The Boys Feminism Left Behind

The Boys Feminism Left Behind

The economic rise of women represents a seismic shift in gender relations. It has broken the chains of dependency that held women down—but also held the nuclear family together. The traditional institution of fatherhood, based on a provider and protector role, has been almost completely deconstructed. Millions of men are being benched as a result. A new model of mature masculinity and fatherhood is desperately needed. 

In the span of just a few decades, an astonishing, epochal revolution in human relations has occurred. Since the widespread adoption of agriculture, patriarchy has been the norm in human societies. No longer. Patriarchy has been effectively demolished in advanced economies.

Women are no longer dependent on men for material resources. By tearing down barriers to education and the labor market, feminism has achieved a central goal of securing for women economic independence and power.

In 1970, when these changes began gaining steam, women were locked out of many educational and professional opportunities. On American campuses males dominated. In undergraduate enrollment they were 58 percent of students to females’ 42 percent. Men got more than 85 percent of PhDs. In law schools, about 90 percent of students were men.

Today, undergraduate enrollment has flipped—female enrollment is at 58 percent. Women are awarded 53 percent of PhDs, and they make up the majority of law students. Whole professions, like psychology and veterinary medicine, are becoming overwhelmingly female. Forty percent of American women now earn more than the average man, up from just 13 percent in 1979.

This rise of women has been accompanied by male decline. The statistics here are equally startling. There is the bad economic news: most American men earn less today (adjusted for inflation) than most men did in 1979. This is not because of the mass entry of women in the workplace, but because of the hollowing out of traditional male jobs—factory worker, steelworker, coal miner—as a result of free trade and automation.

But male troubles are not just economic. Almost one in four school boys are diagnosed as having a “developmental disability.” One in five fathers is not living with his children. Men are at three times greater risk than women from the epidemic of “deaths of despair,” from suicide, alcohol, and drugs.

There are now more young women than men with university degrees in every advanced economy. Male wage growth has been sluggish in these countries; and men’s employment rates have been dropping around the world.

Some hear all of this and come to the conclusion that the women’s movement has been a mistake and the solution is to wind back the clock. I disagree. The movement to liberate women has unleashed the power and talent of half of the global population—to the benefit of us all. But like all revolutions, it has generated real challenges, too. You don’t upend a 12,000-year-old social order without experiencing cultural side effects. In this case, it is the dislocation of many of our boys and men.

It is past time we recognized and started to address these problems. Doing so does not signal a retreat from feminism—or a belief that all misogyny and sexism have been eradicated. It is a recognition of our collective responsibility to deal with the downsides of radical change, as well as celebrate the upsides. For the longest time—pretty much all of history—the cause of gender equality has been synonymous with the cause of girls and women. No longer. It is now necessary to consider gender inequalities in both directions.

Doing this is in women’s economic self-interest. A world of floundering men is unlikely to be a world of flourishing women. If men struggle to find work or decent wages, that puts more pressure on women as breadwinners. Except in the richest U.S. families (i.e., the top fifth), all of the growth in household income since 1979 has resulted from the increased working hours and earnings of women.

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