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Sunday, June 26, 2022

We Need to Talk About a Crisis for Young American Men

My wife and I are parents of two sons and a daughter, who are now in their teens and twenties. As we come out of COVID isolation and reconnect face-to-face with parents of our kids’ peers, I can’t help but notice a theme. A surprisingly high number of parents of boys describe young men who are — for lack of a better term — struggling to chart their next step. Yet at the same time, most parents of daughters do not generally echo this concern.

There’s something going on with young American males in their “life’s launchpad” years, and few Americans wish to speak about it.

These young men attended the same schools as their sisters. They have loving, intelligent, driven and attentive parents. We’ve known many of these kids from a young age. And now, twenty years on, so many of the boys are opting out. They’re searching. Some are still in extended gap year. Three have dropped out of college. Those who aren’t in college don’t yet have full time jobs. They’re not apprenticing. In many cases these boys are living at home, or in apartments funded by mom and dad. In short — as they now hit their twenties, what Dr. Meg Jay calls the “Defining Decade,” they haven’t found their trail.

The daughters, by and large, are on a more determined path. They’re engaged at college. They’ve landed summer jobs. They have outlets and direction.

This is a very small sample size, and it could just be a unique snapshot. So try this. Know a parent whose kids were born around 2000-2005, who are now high school grads? Ask those with adolescent boys to give an honest assessment of how their son’s friends and peers are doing. Have they found purpose? Are they on the taxiway ready for liftoff? Then, ask parents of adolescent daughters how their friends are doing. Statistically, you’re likely to hear a very different picture.

Zooming out, the data from Pew, the Census Bureau the CDC and more tell a pretty consistent story. America’s young men are in a crisis which is worsening.

Boys’ high school graduation rates are 6% lower than females, and in some states 15% lower. Boys are twice as likely to have a substance use disorder. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the CDC, which likely says something both about boys, and our tendency to intervene, medicalize and label otherwise normal-spectrum behavior a “disorder.” Boys are five times as likely as girls to spend time in juvenile detention.

Across the country, college women now constitute 60% of the student body, and are also now clearly outpacing men in graduation:

Pew’s survey reveals that a significant driver is personal choice: “Roughly a third (34%) of men without a bachelor’s degree say a major reason they didn’t complete college is that they just didn’t want to. Only one-in-four women say the same.” Younger respondents are also far less likely (33%) than older Americans (45%) to say that college experience was “extremely useful” in helping them develop skills and knowledge which could be used in the workplace.

Male labor force participation rates have been on a steady decline since the 1980’s, while women’s has been on the rise. In 1960, 93% of men aged 25-34 were in the labor force; by 2021, that figure had fallen to 68%.

Not only are the snapshot statistics worrisome, but nearly every single one is trending in the wrong direction. The consequences for America are grave. NYU Professor Scott Golloway puts it starkly: America is producing too many of “the most dangerous person in the world: a broken and alone man.”

This isn’t just bad for men. 78% of American females report that a steady job is very important to them in selecting a spouse or partner. And fully half report that their mate must have equal or better education than them.

And yet, to sound the alarm — or worse, attempt to diagnose or work through whether any of this has cultural, sociological or pedagogical roots — brings out the pitchforks and vitriol.

Andrew Yang wrote a piece about this in the Washington Post in February, The Boys Are Not Alright. The most upvoted comment, from user IrisClover, is typical of the rejoinder: “I love the chorus of dudes proclaiming that male failure to thrive (i.e., to be superior) is all about an unfair system or current social conditions. Rampant violence against women, poverty, unfair pay, females doing nearly all unpaid labor, unequal representation for centuries…oops, they didn’t notice that.” Whew. Well, that conversation went well, didn’t it?

Far too many have conflated discussing the clear crisis in young men with rejection or pushback against the many wonderful advances for women, or a denial of celebration for all that’s been achieved.

But it should be possible to discuss the worrying trends without setting off bad-faith conversation about “what this really means.” Perhaps it means that the boys are in crisis, and we need to diagnose why. We need to bring this conversation to the fore, and engage in it maturely, eggshells and all. It affects every single one of us. Somehow, through a combination of culture, parenting, schooling and more, we are exacerbating very bad trendlines for the future. Perhaps we should actually discuss it cogently, with data, and brainstorm some ways out of it.

After two decades of cultural emphasis on female empowerment, we need to add back to the conversation why and how tens of millions of young American males are opting out, standing on the sidelines, or otherwise falling through the cracks.

Steve Murch
Steve Murchhttps://stevemurch.com
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at stevemurch.com.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting. I looked the graduation rates up for Portugal, and found them to follow the same pattern – 4.4% female, 7.1% male not graduating from secondário (I guess our secondary, can look into it if anyone cares.) Somewhat different society, in some ways maybe more progressive than ours, in others less. It was the first hit on my search, as though they’ve been thinking about this over there.

    What made the analysis more interesting was the additional data from 1992. Not sure why that particular year, but as you will see, Portugal has gone through some changes in our lifetimes. Nongraduation then: 44.2% female, 56.2% male. Make of it what you will. (Portugal was essentially a third world country at the middle of the 20th century; far better by 1992 but I guess not all the way up to western European standards.)
    https://www.pordata.pt/Portugal/Taxa+de+abandono+precoce+de+educa%c3%a7%c3%a3o+e+forma%c3%a7%c3%a3o+total+e+por+sexo-433-4680

  2. Great subject! thanks for writing about it Mr. Murch.

    I’m a blue collar guy who kicked around the NW working in commercial fishing, construction and warehouses for most of my life. Here’s a couple of changes I’ve seen since starting out on my own in 1983.

    Educated people have a lower option of blue collar workers now. Families seem to let their college dropout son live in their basement rather than working in HVAC or construction and just getting on with their life. My dad bought me a ’64 Ford Falcon for my H.S. graduation… to drive far away from Mom and him and do my own thing. It’s was very clear I’d make my own way… and be my own man.

    The path forward for blue collar guys has never been tougher. In Seattle it’s easy to get a job in construction and only slightly harder to get a job driving bus or joining the police force. It’s nearly impossible to buy a house on what those jobs pay. Back in the ’80’s my friends and I all ended up working for the County or aerospace, or getting a contractor’s license….houses were bought, girls where married, babies made (maybe not in that order)…. we didn’t have some iron clad plan, but with hard work and a little luck there was a way forward. I’m not sure kids have that now.

    • You write: “Educated people have a lower option of blue collar workers now.”

      That’s a really important and interesting perspective. I tried to find some sentiment data on this, and came up short. But what you write certainly -rings- true (though it shouldn’t be! We’ve just come through a first pandemic wave where ostensibly we’ve sought to understand and appreciate essential work.) That unhealthy divide between “knowledge professions” and manual labor does feel like it’s expanding, and it has contributed to a very significant red/blue cultural divide.

      To the readers of Post Alley: How many people do you know who have a pickup truck? Pickup trucks are three of the top five biggest sellers in America. How many of your 100-500 friends do you know who drives one?

      There’s some outdated info from 2009 here: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2009/09/03/iii-attitudes-toward-work/

      More recently, in 2019, only 30% of Americans reported that they wanted to ever work in manufacturing, which is a decline from previous years, according to the CEO of Snap-on tools: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/17/americans-dont-tell-the-truth-when-they-talk-about-manufacturing-jobs.html

      Personally, I feel many young people (and older folks!), are way, way underappreciating the value of manual tradecraft.

      I happen to love working on computers in tech, but if I didn’t, and I were a graduating high schooler, I’d seriously consider becoming an electrician, plumber or carpenter. In 2022, I think being setting out to be the most expert electrician, carpenter, plumber or more will be in tremendous comparative demand, depending upon the market served. It’s a job that cannot be outsourced.

      With fewer people choosing these vocations, the opportunity to establish some significant nest-egg over time seems quite possible, if not likely. I don’t feel the same about driving, especially long-haul driving — that seems quite possible to be on the path of automation within a generation. It’s highly dignified work! Those of us who spend more time in Powerpoint yearn for the satisfaction of fixing a sink every now and then, or making a new circuit come to life.

  3. EXPECTATIONS Vs. WORK ETHICS
    Male ego, in this day and age, desires a quick easy ride to fame and fortune. School is hard work and many are disillusioned, especially when the job hunt after college doesn’t produce what they assumed. Our kids have been sold a future that isn’t attainable for everyone.
    My parental advice – get them a job in High School as dishwasher/ busboy – buy them a lawn mower – when they want the latest shoes or phone, have them paint their room BEFORE you buy it for them. Parenting isn’t just providing, it is teaching………

    • For sure. I strongly believe everyone should at one point in their life work in restaurant/hospitality. At a minimum, it makes us appreciate the hard work. Will never forget those days scooping ice cream… There are plenty of openings right now, but one impact of the higher minimum wage law is that breaking into these jobs for teens is now significantly harder. That is, given a requirement to pay, say, $20 per hour, most restaurants will opt for someone with experience over someone onboarding to their first job. But yes, agree fully with your basic point.

    • Your view is vastly too simplistic Phil. My son had a job, a good one, in high school and beyond yet his arc was also very much the same as described in this article. The culture we live in is influencing these kids vastly more than previous generations. And I’m highly suspicious of what I saw in Seattle schools as he went through them. The anti-boy attitude (or should I say pro-girl) that I witnessed over many schools and years, was simply too visible to ignore. Boys with their inherently squirmy walk around behavior seemed to be disciplined far more than girls. If I had to change one thing, I would have home schooled our son.

  4. I saw the same piece in the a Washington Post and was disgusted at the myopic vitriol of the majority of comments. Zero empathy, zero understanding of how this hurts all of us, and a gleeful demonization and blaming of…..boys. CHILDREN. We need serious trade options in school starting with late elementary school. More male teachers. And a zero tolerance of phones in the classroom.

  5. Just seeing this now. I agree there’s a social and cultural issue to look at that doesn’t negate or disparage the gains women are making.

    I’ll add that I think the affected generation extends earlier than current 20-somethings. I have a 40- something son with a college degree and a profession who is looking for meaning in his life. I would like a social analysis of his cohort. He may be a one-off but maybe not.

    More significantly, I know four women in their mid- to late-thirties who are single mothers by choice, with babes from 1-1/2 years to pre-natal. They all have strong supportive communities, but they don’t have partners. I think this is a trend worth examining.

  6. I was watching the news on TV last night and there was an interview with a elementary school teacher who was (very enthusiastically) talking about all the wonderful new information that was being passed on to his students. For instance, he said, who would of guessed that women are better leaders than men. I thought that was a strange thing to say. One sex is not a better leader than the other. A good leader is a good leader. They could be ether sex. I got a strong feeling that that teacher shouldn’t be teaching little kids.

  7. I’ve been noticing this since I was a middle school teacher in the 90s. The honor roll was full of girls, 90 to 95%. When I asked a question, the hands in the air were girls’ hands, Plus maybe a couple of especially self-possessed boys. The vast majority of boys spent a lot of time perfecting a look of boredom and ennui, chin on hand. Rather than looking at this from a perspective of scarcity, assuming we have to focus on one group or another, we need to commit to do right by every child. No kid deserves to be left out of having a fulfilling future.

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