Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves review – the descent of man

Something is rotten in the state of manhood. Guilty of the crime of patriarchy, it is also tainted by toxic masculinity, the belief that most social ills – everything from murder and rape to online abuse – stem from men being men. Not only are men seen as (and too often are) violent and dangerous, in advanced economies men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives.

According to research cited in thinktank research fellow Richard Reeves’s new book, Of Boys and Men, males are much more likely to feel socially excluded, and far less likely to thrive after divorce (if they don’t remarry). At the same time, 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, in spite of 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 where those come from. Was the American feminist writer Hanna Rosin on to something when she published a book a decade ago entitled 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.

‘The problem with men is typically framed as a problem of men,’ writes Reeves

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 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. For anyone who has been taking notice, there are a number of reasons to take seriously the broad thesis of Reeves’s book.

Leaving aside the conspicuous gap in educational performance that Reeves highlights, 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.

That said, Of Boys and Men is a book primarily concerned with the US, where Reeves, a Briton, now lives. It’s not that it has no bearing on British life, but so much of our social science is shaped by the predominance of American-focused research it is sometimes easy to forget that our histories, cultures and social organisations are strikingly distinct.

What is just as relevant here as there is the fact, delicately handled by Reeves, that masculinity is first and foremost a product of biology rather than culture. We live in an age in which there is a growing conviction that gender, and indeed biological sex itself, is a social imposition from which we are able to liberate ourselves. But, as Reeves points out, the greater propensity for risk and aggression that have been a feature of masculinity throughout history is not a social construct.

How they are channelled is. This is a vital point to make but, having made it, Reeves doesn’t have a great deal to say about the ways in which that channelling might be done more effectively or productively. The ebbs and flows of social movements tend to be resistant to statistical analysis. And Reeves, as he readily concedes, is a wonk by outlook, happier with crunching numbers than grappling with the cultural mechanics of socialisation.

Perhaps the big takeaway is Heal (health, education, administration and literacy), an acronym he has coined – “Never doubt the power of a good acronym”, he quips – as a counterpoint to Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Just as women are finally making headway in the traditionally male-dominated Stem industries, so, Reeves argues, should men be looking to expand their part in Heal jobs.

It’s a perfectly sound proposal, just as his contention that men should play a more active role as fathers ought also to be uncontentious. But it takes a lot more than government policy to shift attitudes and bring about social change. Technology, politics, economics and even something as fickle as fashion all play their part, even if they are little mentioned here. If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t really get discussed.

While Reeves is to be commended for steering clear of the shibboleths of the culture war, there is a larger cultural debate about what it means to be a man that, perhaps as a result, is never satisfyingly addressed. Even so, for anyone who is troubled about the modern plight of men and boys – Reeves himself is a father of three sons – this book offers plenty of food for thought.

Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters and What to Do About It by Richard Reeves is published by Swift Press (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org