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The 21st-Century Malaise of Males

Summary:
While attention has been focused on the dominance of high-end males in our society, low-end males have have been falling behind. Let me quote a few statistics from Douglas Belkin’s September 6, 2021 Wall Street Journal article “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College” (bullets added to separate passages):At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group.After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018

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The 21st-Century Malaise of Males

While attention has been focused on the dominance of high-end males in our society, low-end males have have been falling behind. Let me quote a few statistics from Douglas Belkin’s September 6, 2021 Wall Street Journal article “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College” (bullets added to separate passages):

  • At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group.

  • After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018 compared with 59% of men during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

  • In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.

  • Women increased their lead over men in college applications for the 2021-22 school year—3,805,978 to 2,815,810—by nearly a percentage point compared with the previous academic year, according to Common Application, a nonprofit that transmits applications to more than 900 schools.

Part of this tilt of men away from college may be that higher education has gone off the rails in important ways, especially in serving young men. On that, see “False Advertising for College is Pretty Much the Norm” and “The Coming Transformation of Education: Degrees Won’t Matter Anymore, Skills Will.

Part of the trouble may be that straightforward ways of helping young men are not being taken. Douglas Belkin writes in ““A Generation of American Men Give Up on College”:

No college wants to tackle the issue under the glare of gender politics, said Ms. Delahunty, the enrollment consultant. The conventional view on campuses, she said, is that “men make more money, men hold higher positions, why should we give them a little shove from high school to college?”

I find this an unfortunate attitude. I tweeted this reaction:

But I consider men’s tilt away from college as a symptom of something bigger. As a society, we are failing in our raising of something like a third of our young men. Jordan Peterson reports that when he gives a talk telling young men that life is tough but that by effort they can make their lives better, they are often grateful, saying they hadn’t heard that message before. How could we be failing to get that message across to all of our young men!

It is true that when looking at others, one should be very much aware of how luck, including the accident of what family was born into, affects their lives. But it doesn’t do much good to dwell on the accident of what family one was born into and other dimensions of luck in one’s own life! Everyone, everyone, needs to be taught that effort can better their situation in life.

Noah Smith and I addressed this principle in relation to math in “There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't.” (I followed that up with “How to Turn Every Child into a 'Math Person'.”) But the principle is much more general: effort has a major influence on performance.

Awareness of the difficulties others operate under and this principle of personal responsibility can coexist. Throwing out the principle of personal responsibility for fear it will interfere with an awareness of the difficulties others operate under is a terrible mistake. We need to help others and we each need to help ourselves.

It is a pity when basic principles such as personal responsibility get enmeshed in politics in a way that causes them to be intentionally neglected. Perhaps a key to rehabilitating the principle of personal responsibility politically is to realize that it should never be used to scold others or blame others but only to help others diagnose how they are messing up their own lives.

We debate on the margins about exactly how strong the incentives should be for people to get their lives together instead of messing them up. But everything within the scope of the current political debate would still leave someone miserable if they don’t take responsibility for their own life and much better off if they do take responsibility. After all, on top of the after-tax-and-transfer economic consequences of managing one’s life better or worse, there are the dating and relationship consequences of how well one manages one’s life and one’s character. And letting oneself be drawn into pathologies such as drug addiction (legal or illegal) can lead to deep misery. It is doing young people a grave disservice if we downplay the difference they can make by means of effort in bettering life and character.

The time has come to begin worrying more about young men. They are in trouble. This doesn’t have to take away from efforts to help women. At a moment of crisis like this, we can do what it takes to help both men and women with the somewhat distinct issues they face.

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Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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