A Few(er) Good Men
Each of the following trends, in isolation, is perplexing. In concert, they are disturbing:
I’ve mentioned this topic before, highlighting an emerging crisis among young men, and it elicits a range of emotions and responses — especially in the reductionist world of social media.
Neither the sex lives of young American men nor their relative rate of college attendance is that striking by itself. Except to the men involved. What should trouble all of us is what these statistics portend.
Families are the foundational element of society, and most successful families are the product of an intimate relationship between two adults. The most important decision most of us make in life is whether and whom to marry, and the most important person in our adult lives is our mate. Married people are 77% wealthier than single people, and their net worth typically increases 16% each year they’re together. Married people live longer and are happier than single people. Higher marriage rates are correlated with greater GDP per capita, greater economic mobility, and a reduction in child poverty of as much as 80%.
The path to forging these relationships typically involves sex. If a young adult hasn’t had sex in the past year, it’s unlikely that person is on the path toward a long-term bond with someone. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it is any one group’s responsibility to sexually “service” another. What we need to be thoughtful about is how our policies and attitudes ensure that the most people have the opportunity and motivation to pursue long-term, productive relationships.
Meet Up (Online)
We used to meet potential mates at school, at work, through friends, and out in the world. No longer.
And online dating … shares flaws with other technologies that scale our instincts. Algorithms are indifferent to social interests, and that, coupled with human nature, gave us January 6 and QAnon.
Dating apps sort potential partners into a tiny group of haves and a titanic group of have-nots. On Hinge, the top 10% of men receive nearly 60% of the “likes” — the comparable figure for women is 45%. The bottom 80% of male Tinder users, based on percentage of likes received, are competing for the bottom 22% of women. If it were a country, Tinder would be among the most unequal in the world.
What is driving this division? As with so much else online, dating apps don’t change human nature, they focus it — like a kid with a magnifying glass melting ants. Regardless of how we meet potential mates, we sort them in large part based on looks and earning potential. Algorithms magnify that effect.
Women are particularly concerned with the earning potential of future mates, across cultures and over time. A 1989 study found that in 37 countries and sub-groups, women consistently value the financial capacity of a potential partner more than men do. In the U.S., financial prospects were nearly 30% more important to women than to men. In a 2017 survey, 71% of American women said it’s “very important” for a man to support his family financially. Only 25% of men said the same about a woman. In sum, women mate (socioeconomically) horizontally and up, and men do it horizontally and down.
Winner Take Most
Marriage rates in the U.S. have been on the decline for decades. The group that’s seen the sharpest decline? Poor men. Between 1970 and 2011, the marriage rate for the lowest earning quartile fell by nearly 35%, while that of the highest quartile fell by less than 15%.
The most powerful signal of earning potential, especially for people in their 20s who haven’t yet realized their potential, is a college degree. College-educated men earn a median $900,000 more over their lifetime than those who only graduated from high school. A college degree also increases your chances of getting married by 30%.
The result of fewer men in college? Fewer men that women are interested in.
This is good for nobody. It’s bad for women, who have fewer potential mates. Men at the top of the pyramid have access to near on-demand sexual partners, but that’s a disincentive to forging a long-term relationship, which doesn’t bode well for their long-term happiness — see the previous data about the benefits of marriage.
And then there’s the increasing number of men in the body of the pyramid, who will be left not merely without sex, but without any onramp to the intimate relationships upon which so much of their happiness, and our social capital, is built.
So what? America spent its first 300 years treating women as second-class citizens — what’s wrong with young men getting the short end of the stick for a while? If this were just about fairness or feelings, then fine, let there be churn. But there are several externalities that could have profound effects on our commonwealth and the global community.
First, less partnering and propagation means fewer babies. Declining birth rates are toxic for economic health. For a glimpse at the declining-birth-rate future, look at Japan, where birth and marriage rates have fallen to record lows. There are now just 2.1 working-age Japanese for every retiree, the lowest ratio in the world. In the United States there are 3.9. The world average is 7.
At the Code Conference this week, automaker and future Martian Elon Musk said: “Possibly the single greatest risk to human civilization is the rapidly diminishing birth rate … No babies, no humanity.”
My Pivot cohost, Kara Swisher, likes to claim that lesbians and evangelicals are the only groups having kids, but at less than 5% of the population, gay couples would need to have literally dozens of children to reverse these trends … Your move, Kara.
Second, a large and growing cohort of bored, lonely, poorly educated men is a malevolent force in any society, but it’s a truly terrifying one in a society addicted to social media and awash in coarseness and guns.
Men are already more likely than women to believe in conspiracy theories. Increased frustration about their lack of life choices and greater jealousy stoked by the images of success they see on their screens will push underachieving men further toward conspiracy theories, radicalization, and nihilist politics. I say “will” because I’m focused on the future, but a preview of that future is already here. Of the 620 people charged so far in the January 6 riot, 86% are men.
Global problems, including climate change and more frequent pandemics, require a massive investment of human capital and a renewed respect for intellectualism … and science.
Third, while the forces of technology and social change are taking much from young men, it’s unlikely they will lose their political power. This may be the dark heart of the matter. Politicians will emerge from this class, and many more will pander to them. Donald Trump was not an anomaly — privileged men of wealth rising to power on the message that “this isn’t your fault,” and then demonizing other groups is a greatest hit of nationalism and the facism it often inspires.
Men have characteristics which make it easier for them to accumulate and protect wealth and power. Numerous studies have shown that candidates with deeper voices win more votes. A 25% lower vocal pitch is associated with an increase of $187,000 in annual CEO salary. People who are 6 feet tall earn $166,000 more over a 30-year career than those who are 5 feet 5 inches — even controlling for gender, age, and weight. The explanation, many psychologists believe, is increased confidence. One psychologist explains that the “process of literally ‘looking down on others’ may cause one to be more confident.” Since the advent of mass media, every president has been taller than the average American male, and the winning candidate has been on average 1.5 inches taller than his opponent. Overall, American men are over 5 inches taller than American women.
Women who run for office face substantial opposition on the basis of gender, from sexist remarks to disinformation to physical violence. Trumpism, with or without Trump, is the politics of frustration, alienation, and rage. It will only gain in power if these emotions become more prevalent.
For 40 years, more women have matriculated at colleges, yet only 24% of Congress is female. What we’ve witnessed is an explosion in elected officials who pander to a dangerous, and growing, cohort of men who refuse to embrace science — or even agree that there is “truth.” Without the connective tissue of truth and science, it will be near impossible to address future pandemics, much less climate change. There’s a link between a reduction in opportunities for young men and hundreds of millions of doses of Covid vaccine likely to expire unused by year-end.
Turning the Tide
The increase in opportunities for women (and for people of color) is an important step forward. There is no justification for reversing these hard-fought wins.
However, we must do more.
While men enjoy numerous inherent and societal advantages — from deeper voices to private clubs — there are actually significant obstacles facing boys. It starts early, with small differences. For example, 80% of kindergartener parents expect their girls to attend college, while 77% of parents expect their boys to. But such small differences expand over time. The disparity in parental expectations grows by 10 percentage points by fifth grade. Boys act out more than girls and face harsher discipline, especially in single-parent homes, where boys are 13 percentage points more likely than girls to have been spanked in the past week. Overall, 1 in 4 boys experience at least one school suspension in the eighth grade, compared to 1 in 10 girls. School suspension is predictive of college attendance and college completion, and boys, normalized for behavior, are twice as likely to be suspended. (Black students are also more likely to be disciplined, and black boys face even greater disparities.) Finally, in the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate, men are imprisoned at 14 times the rate of women. And 70% of prisoners didn’t complete high school.
We must do more at every level, but I’d focus on college, because I believe it’s a transformative experience for most people.
When I applied to UCLA, the acceptance rate was 74%. I had to apply twice. After my initial rejection, I secured a job installing shelving in Ontario, California. Spending the day in closets, getting high with my co-workers after work … it dawned on me, “Maybe this isn’t what I want to do with my life.” So I appealed the decision and got in. That changed my life and set the foundation for me to become a robust citizen.
Today only 12 out of 100 kids get in. Admissions directors no longer have the capacity to reach into the homes of unremarkable kids raised by single immigrant mothers and give them the opportunities my generation enjoyed.
This reflects a conscious decision in America to sequester opportunities to the children of rich people and kids who are freakishly remarkable at 17. This plays on a collective hallucination that all of us are raising remarkable children. I can prove that 99% of our children are not in the top 1%. We managed to scale Facebook from a $63 billion company in 2012 to almost $1 trillion today, but we couldn’t increase the seats at UCLA by more than 6% in that same time?
And UCLA is better than most (the UC system overall wants to add 20,000 seats by 2030). In 2007 the Ivy League schools accepted 22,180 applications. In 2021, they accepted 22,805. That’s a 0.2% annual increase (while tuition increased by more than 4% per year). In 2007, Apple sold 1.4 million iPhones; in 2021 it sold 218 million — a 43% annual increase. We can figure out how to make more than 700 million supercomputers that run all day on a battery and fit in your pocket, but we can’t add thousands of seats to colleges with $40 billion endowments? College has become the enforcer of an emerging caste system, abandoning promising (if not obviously remarkable) young adults. There are so many of them. We must, and we can, give them their shot. We need a grand bargain that, in exchange for additional funding, demands our great public institutions leverage technology to double the number of freshman seats in the next decade.
Extend the benefits of a college education to more women, more people of color, more foreign students, more handicapped kids, more poor kids — and more artists and engineers and poets and biologists. And more men. America is not about exceptionalism, but acceptance.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Nearly everyone I know who works in marketing or branding has the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On on their bookshelf. It was written by Jonah Berger, and now he’s teaching Section4’s next sprint on Viral Growth Sprint. Sign up here.