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CommentaryMental Health, Education & Skills

We must pay more attention to young men

Feb 8, 2024
Richard Reeves

There’s been a flurry of recent attention to the growing political gap between young men and young women, not only in the U.S. but around the globe. An article by John Burns-Murdoch in the Financial Times was accompanied by this striking chart:

A chart showcasing diverging ideology between men and women across the world.

I’ve been worrying about this for some time now. I’m sorry to report that my levels of worry are only deepening. I think it is quite possible that the leftward swing of young women, which has thus far been the main cause of the gap in most places, is now being followed by a similar swing to the right among young men. To be clear, I’m not equating left or right with good or bad. I’m saying that such a big political divide within one generation, especially a generation that is very political, is not likely to be good news.

Where South Korea leads. . .?

Back when I was writing Of Boys and Men, I was watching South Korea quite closely as a potential leading example of the diverging political instincts and inclinations of young women and men. Here’s what I wrote then:

South Korea, young men are also swinging hard right, fueled by anti-feminist sentiment. In the Seoul mayoral election of April 2021, 73% of men in their 20s voted for the conservative candidate, compared to 41% of women in the same age group. The overwhelming support of young men also helped to propel conservative presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol to a narrow victory in March 2022. Yoon has promised to abolish the Department of Gender Equality and Family.

The mistake that many people on the political left make is to dismiss any rightward move by young men as nothing more than a reactionary backlash against the progress of women. And of course these is some of that. But it’s not the main story. Young men in the U.S. are indeed more hostile to feminism than older men, according to a 2023 Equimundo survey. But this does not seem to equate with opposition to the basic ideal of equal opportunities by gender. So what’s going on? I think a few things are happening here:

  1. Young men see feminism as having metastasized from a movement for equality for women into a movement against men, or at least against masculinity.
  2. Young men are struggling on lots of fronts, especially in terms of education and mental health.
  3. Young men feel like these concerns are not being addressed, or sometimes even acknowledged, by mainstream institutions.

Here’s the thing: they’re not wrong.

As I say a bit too often, but I’ll say it again anyway, the failure to address the problems of boys and men creates a dangerous vacuum in our culture, and increasingly in our politics. As Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute, says:

The iron rule of politics is that if there are real problems in society and responsible parties don’t deal with them, the irresponsible parties will jump on them.

The #MeToo generation

Daniel Cox, a scholar at AEI, has been pulling together the data on Gen Z for some time now, and just wrote an important essay on this topic. As he writes:

At no time in the past quarter century has there been such a rapid divergence between the views of young men and women. The startling speed of the change suggests something more significant is going on than just new demographic patterns, such as rising rates of education or declining adherence to a religion — the change points to some kind of cataclysmal event.

Cox points to the galvanizing role of the #MeToo movement in building solidarity among women. He shows that young women are just much more political than young men, as well as much more liberal. (The editorial board of the Washington Post was worried enough to devote a column to the dangers to the fertility rate of liberal women refusing to date conservative men). Cox introduced a few important data nuggets, including:

  • In 2016, 61% of women said they were satisfied with the way women are treated in American society, according to a Gallup survey. Today, that has dropped to 44%.
  • A 2022 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 46% of Democratic men under 50 agreed that feminism has done more harm than good.
  • And less than half of Gen Z men identified as feminists, with only half saying they support the #MeToo movement, compared to 72% of women.
  • Republican affiliation among white men aged 18 to 24 jumped from 28% in 2019 to 41% in 2023, according to a Harvard Youth Poll.
  • In 2022 a poll found that two-thirds of young women believe that in most or in every way, what happens to women in the US will have a bearing on their own lives: only 36% of women older than 65 said the same.

Cox suggests that the real problems of young men, neglected by the political left and the mainstream, leads them to turn to the political right. But this is not because they are all misogynists. As he writes:

Most young men are probably not interested in making America great again, but they do feel acutely the need to secure a place for themselves in a culture that readily identifies male advantage but ignores the challenges young men face. Out of a sense of increased insecurity, more young men are adopting a zero-sum view of gender equality — if women gain, men will inevitably lose.

Yup. The tendency on both sides of the political divide to frame gender issues in a zero-sum fashion is a big reason why young men and women are diverging so radically in their politics.

The reactionaries

Some conservatives like Sen. Josh Hawley are playing into the anxieties of young men, but then promoting the idea that the only way to help boys and men is to restore traditional gender roles. In this zero-sum world, if women are doing better, that must be why men are doing worse. It’s not a fringe view on the conservative side: almost two out of five Republican men (38%) agree with the statement that “the gains women have made in society have come at the expense of men.”

Conservatives are right to worry about the dangers of anomie and detachment among men stripped of their traditional role. But they are wrong to think that the solution is to somehow turn back the clock, making women dependent again in order to resupply men with purpose. For all the hankering after an imagined past, fewer than one in five Americans (18%) said in 2012 that “women should return to their traditional roles in society,” down from 30% in 1987, according to Pew’s social values survey—and on this question there are, unusually, no major differences here by sex, age, political inclination, or race.

Back in 1958 Arthur Schlesinger wrote an essay titled “The Crisis of American Masculinity” (yes, it’s a recurring theme). He wrote then:

The key to the recovery of masculinity does not lie in any wistful hope of humiliating the aggressive female and restoring the old masculine supremacy. Masculine supremacy, like white supremacy, was the neurosis of an immature society. It is good for men as well as for women that women have been set free. In any case, the process is irreversible; that particular genie can never be put back into the bottle.

If that was true in 1958, it is obviously dramatically more so today. That is why it is so unhelpful to suggest that we can turn back the tide. Rather than helping boys and men in the difficult task of adapting to the new world of equality, conservatives encourage them to resist women’s progress. Resistance may feel good, at least for a while, better perhaps than the demanding task of adaptation. But it is also futile and pointless.

The culture war will kill us all

Here’s a quote for you:

Roles are changing for both men and women. Women are being pressured . . . to believe that their past status was brought about by male oppression. At the same time men . . . are being accused of being oppressors—and angry oppressors at that. The whole process of change is taking place in an atmosphere of the greatest bad temper, and a tremendous amount of secondary hostility is being generated that in itself poses a threat to a good outcome.

That was Margaret Mead—in 1975. The hostility not only remains, despite the extraordinary successes of the women’s movement, but has become much greater in recent years. Our politicians shoulder much of the blame here. The failure of both Left and Right to respond substantively and straightforwardly to the growing problems of boys and men has created a dangerous vacuum in our political life.

In the centrifugal dynamic of culture-war politics, the more the Right goes to one extreme, the more the Left must go to the other, and vice versa. The Left dismisses biology, the Right leans too heavily on it. The Left see a war on girls and women; the Right see a war on boys and men. The Left pathologizes masculinity; the Right pathologizes feminism.

We really don’t want a Women’s Party and a Men’s Party. Men and women have to work together, learn together, form families and raise children together. We have to rise together. Shame on the politicians on both sides trying, instead, to pit us against each other.

A headshot of Richard Reeves
Richard Reeves
President of the American Institute for Boys and Men