The Decline of Boys

A new book lays out the neglected evidence that men and boys are not doing well.

Today’s boys are in very bad shape. That’s the key takeaway from The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. The new book, a joint effort from Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, and John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, combines wide-reaching research, analysis, and self-help advice.

In the first, and most striking, of its six parts, The Boy Crisis explains how “boys are declining in a dramatic way in virtually every key metric.” This section contains many startling findings.

Worldwide, boys are 50 percent less likely than girls to meet basic proficiency standards in reading, math, and science. The average sperm count of men in the U.S. drops 1.5 percent every year; one in five young men are not fertile. The gap between male and female suicides has tripled in the United States since the Great Depression. Mass shootings — which are among the most horrific acts of destruction a person can commit — have tripled in the U.S. since 2011, and most are committed by males.

The remainder of the book frames the data in a warranted crisis narrative by articulating its origins: the “purpose void,” dad-deprivation, and the rise of ADHD.

The boy crisis is, in the broadest sense, a health crisis, one that everyone, regardless of gender or politics, should seek to address. Wisely, therefore, The Boy Crisis does not position itself in opposition to feminism nor pin blame on any individual or group. Its approach is consistently conciliatory.

But what is the reason for the systemic neglect of this issue? Certainly, there is no shortage of political and media attention given to women’s issues. Although Farrell and Gray attempt to tackle the question head-on, their suggestions are sometimes puzzling. For instance, in a scant one-and-a-half-page chapter titled “Why Are We Blind to the Boy Crisis?” they write:

When our very survival is dependent on our sons’ willingness to die, sensitivity to the death and suffering of boys and men is in competition with our survival instinct.

This is fleshed out in subsequent chapters, where the authors argue that we encourage boys to undermine their own “health intelligence” by using “social bribes” (e.g., in action films, he who walks into danger gets the girl, etc.). This might be true, of course, but as an explanation it feels overstretched. Is a subconscious instinct really causing the blatant dismissal of facts and inaction? Or could it be that these facts are politically inconvenient? And if so, why is that the case? As one reads on, one encounters an inescapable implication: Perhaps the focus on historic sexism towards girls is blinding us to an unprecedented sexism towards boys.

In generations gone by, the traditional notion of heroic masculinity — imperfect as it was — roused the hearts of millions of men to a happy sense of duty toward God, family, and country. Sacrificial virtue created social capital, which created self-respect. As Farrell and Gray put it:

The traditional boy’s journey to self-sacrifice incorporated service to others, and required responsibility, loyalty, honor, and accountability. It created his mission. And his mission created his character.

Of course, like all virtues, in excess they become vices. For example, the “need to be tough” might result in taking unnecessary risks to impress peers or girls — boys are twice as likely as girls to die in an accident. Or the notion of being a “provider” can morph into misogyny. (As is the case, say Farrell and Gray, for the “corporate sexists” of Mad Men.)

But the authors warn about “throwing out the boy with the bathwater.” Indeed, contrary to the popular notions of “male privilege,” today’s men often experience a “failure to launch” and accompanying feelings of shame and self-disgust. Farrell and Gray explain:

As developed countries had the luxury to permit divorce, they responded by creating the “era of the multi-option woman” (raise children, raise money, or some combination of both) while continuing the history “era of the no-option man.” That is, a dad’s “three options” were still raise money, raise money, or raise money.

This relates to the popular understanding of the “gender pay gap.” Farrell concludes, after a decade of research, that the gender pay gap is not a disparity between men and women. In fact, women who have never been married and never had children now significantly out-earn their male counterparts. Instead, it is a disparity between moms and dads. The key point here is that this is in large part owing to work choices mothers and fathers make. Moreover, it is harder for men to make the choice not to work after the birth of a child. Stay-at-home dads with successful marriages are still the exception. Farrell and Gray believe that this needn’t necessarily be the case — a better balance can be struck.

Is there a crisis of father absence in the U.S.? Ninety-three percent of moms think so.

Yet the authors also argue that by rejecting “traditional masculinity,” rather than seeking to reform it, we have simply replaced an attitude of “serving” with an attitude of “deserving.” This is how many young men are “being sucked into the black hole of entitlement.” Now a boy can intuit “that the male role is pressuring him to feel obligated to earn money someone else spends while he dies sooner.” And if a marriage breaks down, discrimination exists against dads in both the legal and the cultural sphere.

Is there a crisis of father absence in the U.S.? Ninety-three percent of moms think so. Farrell and Gray compile a comprehensive research appendix with 70-plus areas in which dad-deprived children are more likely to suffer — from school achievement to empathy. Eighty-five percent of youths in prison grew up in fatherless homes, and fatherlessness is disproportionately common among ISIS recruits and mass shooters. Social scientists, who famously never reach a consensus on anything, agree on this — that children, boys especially, need dads to reach their full potential.

So how do we solve “the boy crisis?” Throughout the book, Farrell and Gray use the family dinner” as a model and method for discussing these issues with friends and family. At the end of each theme is a “family dinner” segment that frames a problem and poses questions. It makes sense: We can’t get anywhere until we at least acknowledge the problem. That starts at home. But the most powerful moments of the book are the sections where they use the evidence, of which there is plenty, to remind us that boys have a unique and valuable contribution to make. While the book’s diagnosis of the underlying causes of the problem and prescriptions for addressing it leave something to be desired, The Boy Crisis is nonetheless a solid contribution to a much-needed discussion.


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