Editor's Note: This week, we are counting down our top 5 blog posts of 2021. With over 17,000 pageviews and counting, the following essay by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe, originally published on January 14, 2021, is our fifth most popular blog post of this year.
When our book Man Interrupted was published in 2016, concern over boy’s and men’s issues, however legitimate, could not have been more unpopular. It’s a new world out there for everybody, yet amidst the shifting economic, social, and technological climates, boys are getting left behind. There are a record number of young men that are flaming out academically, wiping out socially with girls, and later failing in relationships with women.
Major symptoms that we see include: a disenchantment with education, lack of motivation to work towards real-life goals, opting out of the workforce, self-imposed social isolation, and excessive video game and porn use (which we will discuss in a separate blog post).
From our conversations with young men and our research, we determined that in our culture today, “boy energy” is at best not valued and at worse demonized. In response, young men are deciding that it’s not worth it for them to invest their time and energy back into society. Many are asking what is in it for them and only hearing crickets.
On top of that, there is no longer a clear path to professional success and a huge lack of grown men willing and able to show younger men the path to manhood. Fatherlessness has risen over the last several decades, yet even the boys that have fathers in their lives only spend a fraction of their time in one-on-one conversation with them versus the time they spend in front of a screen, where they see men depicted as emotionless warriors, deadbeat dads, or losers.
In other words, boys are going from female-dominated home environments to female-dominated school environments where less than one in nine schoolteachers is a man,1 back to female-dominated home environments—where boys are being told to behave. These same environments demean boys and young men just for being male but at the same time only reward them when they "man up." With such mixed messages, it's no wonder many boys and young men are struggling, either in school or afterwards, “failing to launch,” with emotional disturbances, in interactions with the opposite sex, or with drug use and gang activities.
Society likes to blame young men, saying it's their problem, when in fact it is society that is not providing the structure, guidance, means or places for young men to develop themselves and thrive.
The U.S. spends more money per pupil than the majority of other developed countries,2 but it achieves less gain per buck. And now that many schools receive federal and state funding based on test results, teachers teach for those outcomes, but not for stimulating student curiosity or critical thinking, nor for learning non-specific principles or values.
Since 1980, there has been a 71% increase in the number of boys who say they don’t like school.3 One reason for this is because the average boy is not as socially and verbally mature as the average girl yet is more physically active. Elementary school is now mostly language-based and recess is almost extinct, so boys come to the conclusion that they aren’t good at school and then don’t try as hard. Boys also tend to learn best with hands-on learning activities, and schools don’t offer enough opportunities to manipulate actual things. Furthermore, diaries and first-person narratives, writing styles preferred by girls, are often favored over comic books and science fiction, themes favored by boys. 4
What else is wrong with school dynamics? Too much boring homework, and too many overworked or absent parents who are not interested in their kids’ progress or academic problems, only the results on the report card. Too many schools have eliminated gym class and structured playtime, which means there is no longer a time or place to release pent up energy, socialize during free time, or develop imagination. Financial constraints have also led to science courses without labs, dropping art classes all together, and limiting nearly all field trips to places like natural history museums. And as boys especially are less engaged and challenged in the classroom, there arises the ever-tempting option to text and surf the Internet (something we will discuss in part 2).
It should not be surprising, then, that for the first time in U.S. history, boys are getting less education than their fathers.5 Moreover, girls are outperforming boys at every level, from elementary school through graduate school. In the U.S, by the eighth grade, only 20% of boys are proficient in writing and 24% are proficient in reading, versus 41% of girls that are proficient in writing and 34% that are proficient in reading.6 Nationally, boys account for 70% of all the D’s and F’s given out at school.7
Similar achievement gaps between the genders have been documented worldwide. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) found that boys are more likely to repeat school years than girls, had poorer grades, and got higher pass rates on school leaving examinations. In some countries like Sweden, Italy, and Poland, girls scored so much higher than boys on reading in the PISA Assessment (a global measure of skills and knowledge) that they were essentially a year to a year-and-a-half ahead in school.8
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, listed even more imbalances in her book, The War Against Boys:
…girls outnumber boys in student government, honor societies and school newspapers. They also… do more homework, take more honors courses, read more books, eclipse the males on tests of artistic and musical ability, and generally outshine boys on almost every measure of classroom success. At the same time, fewer girls are suspended from school, fewer are held back… In the technical language of education experts, girls are more academically ‘engaged.’9
Two-thirds of students in special education remedial programs are boys. It's not a question of IQ; they are just not putting in the effort, and it translates into a lack of career options. These gaps are much greater for males from minority backgrounds.10
With such mixed messages, it's no wonder many boys and young men are struggling, either in school or afterwards, “failing to launch,” with emotional disturbances, in interactions with the opposite sex, or with drug use and gang activities.
Between 1999 and 2019, the percentage of 16 to 24 year old males participating in the workforce fell 17% and that number is projected to decrease even more over the next 10 years. Other countries, like Italy, France, Spain, Sweden, and Japan, have all seen more than a five-fold increase in young men not employed. The OECD records show that the average unemployment rate for men in their late twenties and early thirties jumped from 2% in 1970 to 9% in 2012.11 That is an enormous increase and means millions of young men are not working.
The growing interconnectedness of the world’s economies means that modern boom and bust cycles have further and deeper reaching consequences for all nations. The Global Recession of 2009 was the worst recession since World War II, causing unemployment to skyrocket. On a personal level, job losses hit men harder than women. In the U.S., men’s unemployment rate doubled between January of 2008 and June of 2009.
Health care–a major female-dominated industry–has been relatively insulated, while industries such as manufacturing and construction, where most employees are men, accounted for about half of the 6.5 million jobs lost since the recession started in 2007.12 General unemployment gradually decreased for both men and women in recent years and then took a huge hit again this past year from COVID, creating greater uncertainty for many industries.
What Can Be Done?
There is no question that the current education system is broken. The Pathways to Prosperity Project warns that a failure to reform the system will “surely erode the fabric of our society.” Economic inequality is increasing. If the young people of today are not better prepared to handle the challenges of the future, their animosity over their limited opportunities will only increase as their social status plummets with the high costs of living. The expense that they impose on society will also increase, and worst of all, many of their possible contributions to society will go unrealized.13
When we asked students what class they would like at their school that didn’t already exist, nearly a third of them independently suggested a “life skills” class that included guidance on personal finance, how to apply for jobs, and dealing with adult responsibilities and life changes, such as the death of a relative. Several students said they were embarrassed that they didn’t even know how to make a simple budget or keep track of the money in their bank accounts. One student even remarked, “The lack of this class may be one of the reasons preventing young people from moving out of their parents’ house.”
Recess also needs to make a comeback. Thirty years ago, elementary schools offered recess twice a day. Many schools now have recess only once a day, and some schools are eliminating play or free time altogether. So, all that restless energy that young boys have now has nowhere to be released— except in the classroom.
Finally, we need more incentives for men to fill K-12 teaching positions. Another alternative is offering gender-specific, not gender-blind, class options and assignments. Boys don’t want to read the same books girls do nor do they learn the same way girls do. Girls can also benefit from single-sex classes. In fact, one randomized study found that girls who took a single-sex physics class were less likely than girls from the co-ed class to think “physics is for boys.”14 The National Association for Choice in Education (NACE), 4SchoolChoice.org, is an excellent resource for information on single-sex schooling. Another great program to check out is Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a non-profit organization that works with schools from the primary through high school level, engaging teachers in professional development that leads to project-based learning where students acquire relevant knowledge and skills in science and technology fields that help them succeed in future careers (pltw.org).
Philip Zimbardo is internationally recognized as the "voice and face of contemporary psychology" through his widely viewed PBS-TV series, Discovering Psychology, his media appearances, best-selling trade books, and his classic research, The Stanford Prison Experiment. Nikita Coulombe co-wrote Demise of Guys and Man Interrupted with Philip Zimbardo. She later helped launch the documentary film, The Red Pill, directed by Cassie Jaye, and provided research assistance for Dr. Warren Farrell's book, The Boy Crisis, co-authored with Dr. John Gray.
1. Stern, P (Director). (2006). Raising Cain: Boys in Focus [documentary]. United States: PBS Films.
2. Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators. (Indicator B1.1). (2013). Retrieved June 30, 2014, from Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2013-en.
3. Freeman, C.E. (2004, November). Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women: 2004. (p. 45). Retrieved December 26, 2011, from National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (NCES 2005-016): http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2005/2005016.pdf.
4. What's the Problem With School? (n.d) Retrieved December 26, 2011, from PBS: http://www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys/school02.html.
5. Cribb, R (2011, November 25). The Grim Evidence That Men Have Fallen Behind Women. Retrieved November 26, 2011, from Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/life/2011/11/25/rob_cribb_the_grim_evidence_that_men_have_fallen_behind_women.html.
6. Salahu-Din, D Persky, H, & Miller, J (2008). The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007. (p. 68) Retrieved November 11, 2011, from National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (NCES 2008-468): http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2007/2008468.pdf; and Lee, J Grigg, W, & Donahue, P (2007). The Nation's Report Card: Reading 2007. (p. 64). Retrieved November 11, 2011, from National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (NCES 2007-496): http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2007/2007496.pdf.
7. Stern, P (Director). (2006). Raising Cain: Boys in Focus [documentary]. United States: PBS Films.
8. Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools. (p. 22). (2012). Retrieved June 8, 2014, from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/50293148.pdf.
9. Sommers, C.H. (2013). The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men. (p. 14). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
10. Degrees conferred by sex and race. (2012). Retrieved June 5, 2014, from National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72.
11. Labour Force Statistics by sex and age - indicators. (n.d) Retrieved May 12, 2014, from Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development: http://stats.oecd.org/.
12. Coombes, A (2009, July 16). Men Suffer Brunt of Job Losses in Recession. Retrieved May 10, 2014, from The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970203577304574272570149153010.
13. Symonds, W.C., Schwartz, R.B., and Ferguson, R. (2011, February). “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.” Retrieved May 30, 2014, from Report issued by the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/ features/2011/Pathways_to_Prosperity_Feb2011.pdf. pp. 15, 38.
14. Single-Sex vs. Coed: The Evidence (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2014, from National Association for Single Sex Public Education: http://www. singlesexschools.org/research-singlesexvscoed.htm; also see Kessels, U. and Hannover, B. (2008). “When being a Girl Matters Less: Accessibility of Gender-related Self-knowledge in Single-sex and Coeducational Classes and its Impact on Students’ Physics-related Self-concept of Ability,” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78 (Pt. 2). Retrieved June 8, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17535522.