Opinion The data are clear: The boys are not all right

(Mike Hirshon for The Washington Post)

Andrew Yang is the founder of the Forward Party and a former candidate for New York mayor and U.S. president.

Here is one of the biggest problems facing America: Boys and men across all regions and ethnic groups have been failing, both absolutely and relatively, for years. This is catastrophic for our country.

The data are clear. Boys are more than twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; are five times as likely to spend time in juvenile detention; and are less likely to finish high school.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better when boys become adults. Men now make up only 40.5 percent of college students. Male community college enrollment declined by 14.7 percent in 2020 alone, compared with 6.8 percent for women. Median wages for men have declined since 1990 in real terms. Roughly one-third of men are either unemployed or out of the workforce. More U.S. men ages 18 to 34 are now living with their parents than with romantic partners.

Economic transformation has been a big contributor. More than two-thirds of manufacturing workers are men; the sector has lost more than 5 million jobs since 2000. That’s a lot of unemployed men. Not just coincidentally, “deaths of despair” — those caused by suicide, overdose and alcoholism — have surged to unprecedented levels among middle-aged men over the past 20 years.

Research shows that one significant factor women look for in a partner is a steady job. As men’s unemployment rises, their romantic prospects decline. Unsurprisingly, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from 1960 to 2010, the proportion of adults without a college degree who marry plummeted from just over 70 percent to roughly 45 percent.

Many boys are thus often growing up raised by single mothers, the share more than doubling between 1980 and 2019, from 18 percent to 40 percent. A study from 2015 found that “as more boys grow up without their father in the home, and as women … are viewed as the more stable achievers, boys and girls alike [may] come to see males as having a lower achievement orientation. … College becomes something that many girls, but only some boys, do.”

Yes, men have long had societal advantages over women and in some ways continue to be treated favorably. But male achievement — alongside that of women — is a condition for a healthy society. And male failure begets male failure, to society’s detriment. Our media, institutions and public leadership have failed to address this crisis, framing boys and men as the problem themselves rather than as people requiring help.

This needs to change. Helping boys and men succeed should be a priority for all our society’s institutions. Schools that have succeeded in keeping boys on track should be expanded, by both increasing the number of students they serve and exporting their methods to other schools. Vocational education and opportunities should be redoubled; the nation’s public school system should start the process for early age groups, and apprenticeship programs should be supported by the federal government. Nonprofits helping boys and men — such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the YMCA — should receive more investment.

Resources that keep families together when they want to stay together, such as marriage counseling, should be subsidized by the government — a much more cost-efficient approach than dealing with the downstream effects. The enhanced child tax credit should be renewed, helping stabilize families.

Drives for national service and contribution, such as an American Exchange Program or national service years, should be resuscitated. And businesses and industries that employ large numbers of men, such as manufacturing, should be invested in and reinvigorated.

On a cultural level, we must stop defining masculinity as necessarily toxic and start promoting positive masculinity. Strong, healthy, fulfilled men are more likely to treat women well.

The above is, of course, a prodigious undertaking. But I see the need around me all the time.

A number of my friends have become detached from society. Everyone hits a snag at some point — losing a job, facing a divorce — but my male friends seem less able to bounce back. Male dysfunction tends to take on an air of nihilism and dropping out. As a society, we don’t provide many avenues for healthy recovery.

Here’s the simple truth I’ve heard from many men: We need to be needed. We imagine ourselves as builders, soldiers, workers, brothers — part of something bigger than ourselves. We deal with idleness terribly.

“A man … with no means of filling up time,” George Orwell wrote, is “as miserable out of work as a dog on the chain.” Left to our own devices, many of us will fail. And from our failure, terrible things result for the country, well beyond any individual self-destruction.