We need to talk about men’s issues.
Not really. Even if the thought of being asked to sympathize with modern men’s wrestling makes you roll your eyes or turn the page, it’s worth taking a closer look at this instinctual irritable reaction. Progressives should be able to recognize some real and serious problems – underachieving boys in school, high suicide rates among middle-aged men in particular, the online radicalization of an angry fringe drawn to violent ideologies – without women and girls feeling guilty for their achievements or claiming that feminism has gone too far. But that balance can be surprisingly difficult to achieve in practice, as a thoughtful new book by former Downing Street staffer Richard Reeves makes clear.
Reeves is a card-carrying liberal feminist, former Nick Clegg chief of staff turned political buff, and (as he writes) the parent the school was told to call when the kids got sick, except… invariably they called her extremely busy and high-flying wife instead. It is very clear that the problem is not female success, but the inability of some men to adapt to a world where they can no longer simply dominate as a right. But Reeves is also the father of three sons who now live in the United States, where he has seen the Republican right too successfully capitalize on the rage of the so-called left-behind man. In boys and menhe puts his finger on something uncomfortable.
What he describes are trends that have evolved over decades in developed countries and are most obviously visible in education. In Britain, Generation X went to university in a world where women had only just been reluctantly allowed to apply to some colleges in Oxbridge. Now their sons and daughters inhabit a world where almost half of the girls consider going to university while less than a third of boys do. A similar split in Sweden sparked a wave of concern about the so-called “pojkkrisen” (boy crisis)while in the United States, some college admissions deans have admitted secretly discriminating in favor of boys’ applications to prevent the gender gap from widening too much.
The underlying causes of this gender gap are complex and difficult to disentangle. But Reeves focuses on something that may resonate with mothers of teenage sons, namely the tendency for boys to mature emotionally later on average than girls. The risk he identifies is not just that young men will find themselves disproportionately clustered in unqualified jobs that don’t pay so well, but that automation will ultimately eliminate many of those jobs. If the most robot-proof careers involve skills that machines can’t easily replicate, such as emotional intelligence or the ability to handle people sensitively, then the boys who can’t adapt are in trouble.
What makes this change in the job market so painful, suggests Reeves, is that male identity remains closely tied to being a breadwinner. While women derive meaning and fulfillment not only from their careers, but also from their family and friendships, he argues, men have “a narrower range of sources of meaning and identity,” and relatively smaller circles of actual friends, which can lead to loneliness and isolation. No wonder some fall down the rabbit hole in angry online subcultures selling them a comforting myth about how someone else – feminists, immigrants or posh liberal elites – robbed them of the status quo. they feel they deserve. And while the political left worries about eclipsing women’s ongoing struggles or legitimizing toxic men’s rights activists if they acknowledge men’s problems, the right makes hay with suppressed grievances.
The traditional conservative response to male dislocation has been to backtrack on family life, pushing women back into the unthreatening role of wife and mother (and too often depriving them of their reproductive rights). The populist right, however, took this idea and put rockets to it. It is black men who often find themselves at the most acute end of a complex intersection of race, class and gender, yet the “boy problem” is presented on both sides of the Atlantic as a problem. white working classes in manufacturing left behind. cities, used to buttress the nostalgic politics of Brexit or Making America Great Again. Donald Trump’s call was not just about economic recovery, but about the idea of freedom for men to carry a gun, drive a gas-guzzling car or even grab women ‘by the pussy’ they wanted it.
In Britain, the right has ostensibly gone the opposite way, choosing a woman to succeed Boris Johnson. Yet Liz Truss is the kind of conservative feminist who instinctively recoils from what she would see as playing the sexist card. A former minister for women and equality herself, she dropped the word “woman” from the job title and gave it to an ethnic minority man. We have yet to see how Nadhim Zahawi manages his portfolio, but change is in the air.
The progressive paths Reeves suggests through the minefield range from encouraging boys to consider traditionally female (and relatively automation-proof) careers in health and education, while as girls were geared towards science or engineering, to the rather crazier idea of letting boys start school later than girls. But whether or not these are the right answers, he asks the right questions. Progressives need to talk about the issues with men, otherwise the solutions that come to the surface can be anything but benign.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
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