Our Lost Boys

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

Our Lost Boys

Apr 5, 2023 9 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.
Rather than pontificating in ivory towers about men and women, we are better served by going out into the world, finding good men, women, and marriages and imitating them. ArtMarie / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

What is the boy crisis? Contributing factors include the absence of fathers, economic and technological churnings, and policies within our education system. 

Any conversation surrounding the abatement of the boy crisis must include, if not be centered around, forming and maintaining families.

Men and women have things to learn from one another, and human flourishing is much more difficult without their partnership.

Multiple books have been released in recent years and the past few decades—The War Against BoysThe Boy Crisis, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, and Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is StrugglingWhy It Matters, and What to Do About It—that demonstrate with staggering evidence and statistics that our boys are suffering and lost. But we have not yet fully determined how to respond to these troubles, and reasonable voices on the topic can be hard to find. 

Despite the presence of polarizing reactions, we cannot overlook the fact that our boys are floundering and bereft of purpose. Young men commit suicide at six times the rate of young women, and as the knowledge economy grows, and boys fall behind academically, even their IQs are dropping. The absence of fathers, technological and economic shifts, and an education system that does not nurture boys, are all contributing factors begging for commensurate solutions. If men and women can work in unique ways—ways that acknowledge our interdependence—to urge our boys to be conscientious and strong, this may help ameliorate the crisis.

Polarizing Reactions

Good-willed individuals agree that our boys are faltering, but we can become reactionary in our discussions and solutions. 

Identity politics leftists tend to portray all masculinity as toxic. They do not have a vision of what healthy masculinity looks like, and are likely incapable of providing one, given that they deny there are differences between men and women and reject a conception of virtue grounded in an unchangeable human nature.

On the other hand, male advocacy often devolves into the discordant. Conservatives can sometimes fall into the trap of delivering sweeping generalizations about rigid gender roles that make constructive conversation impossible. Some writers even stoop to bombastic so-called “solutions” like an author in Crisis magazine who wrote: “We should do one really sound and sensible thing: take away women’s right to vote.”

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Such folks insinuate that feminism is the cause of all ills, for men and for the family. They suggest that we should promote a strict division of roles as we had in the 1950s, with women leading private lives in the home and men pursuing careers and public life. This is a blunt description that doesn’t match the complicated realities and mysteries of the partnership between men and women. Nor is it what most women desire, as 60 percent of mothers with underage kids prefer part-time work. These arguments tend to alienate women and enflame young men, which does nothing for a crisis that will require the partnership of men and women to abate.

What is the boy crisis? Contributing factors include the absence of fathers, economic and technological churnings, and policies within our education system. 

According to The Boy Crisis, written by political scientist Warren Farrell and counselor John Gray, the primary driver of the boy crisis is the absence of strong fathers and male role models in the community (single-sex spaces can help offset the missing example of a parent). Almost every school shooter is a dad-deprived boy, and such boys “are more likely to be addicted to drugs, video games, opioids, and online porn, more likely to be depressed, withdrawn and to commit suicide, they are even more likely to have their life expectancy shortened.”

In Men Without Work, American Enterprise Institute political economist Nicholas Eberstadt details how men of prime working age are willingly unemployed and spending a great deal of time looking at screens. (The elephant in the room is the rampant addiction to online pornography exacerbated by the invention of YouTube and the smartphone, which will require not only policy conversations but religious renewal to subside.)

In The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers, a senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, raised the alarm over 20 years ago about our education system. She wrote, “Boys today bear the burden of several powerful cultural trends: a therapeutic approach to education that valorizes feelings and denigrates competition and risk, zero-tolerance policies that punish normal antics of young males, and a gender equity movement that views masculinity as predatory.” Identity politics has ascended even more since that time, and men (particularly white, heterosexual ones) are the prime scapegoat. Young men have reason to feel deflated and cheated.

They also have reason to be pessimistic about their futures. As indicated in The Boy Crisis, the median annual earnings of men with high school diplomas have dropped 26 percent in the past 40 years, while men today are simultaneously earning just 38 percent of university diplomas. Alimony laws can be disproportionately punishing, and many custody laws favor moms.

Constructive Responses

We have yet to work through comprehensive responses to these issues, especially as some of them, such as the growth of the knowledge economy, are not the result of deliberate discrimination or maliciousness. 

Farrell and Reeves both recommend that men be encouraged to enter fields women tend to dominate, such as teaching, childcare, and nursing. Our society will always need these workers, and the healthcare industry will likely grow as our population ages. To what degree sex proportions within such careers can be socially engineered remains to be seen; many parents are simply not comfortable having a male nanny or preschool teacher (something Farrell and Reeves acknowledge). If these prescriptions result in a general decline of people entering STEM fields, that could also have implications for future innovation and national security.

Summers notes that research into single-sex education is mixed, but she provides a compelling description of the Heights School in Maryland, which promotes high standards and incorporates competition and energetic tactical exercises in its pedagogy. Reeves is skeptical of single-sex education, instead suggesting we “red-shirt” boys: give them an extra year of preschool since boys’ brains scientifically take longer than girls’ to mature. If boys and girls not only learn at different paces but benefit from varying pedagogical techniques, single-sex education may be better equipped to optimize outcomes for both. Both Reeves and Summers convincingly advocate for more vocational training. There is much that still needs exploring in education.

Systematic changes are part of the conversation, but it also matters how our boys are encouraged to respond to this crisis. One option mimics the identity politics posture: Men as a group have been wronged and should relish and foster their resentment, victimhood, and helplessness. This is neither good for society, nor for our boys. Angry young men with few prospects are very dangerous. History demonstrates this, as do the internal violence problems China and India are experiencing because their populations are disproportionately male. (This problem also feeds the horrific human trafficking of North Korean women into China).

The alternative message, which thinkers like Bishop Robert Barron and Jordan Peterson have conveyed with notable effectiveness, is simple: Take responsibility. Focus on what you, as an individual, can do, rather than how you, as a group, have been wronged. Our boys are capable of so much, and if we raise our expectations, they will meet them. Doing so acknowledges and nurtures their dignity.

The traditional solutions are often imbibed with the most wisdom: Be a good man, marry a good woman, and be present in your children’s lives. Yes, it is true that some of our policies and institutions have harmed men. But approximately 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock, and the prime driver behind The Boy Crisis is the absence of fathers. Yes, custody laws favor moms, and more women, for various reasons, file for divorce. But a lack of commitment is the leading cause of divorce, and more men commit infidelity

Any conversation surrounding the abatement of the boy crisis must include, if not be centered around, forming and maintaining families. Given the vicious cycle of fatherlessness, any conversation about encouraging family formation must also be one about how we can help our boys.

When men are suffering from all of the above (including combatting pornography addiction), women struggle to find reliable partners and fathers. Increases in men’s well-being do not come at the expense of women. Quite the opposite. The sexes are profoundly interconnected, and women’s self-interest compels us to help our boys if the bare facts of these injustices alone do not.

It is also powerful when women stand against the damaging false and divisive rhetoric of the Sexual Revolution, either privately or publicly. We can push back against those who dismiss all masculinity as toxic and urge the correction of laws that separate good men from their children. 

Male-Female Partnership

One of the most devastating aspects of the boy crisis, most clearly articulated by Farrell, is that young men are bereft of a sense of purpose. Men no longer have a clear vision of their function in this world if it is not to be a sacrificial provider or warrior. This is a difficult issue that will require robust negotiation and deliberation between men and women that inhabit a knowledge economy. That negotiation must be malleable enough to allow space for individual persons and marriages, but rigid enough in its conception of human virtue to provide modeled direction. 

How men and women relate to each other in the healthiest manner is an exceedingly contentious question that calls for continuous conversation and practice (Ephesians 5 notes that the interplay between husband and wife is “a great mystery”). Getting into granular disembodied theories about masculinity, femininity, and gender roles is almost without exception off-putting, insufficient, and inaccurate. 

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Mimicry is perhaps the best answer we have as human beings. Explaining dutiful love theoretically is not as palpable as seeing the hands of a father made rough and strong through sacrifice. Boys learn much from the example of a good man. Mothers, of course, are indispensable, too. If we seem to focus less on their importance to boys, it is perhaps because we see fewer examples of what a mother’s absence does to her children. Virtuous femininity, masculinity, and marriages based on friendship draw us in with the attractiveness of goodness. Rather than pontificating in ivory towers about men and women, we are better served by going out into the world, finding good men, women, and marriages and imitating them (and the first place we should, and hopefully can, turn to is our childhood homes). 

One piece of such negotiations will be an acknowledgment of women’s and men’s interdependence that transcends mere economic considerations. It is laudable for men and women to aim at developing their talents so they may take on responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities. But the right of vocation cannot be divorced from the duty of service and inculcating virtue. We are called to use, not bury, our talents. When our conversation about boys devolves into rhetoric about how men and women don’t need each other because women have achieved economic independence, we have missed something fundamental about human beings. Men and women have things to learn from one another, and human flourishing is much more difficult without their partnership. The character formation of children, already requiring deliberate action and tremendous sacrifice, becomes even more trying when mom or dad is absent. And for most people, marriage is a central part of a good life, a partnership that ideally promotes individual virtue.

There is much that still needs exploring with regard to curbing the boy crisis. We have become more fortunate in recent years with expanding literature and attention on the topic. But that does not excuse us from proceeding with caution and deliberation in our conversations, staying away from reactionary rhetoric.

I write all of this with good-natured affection. I grew up with two protective and invitingly adventurous brothers, an unfailingly dutiful father, and six ribbing uncles. Men have wonderful virtues and instincts that need to be nurtured and channeled (just as women do). An identity politics premise inclines us to celebrate only the achievements of our own sex and leave the other to its failures. And being reactive, alienating women, and stirring up young men courts the same effects.

Instead, we can assume goodwill when encountering differences between men and women, while restraining ourselves from making sweeping generalizations. Women can choose good men while fathers stand as living examples. Both can reaffirm men’s and women’s interdependence. Our boys depend on it.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty