When Richard Reeves was raising his three sons in the early Noughties, he and his wife would always try to hire male nannies. One particular favourite was “Michael the Australian”, who would pitch “homework camp” tents, throw around a rugby ball and join the family on hikes. He was a rare find; today men make up just 2 per cent of the UK’s early years and childcare workforce.
Reeves, 53, has lately been reflecting on his parenting choices. A scholar at Washington DC’s Brookings Institute, he previously worked at liberal think tanks and advised the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, during the coalition government. His new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It, identifies a “male malaise” among straight and cisgender men and boys who – from their number of friends to university qualifications – are falling behind women and girls.
His book is studded with eye-catching statistics. Boys at 15 are 50 per cent more likely than girls to fail at maths, reading and science in OECD countries. The gender gap in degrees awarded in the US is wider than it was in the early Seventies – with women ahead. In the UK suicide is the main killer of men under 45. One in five fathers in the US don’t live with their children. More than half a million men in Japan withdraw from society for years, confining themselves to one room – they’re called hikikomori (“shut-ins”). A study of grip strength among US millennials shows that men and women can now squeeze a hand with a similar force (in 1985, an average 30-year-old man was 30 pounds more forceful than his female counterpart). This picture is largely being ignored, in Reeves’ view. “The left tells men, ‘Be more like your sister.’ The right says, ‘Be more like your father,’” he writes, and neither prescription is helpful. So against the advice of friends and colleagues, who feared he would be labelled as “anti-feminist or a men’s rights activist”, he is mapping out a third way for men.
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“If you’re in the upper-middle-class, doing OK, looking at the apex of society and asking, ‘how many women are CEOs?’, then the very idea that men could be struggling strikes you as absurd and insulting,” Reeves said. “But the moment you glance down at what’s happening to working-class men and boys, you see black males in the US at the bottom of every metric,” while the group doing worst in British schools are “white boys from lower income backgrounds”.
When his children spanned the ages of three and 12, Reeves was the “primary parent”, writing a biography of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill between school pick-ups and drop-offs. His wife was the breadwinner, working a “high-flying corporate job” at the accounting firm PwC. Michael the Australian nanny, Reeves reflected, had a dual role. He was both “quite traditionally ‘male’” and a carer. As an “athletic” figure he harnessed his sons’ boisterous energy, but also had a “role model” effect as a male caregiver in their world of female teachers and GPs. Now, at 22, Reeves’ middle son Bryce is about to train to be a primary school teacher.
“The message we hoped our boys were getting, and that we were sending, was that there is no intrinsic conflict between doing this kind of role – such as being a dad or a carer – and being a guy,” Reeves told me over a video call from a sunlit hotel room in San Diego, where he was on a work trip. He wore thick-rimmed glasses and a blue zip-up running top, his thumbs hooked through the cuff loops as he gesticulated onscreen. He lives “in the mountains” of east Tennessee, having moved to the US in 2012; his wife grew up in rural Maryland.
Raised in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, Reeves has found “the sacrifices my father and mother made in very gendered ways really stuck with me”. His father was a manager in manufacturing companies, including Hotpoint and Redring, and his mother a part-time nurse in factories and schools. They were “incredibly egalitarian and loving” but their marriage was also “based on a traditional division of labour”.
As a father of sons, Reeves has been worrying about boys and men for 25 years. Others have shown him how race and class play into perceptions of masculinity. His black godson, Dwight, for instance, is a car salesman who wears clear lens glasses to make white customers trust him (an example of the “nerd defence” to counter racist stereotyping of black men as aggressive). The white working-class men in his wife’s extended family, living in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia, all voted for Donald Trump – twice.
Using the language of “toxic masculinity” and blaming boys and men as individuals for the problems that stem from the patriarchy pushes them away, Reeves warned. One motivation for his book was how “troubled” he felt at the “roaring back of reactionary masculinity” found on the Trumpian right, exposed in its most extreme form in the incel (involuntary celibate) movement of women-hating young men.
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“If you don’t want [the misogynist online influencer] Andrew Tate telling young men how to be, then maybe we should do it – just telling them to be more like women and to ‘stop being so toxic’ is not good enough,” he told me. “We need a better story than that. It’s not clear to me who is engaged in that task right now.”
Reeves said he’s always been a “strong feminist” and dismisses the argument advocated by some on the right that we need to reverse women’s progress. The “zero-sum” idea – where one person’s gain is another’s loss – that empowered women hold men back is, he said, a “lump of labour fallacy” (the debunked assumption that there’s a fixed amount of work, so having more of one type of worker reduces the jobs available for another). “The forces that have hit male employment – automation and free trade – are independent of the factors that have led to women’s rise in the labour market.”
Ever the wonk, Reeves has devised some policies he thinks might help. These include boys starting school a year later to better match girls, whom he suspects outpace boys because their brains develop earlier. He also suggests a recruitment drive for men in what he calls Heal (health, education, administration and literacy) sectors – just as women have been encouraged into Stem industries (science, technology, engineering and maths). While manual labour is becoming mechanised, people-facing “soft skills” are more “robot-proof”, writes Reeves. Andy Haldane, the former chief economist at the Bank of England, has predicted the best quality jobs of the future are likely to be measured in emotional intelligence rather than IQ.
“To most men, the idea that you can enter these professions, but you have to check your masculinity at the door, is not an appealing offer,” Reeves warned. “We’re going to have more gender equality, and that’s great, but we’re not going to expunge masculinity. So we have to rescript it.” Mainstream policymakers must acknowledge the problem, Reeves argued, especially advocacy groups and research organisations that currently ignore (or don’t collate) the relevant data. “There are no initiatives in the UK to help boys in education: none. And it’s not like we’ve been under feminist, socialist governments for the last 15 years!”
Yet his ultimate requirement – accepting and embracing how men and women differ – is more controversial. Growing up as a young feminist, Reeves used to believe “the future is androgyny”: a world with no gender labels at all. Now, he’s not so sure. “It’s been part of my own journey to realise I am a man, that there are aspects of being masculine that are distinct from being feminine. I now think the challenge is to find ways to have absolute and complete equality, without having to erase some of the differences between us.”
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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak