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The Social And Economic Crisis Facing Men In America

(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Men still dominate the highest echelons of education and work.

But that group is a small slice of all men in America.

For the rest, the past 30 to 50 years have pulled them in a downward trajectory.

Fewer skills, diminished employment rates and lower wages. And now, much lower college enrollment rates.

Half a century ago, men accounted for almost 60% of college students, women 40%. Now, that number has completely flipped. Men make up about 40% of college students, and the number could continue to drop.

Today, On Point: The economic and social crisis among American men, and why American democracy depends on doing something about it.


Christopher Goins, My Brother’s Keeper impact community lead for the City of Chicago. Chief equity officer for Thrive Chicago.

David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ronald Levant, professor emeritus at the University of Akron. Author of many books, including “The Psychology of Men and Masculinities.”

READ: “The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education,” a study by David Autor and Melanie Wasserman.

Also Featured

James Shelley, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College.

Interview Highlights

On the biggest challenges that young men and boys of color in Chicago face

Christopher Goins: “The biggest issue that we are seeing that boys and young men of color are facing is a system that was not designed for them to be successful. And when we’re talking about a system, we’re talking about when you see the life outcomes of boys and young men of color, and men of color in general in Chicago. Where we see the differences is that in communities where it is wrapped in poverty, and violence and low economic attainment — we have a community here in Chicago called Englewood. And the life expectancy for a man of color in the community of Inglewood is about 60 years old.

“When you move up north in our communities up north, where predominantly are white people, the life expectancy for a man increases to 80 years old. And these communities, they have distinct differences. Chicago is the most segregated city in the country. And in those communities like Englewood, you have some of the most challenging schools.

“Parents do not have a lot of options for their schools, they’re food deserts. They’re places where young people do not have any opportunity or even access to getting downtown to Michigan Avenue, which is the heart of Chicago, in the heart of our entire economy here in Chicago. And so to answer that question, it is a deep, systemic issue with men of color and boys and young men of color in Chicago. That’s the biggest issue that we are facing.”

Is it more challenging for young men and boys in Chicago now than it was 20 or 30 years ago?

Christopher Goins: “I do believe it has gotten more challenging because young people change. They’re different. They have access to more. They have access to more things because of technology and because of the Internet. And they are exposed to a lot more than students were in the past. And my theory of change is that we have to approach solutions a little bit differently than what worked 30 years ago. Students are different. Young people are different. The challenges are different. All the things that they are facing each and every day in their lives are totally different.

“And when I put the pin point on Chicago, young people in Chicago have faced insurmountable challenges. We have had massive school closures that totally disrupted their lives. And these are young men that are juniors and seniors in high school right now that were grossly impacted by school closures. And if we think about the impact of what the pandemic is having, we are still in a pandemic and that is grossly impacting communities of color and communities that are wrapped in poverty and violence. And so if we’re not thinking differently around our solutions, we’re going to continue to see dismal results for men of color and men in general.”

On data about how men have been faring over the past 30 years

David Autor: “Let me start with a statistic. An important reason why the share of women in college has risen so much is not that men have fallen, it’s that women have surpassed. So for example, in 1980, if you looked at young adults 25 to 34, women were about eight percentage points less likely to have a college degree. 30 years later, women were about eight percentage points more likely to have a college degree. But that was largely because men’s college-going plateaued after the end of the Vietnam War. And women’s college-going had been on an upward trend. And that continued.

“So not all of the relative decline of men reflects an absolute decline of men. Some just actually reflects women attaining more education. And I should say this is not unique to the United States. In almost every industrialized country, women are about 30% more likely to get a college degree than men. So this is not unique to us. And in many ways, the lower rate of college attainment of women reflects a distortion. Historically, girls always did better than boys through primary and secondary school. And then boys went on to college, and women did not. So it’s important to understand it’s not all just men declining. Women are rising, and that’s good news.”

On why the crisis among American men matters in society

David Autor: “It matters because we care about the welfare of all individuals. Second, it matters because … it affects the people they would partner with, their potential spouses. It affects their children. It affects the level of crime incarceration. It affects the tax base. it affects our ability to grow and innovate in all kinds of ways. We’re all kind of in this together. And the low rates of success of a big chunk of the population affects all of us. And I think we should also be additionally concerned because this problem has gotten more pronounced over time.

“And it’s ironic because in many ways men are more educated than they were 40 years ago. There are many ways in which we’re more affluent. I would say that we’re a racist country in many ways, or have systemic racism, but probably less so than we did four decades ago. And yet certainly the employment prospects of less educated men, particularly less educated African American men have just gone south. And that’s just problematic on so many levels.

“So we have a great deal to be concerned about. And even if you took the kind of laissez faire, Well, their choice, whatever. You should be concerned about their potential spouses or partners and the children they will have. Who will be disadvantaged by the choices of their parents. And in the United States, we are not a very economically mobile society. People don’t go from rags to riches at a high rate in the U.S., relative to many other advanced countries. Including Canada, our neighbor to the north. And so when your children are born into unfavorable circumstances, it’s very likely they will grow into adults with unfavorable circumstances.”

What could we do to meaningfully change the social forces impacting American men?

Ronald Levant: “You’re very right to look to the threat to our democracy, to the issues we’re talking about today. And my lab has done research associating everything from endorsement of extreme right wing political views, to refusal to engage in mitigation measures for the pandemic, to masculinity. Masculinity is a harmful problem. So I don’t have a magic solution that we can kind of change things overnight. But I think we have to engage in long-term cultural change.

“We have to talk to parents about raising boys to be who they are. The idea of forcing boys to fit into a set of gender norms … is wrong. We have to understand that the boys have personalities that vary a great deal. If you take any single masculine norm, let’s say toughness. And measure 100 boys, you’ll find scores from very high to very low. So I would say to parents, know who your boy is and let your boy be who he is.

“Now, some parents have told me, Yes, we could do that, but we’re afraid of how he’ll be received in the real world. To which I would say, have conversations, age appropriate with your son, something like this: In our house, we think it’s okay for boys to cry. Because after all, crying makes you feel less sad. But not everybody agrees. So you have to know who you’re with. That is, you have to inoculate your son. And if you’re among people who believe that boys should not cry, then you have to not cry because otherwise they’ll get mad at you.

“But I think we have to encourage parents to allow their boys the totality of what their personalities are, rather than forcing them into these narrow boxes. It’s called the man box by some of my colleagues. In allowing [them to be] the truly open human beings they are. And to not consider such emotions as empathy and compassion and nurturance as wrong for boys.”

On how to help American men thrive economically

David Autor: “The solutions begin very early. Universal pre-K education has been shown to improve people’s social and non-cognitive skills. That makes them more successful in all walks of life. Charter schools are highly effective. … Summer mentorship programs help children get role models, boys and girls, but particularly boys, and stay out of trouble. School-to-work programs like the career academies that introduce high school students to the world of work while they’re still in high school, have been very effective in helping students make school-to-work transitions, those who don’t go to college.

“Reducing overpolicing of minorities and men would go some ways towards allowing people to thrive. Promoting labor market opportunities for people with criminal record histories, convincing employers that they are over screening … would help create opportunity for people who have been scarred by our criminal justice system. Ending the over-credentialing of many positions in the labor market that require a college degree. When, in fact, people would be trainable without one would also help. So there are many, many practical concrete investments and changes we can make that can … help with this quite serious problem.”

From The Reading List

Psychology Today: “Learning to Be a Man Without Masculinity” — “In recent years, with the #MeToo movement and rampant gun violence, the behavior of men has come under intense scrutiny, as we grapple to understand motivations for the heinous acts of rape and sexual aggression, and the indiscriminate mass killings that have badly damaged the psychological fabric of our country.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.