A new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, by Richard Reeves, examines the current state of masculinity, arguing that males are losing their primacy in all the fields where they used to dominate and are feeling social and psychological unease. Whether in education, the workforce and even physical strength, women are catching up to them—and in some areas, surpassing them.
Reeves writes that girls are outperforming boys in most academic disciplines, and rapidly closing the gap in those in which boys lead, not just in schools but in universities across the western world. In the US, 57% of bachelor degrees are now awarded to women.
The same can be said for many areas of the workforce too, where, despite the gender gap in pay – largely attributable to the burden of childcare placed on women – men are increasingly second best. What’s more, men are literally losing their grip. In 1985, writes Reeves, “the average man in his early 30s could squeeze your hand with about 30 pounds more force than a similarly aged woman. Today, their grip strength is about the same.”
And there are plenty more alarming statistics to consider. Reeves is not the first to propose the idea of the decline of masculinity. A decade ago, the American feminist Hanna Rosin wrote The End of Men. Reeves cites Rosin as a supporting witness to his case, though the woman herself has backtracked on what she has called, in the light of continuing male dominance in the upper reaches of the workplace, the “tragic naivety” of her initial optimism about female gains.
Nonetheless, for Reeves there is a genuine male malaise developing that should not be obscured by the flourishing of a small minority at the top. Lower down the social rung, the sense of male obsolescence is growing, along with signs of failure and alienation. The alienation is daily on display as we read about episodes of violence either in the domestic or the societal spheres.
“The problem with men is typically framed as a problem of men,” writes Reeves. “It is men who must be fixed, one man or boy at a time. This individualist approach is wrong.” Instead, he maintains there are structural problems, societal issues, that need to be addressed if men are not to become ever more lost, defeated and angry.
He suggests that most young men seem either to be appalled by the thuggish, misogynistic image of masculinity that dominates much of popular culture or are themselves caught up in projecting it. And while there is no shortage of contemporary advice on what men should not do or should not be, there is very little consensus on what constitutes a healthy conception of manhood.
Reeves explores the complex interaction between biology and the environment and suggests that there is an element of inevitability in biology’s claim on gender, an idea that runs counter to today’s growing belief that gender is simply a social construct that we can rid ourselves of if we wish; hence the proliferation of the gender fluidity movement.
Reeves, a father of three sons, offers no solutions—indeed, are there any, we might ask. To suggest that the problem needs to addressed through structural change, rather than on an individual basis, is vague and ineffective. More concretely, he does propose that as women are excelling in the formerly male-dominated STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), men can expand in HEAL (health, education, administration and literacy). This of course, does not address all the other domains in which the dominance of men is declining.
For those who think about the problematic image of masculinity, misogyny, and the violence occurring in our society, Reeves’ book is not enough, but it’s a welcome addition to the necessary examination of the present state of gender redefinition that is occurring in society.