The Trouble With Boys and Men

Plus: Was post-Soviet optimism for Russia misguided?

a young boy flexing a muscle in black and white
Hirz / Archive Photos / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Why are men and boys struggling? What should we do about it?

Send your responses to or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Those questions are top of mind this week due to the Brookings scholar Richard Reeves and his just-released book, Of Boys and Men, which proceeds from the proposition that “men at the top are still flourishing, but men in general are not.” Men are struggling in school, in the job market, and in family life; they are the gender most likely to end up in prison and most vulnerable to “deaths of despair.”

Reeves grounds those characterizations of males as in trouble in lots of statistics. Here are a few:

  • “In the U.S … the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.”
  • “Among men with only a high-school education, one in three is out of the labor force. For those who have a job, typical earnings are $881 a week, down from $1,017 in 1979.”
  • “Mortality from drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related illnesses … are almost three times higher among men than women.”

In Reeves’s telling, the left and right both fail in their responses. The left tends “to pathologize naturally occurring aspects of masculine identity,” he writes, to see male struggles as individual failings rather than structural problems, to deny any biological basis for sex differences, and to proceed as if “gender inequality can only run one way, that is, to the disadvantage of women.” Though conservatives pay more attention “to the growing problems faced by boys and men,” he continues, their agenda is equally unhelpful. They “fuel male grievances for political gain, which simply creates more anger and discontent.” They “overweight the importance of biological differences for gender roles.” And they see solutions “as lying in the past rather than the future, in the form of a restoration of traditional economic relations between male providers and female carers” rather than “helping men adapt to the new world.”

An example of a solution that he proposes: Because boys mature more slowly than girls, start them in school a year later, rather than starting both sexes at the same age despite their differences. Or, to echo a book excerpt that The Atlantic published in the magazine’s October issue, “redshirt the boys.” (For those of you who like listening to podcasts, Reeves’s interview with Andrew Sullivan is a good introduction to the book and its arguments.)

In a New York Times column about the book, David Brooks writes:

I come away with the impression that many men are like what Dean Acheson said about Britain after World War II. They have lost an empire but not yet found a role. Many men have an obsolete ideal: Being a man means being the main breadwinner for your family. Then they can’t meet that ideal. Demoralization follows. Ambition doesn’t just happen; it has to be fired. The culture is still searching for a modern masculine ideal.

Whereas Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argues that the solutions proposed by the book do too little to address “political and economic decisions that have made American life brutal, in different but overlapping ways, for women and men both.” I look forward to your thoughts on this subject, especially if informed by observations from your life or people in your family, community, or industry. For more food for thought on this subject, see the Atlantic articles “The War Against Boys” (from 2000) by Christina Hoff Sommers and “The End of Men” (from 2010) by Hanna Rosin.

“Is the Idea of Masculinity Worth Saving?”

That’s the proposition anchoring a debate at The Nation between Laura Kipnis (who says yes) and Phil Christman (who says no).

The Women of Iran

Historically, most street uprisings are led by men. At Bloomberg, Bobby Ghosh argues that, amid protests prompted by the death of Mahsa Amini—a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody following her arrest for improperly wearing her headscarf—the Iranian regime is having the most trouble dealing with women:

A week ago, I worried that the anti-regime demonstrations in Iran might falter if the mostly young protesters didn’t get some help from grown-ups — like the trade unions, say, or the so-called moderate elements within the theocratic state. I reckoned it would take the participation of groups of that stature to rattle Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s ruthless supreme leader.

The adults have not yet risen to the occasion, but the tyrant and his theocrats have been confronted and confounded by an unexpected constituency: schoolgirls. They represent a new kind of challenge for a regime that usually deals with dissent by licensing its security forces to use torture and murder. Does Khamenei dare turn his thugs on children?

In The Atlantic, Roya Hakakian argues that these protests are unlike some past uprisings against Iran’s patriarchal Islamic regime:

The affluent residents of north Tehran have come out alongside the poor ones from the city’s south side. The youth are there—and so are their parents, even their grandparents. The metropolitan people are out, and so are the small-town folk.

The women of Iran are at the forefront—they who have most consistently resisted the regime’s tyranny and persisted in rebutting the myth that the hijab is an Iranian tradition. The sight of all the men at their side is a sign of the near-universal disdain for the regime’s official misogyny. With the risks these citizens are taking and the sacrifices they are making, they are proving that if any tradition needs defending 24 hours a day by armed men who have to beat people to embrace it, then it deserves to perish.

Russia and the Bomb

The writer Noah Smith is old enough to remember the time before the fall of the Soviet Union when many people expected nuclear war, and the optimism that took hold starting in the 1990s.

Today, he wonders in his newsletter if it was irrational to stop worrying:

What if Vladimir Putin is the dictatorial equivalent of a suicide bomber? His dreams of restoring the Russian Empire were never possible given the means at his disposal, and the Ukraine war has only served to expose their impossibility even more. Given the choice between acknowledging the failure of his life’s dream and destroying both his own country and all his enemies in a final burst of apocalyptic spite, how sure are you that he will choose the former? I am not sure at all, to be honest. The man is 69 years old, and rumored to be in poor health. Perhaps eking out a few more years as a shattered failure of a man appeals to him less than being the man who blew up the world.

It is hard to be sure. And because of that, Smith reasons, the world finds itself confronting a terrifying question:

What happens when a nuclear-armed conqueror says “Let me conquer your country, or I will destroy the entire world, including myself?”. What do you do? Do you assume he’s bluffing and refuse him his prize? Or do you capitulate in the face of a possible madman, and let him take whatever he wants, because you don’t want to take the chance that you love your children infinitely more than he loves his own?

That is the scenario we now essentially face. Putin has shown no willingness to negotiate any sort of peace settlement, instead simply issuing unilateral demands for territory backed by vague nuclear threats. What happens if he gets his territory? If Ukraine gives Putin four of its provinces — condemning their populations to torture, rape, forcible relocation, and other horrific repressions — then will he be satisfied? It seems highly unlikely; a few months ago he was attempting to conquer the entire country. If Ukraine and the West capitulate to nuclear threats, why wouldn’t he just repeat the trick in a few months with the rest of Ukraine? And if that gets surrendered, what about Poland, the Baltics, or the other former territories of the Russian Empire with which Putin is so enamored? Do we just keep surrendering land after land, people after people, until Putin dies, in the hope that his successor will be less apocalyptic?

I am inclined to answer “No, we should not surrender,” but that’s not an answer that satisfies me.

Provocation of the Week

Looking back on the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and the social-justice activism and upheaval within institutions that followed, the Atlantic writer Helen Lewis does a deep dive on how various controversies within the art world played out and reflects on the role of scapegoats:

The racial reckoning of 2020 was righteous, and overdue, but its targets were haphazard. Activists wanted sweeping changes; instead they got individual firings and forced resignations … In hindsight, the summer of 2020 was revolutionary, in both good and bad ways; noble goals were being pursued, but the ground was constantly shifting, and it was unwise to end up on the wrong side of the revolutionaries … As in any revolution, who survived and who fell foul of the crowd was often arbitrary.