Men are struggling. A new book explores why and what to do about it

The country has seen a dramatic shift away from jobs that require physical strength.  Fewer than 1 in 10 jobs now require what is called heavy work, a sector that was once dominated by men.

The country has seen a dramatic shift away from jobs that require physical strength. Fewer than 1 in 10 jobs now require what is called heavy work, a sector that was once dominated by men.

Jung Getty/Getty Images

Friday’s employment figures from the Labor Department showed a continuing troubling trend among men: A smaller and smaller share of their work.

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

Sixty years ago, almost 97% of men in that 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 scholar Richard V. Reeves raises the alarm about the struggles of men, both in the economy and in society, and pleads with policymakers and society at large to pay attention to what is going on and to grab.

Titled Of boys and men, the book examines the economic, social and cultural shifts that have forced men to the margins of the economy, including the loss of jobs in male-dominated fields such as manufacturing and the influx of women into the workforce, which has reduced the need for men to serve reduced as providers for their families.

Rather than trying to recapture an era long gone, Reeves argues that we need to help men adapt to the jobs of the future — including many that are now overwhelmingly performed 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, fearing some of the criticism you might get for turning the focus away from girls and women. But you call it a false choice. Can you explain that?

The reluctance was simply because the way the debate was set up — it’s ‘Whose side are you on?’

But of course most people in the world are perfectly capable of worrying 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 this is a false choice. Partly because of the changes of recent decades, we both can and must now pay attention to both sides of gender inequality.

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You say the economic relationship between men and women has transformed so quickly that our culture has not yet caught up. Women went to work. They do not have to rely on men for income.

It is important to recognize that this was the central material goal of the post-war women’s movement – to secure economic independence for women so that they did not have to rely on men in a material sense. This was achieved to a very large extent, very, very quickly.

In 1979, only 13% of women earned more than the average man. Now 40% of women earn more than the average man. Forty percent of American households have a female breadwinner, quadrupling the number a few decades ago.

It was an extraordinary success. But when it happens so quickly, it’s very hard 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 the fundamental economics have changed.

Author Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has three grown sons.  He says that where he used to worry about three young men, he now worries about millions.

Author Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has three grown sons. He says that where he used to worry about three young men, he now worries about millions.

Brookings Institution

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

You often hear about the gender wage gap – that women make only 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. But as you write, it doesn’t tell the whole story. What has happened to men’s wages in recent decades?

There is still a gender pay gap, but there are two sides to that story. We’ve seen a rise in women’s wages across the board, but especially at the top. And we’ve actually seen a decline in male wages in the middle and at the bottom. So most men in the US today earn less than most men did in 1979, which is an extraordinary economic haven.

You have this entire half of the population that has fallen back economically compared to more than four decades ago. And that, ironically, is one of the reasons why there has been this narrowing of the gender pay gap. I don’t think anyone wants to close the gap by making men poorer.

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The general pattern is one of increasing inequality of wages overall, but of stagnant wages for the majority of American men. And that created this economic malaise.

The major shift in the labor market has been away from the kind of work that can be done largely through physical strength and/or with relatively low levels of education. Stereotypically, the guy with maybe a high school diploma can get out and get a pretty good union job in a factory. And those jobs are only getting scarcer and scarcer because of these changes in the economy.

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

So I think it’s tempting for politicians to think that we can bring back those old jobs. It’s a wand-ism, honestly. There is very little that can realistically be done to turn the tide on such profound economic changes.

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

MEDICAL sectors include things like medicine and nursing, but also teaching, many of the care professions, social work, psychology, the kinds of jobs that require more verbal skills or written skills rather than math skills. By my calculations, for every STEM job we will create between now and 2030, we will create about three HEAL jobs.

There are actually some shortages in some of these professions, in areas such as teaching and nursing. These are actually sectors that are looking for workers, but if anything they have become more female dominated in the last few decades.

About 27% of STEM workers are now women, which is not enough, but that’s up from 8% in the 1980s. But in HEAL jobs there are fewer and fewer men. There are fewer men in classrooms, there are fewer male social workers, and there is a cratering of the number of men in fields like psychology.

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Among psychologists under the age of 30, only 5% are male. It’s a profession that was actually slightly male in the 1980s. Go back to 1980, and 40% of elementary and middle school teachers were male. Now it is up to one in 10 in primary schools.

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

There are quite nasty stereotypes surrounding men in those professions. And so we just have to be realistic about it and say there are barriers. What this means is that we have to work extra hard to make those occupations look like they are suitable for men.

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

Besides employment, you also say that there are social benefits to having men in these roles. Teachers for example.

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

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

You take areas like substance abuse counseling. Most substance abusers are men, but most substance abuse counselors are women. Most children referred to special needs are boys, but most special needs teachers are women. And so on.

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

You notice that there is not much recognition of these problems unique to men and boys. What are the consequences of continued silence on the issue?

I think the consequences of failing to face these problems head on and address them is, firstly, that they will get worse. They are not going to resolve themselves. They will need deliberate public policy to address them.

And at a deeper level, that unaddressed malaise can metastasize into grievances at a political level. And that can then be exploited by some skilled populists or online personalities or whoever.

Right now there are enough young men, and men in general, who feel neglected or ignored or dismissed. This creates very fertile ground for some bad stuff to get seed. And I think we reap the consequences of our own neglect.

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