The Tailspin of American Boys and Men

COMMENTARY Civil Society

The Tailspin of American Boys and Men

Apr 2, 2024 7 min read
Brenda Hafera

Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Simon Center

Brenda is the Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst for the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
The boy crisis both reflects and contributes to the broader crisis of America and the West. Charday Penn / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Many boys and men are struggling to flourish in their roles as sons, students, employees, and fathers.

Boys learn how to become good men by imitating a good man, and the mentors of their lives are their fathers.

Solutions to the boy crisis must put forth a substantive view of marriage, revitalizing religious institutions, and honoring fatherhood and male mentorship.

Many boys and men are struggling to flourish in their roles as sons, students, employees, and fathers, and to achieve the sense of purpose that comes from being rooted within marriages, communities, churches, and country.

Much of the literature on the boy crisis contains impressive, even essential social science work that clearly demonstrates that boys and men are falling behind. My recent essay, “Men Without Meaning: The Harmful Effects of Expressive Individualism,” is an attempt to distill this literature and explore how expressive individualism—the notion that the inner self is the true self and is radically autonomous—plays a central role in the boy crisis. 

The ascendance of expressive individualism, which can be traced to the Sexual Revolution, is partially responsible for the breakdown of marriage and has gained a foothold in religious institutions. Among others, it combines the thinking of Simone de Beauvoir, who divorced sex from gender; psychologist Sigmund Freud, who elevated human sexuality as central to identity; and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that man is innocent and corrupted by society.

Political scientist Warren Farrell and counselor John Gray’s The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do About It is the go-to text for understanding the dad deprivation that is the primary cause of the boy crisis. It lays out how a dad’s presence can positively impact a child’s scholastic achievement, verbal intelligence and quantitative abilities, and development of trust and empathy. Likewise, it shows that the absence of a father’s presence increases the likelihood that a child will drop out of school, commit suicide, use drugs, become homeless, end up in poverty, develop hypertension, and be exposed to or commit bullying and violent crime, including rape.

>>> Men Without Meaning: The Harmful Effects of Expressive Individualism

Fathers, like mothers, contribute in unique and indispensable ways to the raising of children. One example is through play, which helps children develop, learn the limits of their bodies, and properly channel aggression. According to, “Theorizing the Father-Child Relationship: Mechanisms and Developmental Outcomes”: “Children seem to need to be stimulated and motivated as much as they need to be calmed and secured, and they receive such stimulation primarily from men, primarily through physical play.”

Dad deprivation is especially disastrous for boys. As mimetic creatures, theoretical arguments about masculinity and virtue fall short of a father’s lived witness of their mastery. Boys learn how to become good men by imitating a good man, and the mentors of their lives are their fathers.

Thanks to expressive individualism’s effect on our moral imagination, however, today many people dismiss the benefits of embodied play and assume that fathers and mothers are interchangeable. We have accepted the premises that the mind and body are disconnected and the body is unimportant.

Expressive individualism has also changed the way we think about marriage, making it more fragile. Marriage is no longer geared towards the character formation of each spouse and to providing a loving environment for the raising of children, but rather is now primarily viewed as a means to achieving emotional satisfaction and personal improvement. Rather than both husband and wife sacrificing for the good of the marriage, each spouse aims separately to achieve his and her personal subjective idea of “self-actualization.” 

As Andrew Cherlin, a sociology and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, articulates in The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, marriages based on expressive individualism involve:

Growing and changing as a person, paying attention to your feelings, and expressing your needs…[M]arriages are harder to keep together, because what matters is not merely the things they jointly produce—well-adjusted children, nice homes—but also each person’s own happiness.

Over twenty years ago, in The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men, philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers drew attention to the fact that boys were falling behind in school. Some of the precipitating causes were newer, such as zero tolerance policies, the decline of free play and recess, and the rise of a self-esteem centered safety culture. Others reach back much further. Our education system, in many ways, is not designed for boys. Simultaneous shifts in our economy have lengthened the time spent in school and raised the stakes of getting an education.

On average, the energy level of boys makes it difficult for them to sit still for long periods. They can be unorganized and frustrate their teachers, who factor behavior into grading. Perhaps some teachers, mired in expressive individualism, expect girls and boys to behave the same, as “boys on average receive harsher exclusionary discipline than girls for the same behaviors.” In truth, as senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute Richard Reeves writes: “The parts of the brain associated with impulse control, planning, future orientation, sometimes labeled the ‘CEO of the brain,’ are mostly in the prefrontal cortex, which matures about 2 years later in boys than in girls.” 

The progressive style of education, relying on Rousseau’s romantic vision and promulgated by reformers like John Dewey and others, contends that theoretically children should direct their own educational trajectory. This has been particularly harmful to boys. Approximately since the 1970s, as Sommers writes, children have been treated as their “own best guides in life. This turn to the autonomous subject as the ultimate moral authority is a notable consequence of the triumph of the progressive style over traditional directive methods of education.”

Changes in education were greeted with changes in the economy itself. Precipitated by free trade and automation, America is now a global knowledge economy. Overall, those most negatively impacted have been men without much education. According to “The Declining Labor Market Prospects of Less-Educated Men”: “Between 1973 and 2015, real hourly earnings for the typical 25-54 year-old man with only a high school degree declined by 18.2 percent, while real hourly earnings for college-educated men increased substantially.” American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis details how over seven million men ages 25-55 have checked out of the workforce. Such men often receive disability payments or are living with a relative who serves as a source of income.

 hese disengaged men are spending a great deal of time in front of screens that promote disembodied expressive individualism. This includes an average of 5.5 hours of movies and TV per day, not to mention the rise of exceedingly popular online pornography. Some estimate that Gen Z boys are being exposed to porn at the average age of nine. Studies indicate that pornography rewires the brain, causing boys and men to desire more and more novel content rather than a relationship with a real woman. Male employment is often tied to family structure, and marriage rates for low-income men have declined, demonstrating the unique causes and reinforcing mechanisms of the boy crisis.

The devastating impact of the opioid epidemic is another factor. Some estimate that it could account for 43 percent of the decline in male labor force participation from 1999 to 2015. During that time, the number of overdoses quadrupled, and men made up almost 70 percent of such deaths. The incarceration rate has also risen, and years behind bars reduce the likelihood of finding employment

These phenomena are not equally distributed across the country, and some have hypothesized that increased deaths of despair (deaths from suicide, overdose, etc.) “among less-educated middle-age Americans might be rooted in ‘a long-term process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation, rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education.’” The second leading cause of death for American men under 45 is suicide

>>> Young Men Searching for Purpose on Valentine’s Day

All this has left many men without purpose and hope. The boy crisis both reflects and contributes to the broader crisis of America and the West, in no small measure driven by the expressive individualism that has left men and women disconnected from relationships, human nature, and objective truth. America and the West are running on the fumes of our heritage, no longer able to articulate our principles or the gratitude we owe the past.

For much of history, human beings have been most willing to give the last measure of their devotion for what truly provides identity: God, family, and country. Each of these encompasses the individual, pulling him out of himself and toward a life of sacrifice, responsibility, and devotion. Expressive individualism is a stark deviation from the traditional understanding that freedom and virtue are intertwined. As articulated in the classic work Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

influenced by modern psychological ideals, to be free is not simply to be left alone by others; it is also somehow to be your own person in the sense that you have defined who you are, decided for yourself what you want out of life, free as much as possible from the demands of conformity to family, friends, or community. 

Solutions to the boy crisis must counteract such messaging and ideas, putting forth a substantive view of marriage, revitalizing religious institutions, and honoring fatherhood and male mentorship as fundamental sources of meaning. They will reestablish a proper understanding of the human person and the ties between happiness and virtue. Sadly, there are no silver bullet solutions to these issues. The devastation is far-reaching and multitudinous, and the work we have to do matches the price we have paid. 

This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative