Not long ago, I visited my son and his wife at their new place in Brooklyn, New York. We walked from their building to a restaurant where I tried and failed not to be shocked by the prices, then stopped at a bar.
The bar was hosting an open mic for stand-up comics in a back room, so we made our way there and sat in the kinds of metal folding chairs usually found only in high school auditoriums. We arrived late and ended up in one of the front rows. (Everyone avoids those, terrified of being called out by the comics.)
I was the only person between the age of 35 and 70, but this was a treat, since I used to do stand-up comedy. The room was Covid-cold, so I kept my orange scarf wound around my neck as the performers began filing up to the mic for their five minutes of fame.
As a former stand-up, I wasn’t surprised that the ratio was two women to twenty guys. Nor did it surprise me that most of the performers were in their twenties and thirties. This being Brooklyn, the epicenter of Hip Culture, most of the guys wore flannel shirts and knit caps, like they’d just finished milking cows instead of pounding the pavement or pouring pretty lattes.
No, the first surprise was how nearly every guy who stepped onto the stage was so unprepared to deliver his lines. Most brought their phones to use as prompts. Often, they’d glance up at me and completely fall apart.
“They must feel like they’re telling jokes in front of their mother,” I whispered to my son.
“Either that, or they think you’re a talent scout, with that orange scarf and those glasses,” he said.
But the bigger surprise was yet to come: well over half of the male comics worked an “I’m so dumb” riff into their material, like, “I’m so dumb I keep trying to read books, but the pictures don’t move.” It was excruciating to watch, and reminded me of that too-recent time when female comics seemed to deliver nothing but fat jokes.
What’s going on? I wondered. Do men in their twenties and thirties—a time when they’re supposed to be charging forth into the world, making strides in their careers and building relationships–really feel that stupid? Or was this just a special quality shared by a certain type of young man in Brooklyn who wants to poke fun at his vulnerabilities in front of people?
I dug around online when I got home to see if I could find any answers. Here’s what I discovered:
According to the Pew Research Center, women are now more likely than men to graduate from college. Among adults ages 25 to 34, the gap is even wider, with 46 percent of women holding a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 37 percent of men.
And, in an edition of Up for Debate, Conor Friedersdorf asks why men and boys are struggling, and cites various troubling figures from Brookings scholar Richard Reeves, author of the book Of Boys and Men, who sums things up this way: “men at the top are still flourishing, but men in general are not.”
Reeves offers a variety of statistics to support this, including:
“In the U.S … the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.”
“Among men with only a high-school education, one in three is out of the labor force.”
“Mortality from drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related illnesses … are almost three times higher among men than women.”
As someone who grew up in an age where feminists were striving to shatter glass ceilings in everything from sports to the job market, it’s tough for me to believe that men—especially the mostly well-spoken, probably college-educated young men I saw on that stage in Brooklyn—have any cause to think of themselves as “dumb.” And I know from watching women friends struggle to balance motherhood and careers that we’re still bearing the brunt of the load when it comes to childcare and housework, often at our own economic peril because we can’t pursue our careers at the same pace our male colleagues do.
On the other hand, having raised three sons, I witnessed how inclined the teachers were to punish my boys for being too active, too loud, or asking too many questions. Our public schools, with their emphasis on collaboration over competition and budget cuts that have made things like recess, sports and music a luxury rather than a given in the curriculum, aren’t always places where boys thrive. Unhappily, our educational system may even be leading to boys being over-medicated for attention disorders; the Centers for Disease Control reports that about 9.4 percent of boys are put on medication for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), while only 5.6 percent of girls are treated in the same way.
So what’s the solution? How can we support men and boys in ways that ensure they feel confident enough to thrive, without taking away the cultural shifts that have led to greater gender parity? Is it, as Reeves suggests, simply a matter of holding boys back in school by a year to allow them more time to develop and mature? Is that were the trouble really begins?
This seems simplistic to me, but we need a solution, and fast—look at how many men are expressing their despair and fury through mass shootings or hatred toward women, especially the “incels,” the growing group of men that believes women dominate men sexually and want to exact revenge for that. You can read about that part of the “manosphere” in a recent issue of MIT’s Technology Review and other places.