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The Good and Bad News About Boys and Men in Utah

COSM Commentary

September 27, 2023

Utah is doing exceptionally well on most metrics. The state is booming population-wise, with an almost 7 percent increase in population since 2018. Unemployment remains below the national average and the Beehive State’s economy is humming. The Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Index ranked Utah as the state with the highest social capital. The JEC’s findings are vindicated after U.S. News and World Report ranked Utah as the best state to live in. All signs point to a thriving state. 

One reason Utah is doing so well, no doubt, is that men across the state are better educated and much more likely to work than men across America as a whole.

In 2012, about 18 percent of males and females in the United States over 25 held a bachelor’s degree. In Utah, 20 percent of males and females over 25 held a bachelor’s degree. Fast-forward to 2022 and, nationally, 21 percent of men and 22 percent of women over 25 hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to 24 percent of men and 26 percent of women in Utah. Even with a small gap by gender, Utah finds itself above the national average. 

The trend is even more striking when we look at men at work in Utah. In 2012, 88 percent of men in Utah compared to 71 percent of women were in the labor force. By 2022, 89 percent of males and 74 percent of females were in the labor force. In this same period, the average American male workforce participation rate dropped by two percentage points, from 70 percent to 68 percent. American women’s participation in the workforce dropped from almost 58 percent to 57 percent. Probably one reason that Utah men are much more likely to be working is that they are also much more likely to be married—after all, the data tell us that married men work harder, smarter, and more than men who have not tied the knot.

That’s the good news about men in Utah.

But there are also worrisome trends across the state. 

Suicide was the leading cause of death for Utah boys between the ages of 10 and 17 (second for those ages 25 to 44) in 2020. In the state as a whole, men committed suicide at a much higher rate than women. In 2021, 31.8 men in the state out of every 100,000 committed suicide compared to 8.3 women out of 100,000. It is also the case that the Utah suicide rate is much higher than the national average. Research on suicide indicates that something about the Rocky Mountain West is linked to higher rates of suicide, but even so, the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death for middle and high school boys is still troubling.

According to a survey of Utah high school students, nearly 42 percent reported feeling sad or hopeless, almost 23 percent reported that they considered attempting suicide, and 18 percent made a suicide plan. These numbers are in line with the national averages. The term “crisis” is often overused when analyzing such concerning trends. However, these statistics paint an alarming picture of the mental health challenges for a large minority of Utah’s youth. 

Perhaps this is because boys and men who are not integrated into the state’s relatively vibrant family and civic fabric feel more alienated, or because they do not have access to good male friends or adult male role models. Gen Z Americans, in particular, have been described as the loneliest generation. Without close friendships, boys and men are more likely to succumb to loneliness, drug use, and suicide. To get ahead of these trends, Utah should look, in part, to its schools. In Utah and the United Statesonly 23 percent of public school teachers are male. Young boys with a male teacher benefit from having a role model sensitive to their challenges. It is no panacea, but it is a start. 

As the state considers launching a Commission on Boys and Men, Utah must focus in part on why its boys and men are especially vulnerable to mental health problems and suicide. As a state that prides itself on its strong social fabric, this is a problem that it can and must solve. 

About the Author

W. Bradford Wilcox