You are familiar with the litany of ills blighting our society: declining rates of work and marriage; rising rates of obesity and loneliness; soaring deaths of despair. All of these trends reflect the falling fortunesof the American male, a malaise magnified when we look at boys and men in poor and working-class communities.
When the male malaise is raised among conservatives, too often the blame is assigned to “culture,” that most nebulous of forces. The assumption here is that vague changes in the culture—shifts in norms, preferences, and aspirations—are robbing men of their sense of industry and ambition, not to mention their ability to forge meaningful ties to others—including a wife.
What goes unacknowledged here is that real institutions—Big Business and Big Education—also have had a hand in the worsening lot of American males.
Fewer men are working in America than ever before, according to the chart above. The share of young men (aged 25–35) who are working full-time fell from about 80 percent in the 1990s to less than 70 percent today. For men without college degrees, the fall in full-time employment was even greater, from around 80 percent to less than 65 percent today. This means that about one-third of young men in their prime are not working full-time.
Part of the story here is related to Big Business’s offshoring of American manufacturing jobs. President Clinton’s China trade bill in 2000 obviated inestimable quantities of American labor. According to MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues, America lost well over 2 million jobs as a direct result of this trade agreement. This is but one example of how the search for cheap labor fed the falling fortunes of the American working man.
In more recent years, another business development has affected the work ethic of the American male. Big Business has moved heavily into what David Cartwright called “limbic capitalism” in his 2019 book, The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business. He defines limbic capitalism as “a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries, often with the help of complicit governments…encourage excessive consumption and addiction…They do so by targeting the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for feeling and for quick reaction, as distinct from dispassionate thinking.”
Many of the nation’s biggest businesses—from Alphabet (YouTube) to TikTok to Microsoft (Xbox) to Philip Morris (vapes)—are selling products that serve teenage boys and young men one dopamine hit after another. The problem with these products is they make school and work relatively less appealing, inhibiting the ability of many young men to develop the skills, ambition, and work ethic that would enable them to thrive in the twenty-first century economy.
The dangers of these limbic products are well known in Silicon Valley. That’s why Big Tech titans like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Sundar Pichai limited their kids’ exposure to their own products. The problem is that many young males, especially working-class and poor kids with less parental oversight, are not similarly protected from the allure of these products.
Consequently, one reason a growing number of men don’t view work as normal or desirable—or don’t have the capacity to focus and flourish in a job—seems to be that they are too addicted to the electronic opiates of our day. The research of the Princeton economist Mark Aguiar and his team suggests that screentime can account for nearly half of the drop in working hours for men in their twenties from 2004 to 2017. Over that time, recreational computer time rose by 60 percent among men. Many parents of teenage boys, of course, know that this problem begins well before males reach their twenties.
The bigger point is that many of America’s biggest businesses now profit off vices that rob males of their capacity to aim for and hold down a good job.
But it’s not just Big Business. It’s also Big Education.
In an interview with the George Lucas Educational Foundation covering his 2022 book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, social scientist Richard V. Reeves explained that boys are falling well behind their female peers. “There are very big gaps in terms of things like school [expulsions] and suspension,” he said, also noting a staggering difference in academic performance today by gender. Two thirds of the students with the top 10 percent in GPA scores today are girls; in the bottom 10 percent, two thirds are boys.
Why are boys doing so much worse than girls in our schools? The pedagogy and ethos are not boy-friendly. There’s not enough recess and too few male teachers, too many group projects and make-work assignments that hold little appeal for boys. All this and more helps to explain why too many of our schools do boys a disservice.
Boys pay greatly for this educational failure as they age. Today, for instance, males are significantly less likely to attend and graduate from college than females. The current male-female ratio in college classrooms mirrors the ratio of the 1970s, and we seem to be headed for a world where about 60 percent of college attendees are female and only 40 percent are male. This matters not only because many men will have more trouble getting launched in the working world relative to their female peers, but also because women prefer to marry men who have roughly the same educational credentials as they do.
How, then, can we push back against Big Business and Big Education to reduce the enervating and dispiriting effects they are having on boys and young men?
When it comes to Big Business, we need to keep studying the effects of the dopamine economy on male ambition and agency, much as we have studied the effects of social media on young women’s mental welfare. If rigorous studies confirm the red flags thrown up by research to date, public and civic efforts should be launched to educate teens and their parents about the harms of excessive time spent on screen for young men. And we should target gaming much as we do alcohol and cigarettes, with taxes and public messaging to reduce the amount of time and attention that our teens, especially teen boys, devote to the dopamine economy.
Regarding Big Education, we need to give parents more options for their sons’ (and daughters’) best educational fit—and that means passing school choice legislation in as many states across the country as possible. We need schools that hire more male teachers, that make their curricula and pedagogy more boy friendly, and that give boys more time out of doors. More single-sex schools, of course, would be especially valuable in this regard. Well-funded vocational programs in high schools, accorded greater status by local schools and closely tied to local business opportunities, would also help motivate and prepare young men who are not on the college track.
These are the kind of concrete steps we must take if we wish to tackle male malaise head on. It’s not enough to chalk it up to “the culture.” We must move clearly and confidently to limit the hold that Big Business has on our boys’ hearts, minds, and time—and make sure that Big Education stops crushing their curiosity, creativity, and potential.
Absent clear measures like these, we can expect to see all too many of our boys and young men continue to drift, underperforming in school, work, love, and life. For their sake and ours, let us not leave them to the enervating embrace of Big Business and Big Education.
This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.