Boys and young men are failing. At every level and by almost every measure, men are falling behind girls and women. While this decline of boys in school and men in careers has been evident for decades, few acknowledge it. And the future for men is bleak. If we don’t address this critical problem soon, the consequences will be dire.
With the spotlight rightfully focused on women’s pay, sexual abuse, #MeToo and other issues implying male dominance, few realize that men haven’t been dominant in much of anything for years.
As recently as the 1970s, men went to college in higher proportions then women — 58 percent vs. 42 percent. That ratio is now reversed. This year, 56 percent of students on campus are women, 2.2 million more than men.
Two decades ago, many jobs didn’t require a college degree; now most do. Women today are better educated than men at every level from kindergarten through graduate school and law school.
“Since the 1950’s, boys in America have been falling behind girls in school. They have more trouble graduating high school and are less likely to get college diplomas,” the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” reported, citing a major study showing that boys in poorer schools are falling even farther behind.
MIT, Northwestern and the University of Florida economists investigated multiple factors impacting students in Florida schools, including “family circumstances.” Economists compared “brothers and sisters who went to the same schools,” had been exposed to the same conditions and resources, concluding, “that the school environment itself was causing boys to fall behind.”
“This just adds to the panoply of evidence that disadvantageous childhood conditions are particularly pernicious for boys, leading to lower test scores, more behavior problems, lower rates of employment in early adulthood and even higher rates of incarceration,” says MIT professor David Autor, an author of the study.
Another researcher, Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, also discounts the teachers’ union arguments that if you solve poverty, you’ll solve the problem. Whitmire says, “This has nothing to do with how boys are taught.”
“On the surface, their argument seems to have merit. The gender gaps truly are greater for poor minority boys. But you can find these gaps at all levels, even among boys at pricy private schools where girls have to achieve at far higher levels to land spots in selective colleges. And boys from white, blue collar families suffer from serious gender gaps as I discovered in Maine during the book research.”
“Surely parents demand explanations for why their sons lag behind their daughters, right?” Whitmire asks. “Surprisingly not,” he answers, those who do ask are told by educators that, “boys are just slow starters. Be patient, they counsel, he’ll catch up … clueless about the brutal reality that a lot of sons will never catch up.”
“If we accept the premise that males will continue to lag behind female counterparts in academic interest and performance, the consequences for this country will be profound,” says the Chronicle for Higher Education. “This is no abstract issue: Ultimately it could lead to a country in which millions of young men live with their parents and work lousy jobs with few or no benefits and in which a class of highly educated, professionally engaged women is expected to support underemployed husbands.”
“Young female workers have been driving the young workforce in the U.S. since 1975” and grabbing increasingly high paying jobs. “Their [age 25-34] male counterparts, on the other hand, appear to be on the economic decline,” says Jonathan Vespa, demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Boys and men have lagged behind for years. A CBS “60 Minutes” report began, “Remember when girls became nurses and not doctors, stenographers not CEOs, teachers not principals? Well, that’s not the way it is anymore. Girls are graduating from high school and college and going into professions and businesses in record numbers. Now it’s the boys who could use a little help in school where they are falling behind their female counterparts … in all segments of society, in all 50 states.”
That “60 Minutes” report, “Gender Gap: Boys Lagging,” aired in … 2002. Yes, 2002. It’s only gotten worse since.
Why the inaction? The Chronicle suggests that the lack of progress may stem from the sense that “males hold all the cards — an impression undiminished by the abundant research documenting their struggles, which affect boys and men regardless of their race or socioeconomic status,” and also by what Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Boy Crisis, describes as “the myth of male social advantage.”
Such a presumed “social advantage” doesn’t explain why men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women, why men are more likely to be mass shooters, commit crime, are more likely to smoke, to be obese, to develop illicit drug and alcohol-related problems and are less likely to consult a doctor until the problem is serious. Nor does it explain why sperm counts have dropped by over 50 percent over the last 40 years in Europe, Australia and America, a rate of decline that’s not slowing.
Automation, robots and soon, artificial intelligence (AI) will decimate many of the remaining jobs still dominated by men — truck drivers, factory and railroad workers, taxi and Uber drivers, jobs in logistics and low-level office work. What will happen to these displaced undereducated men?
Men’s problems start early. “The schools, not boys have changed,” according to “What’s the Problem With School?” in PBS Parents. Today’s elementary schools are four-fifths language based. “At age five, many boys are not ready to learn to read,” says teacher Jane Katch, author of Under Deadman’s Skin. “We ask too much of boys developmentally in the early years and they taste too much failure and frustration in school,” said Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
The article notes that boys are more active and have trouble sitting still in class, yet most elementary teachers are women who may unconsciously prefer girls’ interests. And most schools don’t have enough hands-on learning opportunities that boys crave. “Many boys don’t feel they can grow up to be masculine men by being good at school,” Thompson adds.
After highlighting boys’ problems for years, Whitmire is discouraged. “Boys see girls ace school, especially reading and writing and conclude that school is for girls. It’s an illogical conclusion … but all too often its game over for boys, as the literacy skills demanded, even in math and science, only accelerate …”
Some writers suggest that fathers need to encourage academic performance, not just athletic prowess, from their sons and attend PTA meetings, not just Friday night football games. Others acknowledge another serious problem — families without fathers to teach sons how to become responsible men.
Whitmire also blames school principals who are not graded on gender gaps and the teachers’ unions “who are dedicated to repelling all efforts to hold them accountable for the ills of society” saying that, “they all prefer the status quo.”
Life is not a zero-sum game. If boys do better, it will help all society; it won’t come at the expense of girls and women. But if boys keep failing, the damage will be incalculable. After decades of ignoring the boy problem, we are edging ever closer to paying the price.
Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.