stable unions. Only 15 percent of all our unmarried couples were married at the time of the five-year interview, and only a third were still romantically involved (Recall that over 80 percent of parents were romantically involved at birth.) Among couples who were cohabitating at birth, the picture was somewhat better: after five years, 26 percent were married to each other and another 26 percent were living together.
In divorcing fatherhood from marriage so hastily, Reeves misses an opportunity to consider why reimagining marriage is a key aspect of reinvigorating fatherhood as well. It’s the biggest drawback of Of Boys and Men.
Nevertheless, Reeves’s proposal has clearly opened a door to fruitful further debate. His case for direct fatherhood should temper a traditionalist reflex to assume that nonresidence is equivalent to abandonment—there are clearly many nontraditional, not-married, or separated fathers who embody dedication to their children. But if engaged fatherhood is so empirically and conceptually intertwined with marriage, then we would lose key aspects of both by separating them. We shouldn’t idealize marriage or how it affects fatherhood, but we shouldn’t hastily decouple marriage and fatherhood either.
Successfully reimagining marriage and fatherhood will probably even entail letting go of some of the overly rigid gender roles that Reeves criticizes in Of Boys and Men: more female breadwinners and paternal homemakers, as well as various policies and workplace arrangements to support the parent–child bond are all likely to be a part of the future of the family. But so should giving boys and men not just the tools to excel at school and work, but the habits and vocabulary to strive toward commitment, dedication, and love in the most personal dimensions of their lives.
Improving the Debate
Of Boys and Men is a book about men, written by a man, claiming that our culture doesn’t take men’s problems seriously. In the wrong hands, it would have been the latest entry in a seemingly incessant culture war, a callback to the silliness of the Gillette controversy. Yet it has been a resounding mainstream success. In matters of gender and sex, some might believe it’s impossible for there to be any interest in men’s issues across the ideological spectrum. The success of Of Boys and Men suggests that’s not the case.
Of Boys and Men has a point of view, but Reeves doesn’t close off the possibility of exchange or criticism by making a caricature of his opponents. This is the sort of book that not only exposes an often ignored issue, but elevates the quality of our conversations about it, even amid disagreement. That is perhaps its most impressive feat.