Embodied within the American ethos is the perception of a nation teeming with potential, promising universal rights and freedom. This perspective has not, however, manifested into reality. For the past two-and-a-half centuries, strides have been made toward bridging this disparity at a rate unparalleled by any other multicultural democracy. Nevertheless, a gradual, disheartening regression is perceptible of late. Longevity rates have dwindled, wealth disparity has surged, and the overall tone of discourse has deteriorated. All societal strata, barring the affluent, can identify specific regressions. A particularly pronounced decline in one demographic poses a significant threat to communal wealth and economic prosperity: the young male population is in dire straits, and our collective failures have facilitated this.
Crisis Boys often commence their educational journey on the back foot compared to girls, and they lag in terms of high school and college graduation rates. Friendless men are not a rare occurrence, with one in seven admitting to such a predicament. A staggering three-quarters of all despair-induced fatalities in America — whether through suicide or drug overdoses — are men. Extensive discourse on this topic can be found elsewhere. I’ve also discussed how this ties into dwindling birth rates.
Distress and disenfranchisement often culminate in desolation and violence. By the time they reach 27, high school dropouts are four times more prone to arrests, dismissals, government aid dependency, or drug addiction than their graduating counterparts. We’re now confronting diminishing rates of household formation, lower birth rates, and slower economic growth just as the baby boomer generation embarks on their retirement years.
The dearth of candid discourse regarding these issues has paved the way for harmful rhetoric that subtly perpetuates misogyny, vilifies vulnerable groups, and propagates a regressive vision of masculinity. Thankfully, the dialogue has begun to yield more productive outcomes recently. The magnitude and severity of the obstacles facing young men are now more widely acknowledged, enabling us to shift our attention toward potential remedies.
The Key to Prosperity The post-WWII U.S. economy served as the “Arsenal of Democracy”, a nationwide factory line churning out tanks, ships, and munitions. An astounding 40% of the nation’s GDP was dedicated to the war effort. (In contrast, our military expenditure currently stands at 3% of GDP.) When the war ended, however, our economy lost its primary customer. We faced the daunting task of securing employment for 10 million mostly male, demobilizing service members. Wage levels dipped, rental rates soared, industry-wide strikes were commonplace, and a wave of nationalism began to surge. Prominent figures across the board feared a recurrence of the Great Depression, or potentially worse outcomes.
Contrary to these fears, the ensuing three decades witnessed record-low unemployment levels, consistent economic growth, and groundbreaking technological advancements. Millions of households experienced steady improvements in their living standards, so much so that a new social concept was necessitated: the middle class. The term “working class” could no longer capture the quintessentially American middle-class lifestyle, marked by two-car garages, vacation breaks, and offspring heading off to college. Despite common misconceptions, the postwar middle class was not exclusively comprised of white men. Between 1950 and 1980, an astounding 27 million American women joined the workforce, marking a 50% increase in their participation. The percentage of black men who belonged to the middle class by income increased from 22% in 1940 to 68% in 1970.
The foundation of this prosperity was robust state support. The G.I. Bill funded college for 2 million soldiers, and provided home and small business loans to hundreds of thousands more. Truman’s housing legislation enhanced the government’s role in home construction and homeownership financing. Eisenhower initiated a 40-year project to construct a national highway system, costing over $500 billion in today’s money. Progressive income taxes — with a top rate of 91% — along with wealth redistribution through social programs and investments in infrastructure, education, and science, ensured the wealth of the highest earners was disseminated equitably.
Revival The most revolutionary development in the history of the West, the American middle class, was born out of intentional, sustained public investment. Our departure from this vision has led to prosperity but not progress over the decades. We’ve fallen into a cyclical pattern of failure — a failure to raise, educate, and employ young men. By revisiting our tradition of investment, we can reinvigorate capitalism’s engine and halt their downward spiral.
Delay School Start
On the first day of school, a boy is already lagging behind half the class. Given the delayed maturation of boys’ brains relative to girls’, they often find themselves trailing behind girls from the get-go. The concept of “redshirting,” akin to the practice of holding back college athletes for a year to facilitate further development, should be applied to boys as well. Richard Reeves, the author of last year’s influential book, “Of Boys and Men,” proposes this solution. He recently left the Brookings Institution to establish the American Institute.
On our educational pyramid’s peak, universities stand tall and proud. Yet, their role as conduits to ascendant mobility remains constricted. Taxpayer funds nourish them abundantly, a leverage they overlook to challenge the higher-education syndicate and augment freshman seats. We often lose ourselves in the tussle over affirmative action and legacy admissions, neglecting the essence of it all. The call of the hour is to create more opportunities, not merely to reshuffle the privileged within a game governed by zero-sum rules. The ambition of our universities ought not to mimic the exclusivity of a Chanel bag, but rather, to serve the public.
The Pillars of Family Life
A shield protecting boys from metamorphosing into desolate, insolvent men is a firm childhood bolstered by male role models. The classic tableau often involves a pair of devoted parents, equipped with a steady income and the luxury of time to invest in their child. However, the percentage of American children birthed by unwed mothers has catapulted from a meager 5% in 1960 to a staggering 40% today. In tandem, the percentage of children living sans one or both parents soared from 15% to 30% between 1975 and 2020.
Single-parent households can certainly breed productive citizens, as I am a testament to this very fact. Nevertheless, we mustn’t romanticize every contemporary (or conventional) family as an epitome of tranquility and stability. Marriage may not be the exclusive path to establishing a familial foundation, but its potency is undeniable. Progenies nurtured by wedded parents enjoy stronger bonds with their fathers, witness superior health and scholastic accomplishments, and are markedly less likely to experience abuse or poverty. Intriguingly, girls seem less influenced by family instability and single parenthood than boys, likely attributable to boys’ enhanced physical strength and girls’ superior emotional and mental resilience.
Is there a solution to prevent couples from seeking divorce? A potential answer may lie within the realm of finance. For one-third of American pairs, money sparks a significant discord, and studies indicate that fiscal disagreements are the strongest precursors to divorce. Economic stress is corroding the integrity of young families today, with 35-year-old Americans amassing merely half the wealth of their 1989 counterparts, while the affluence of 75-year-olds has doubled. Unabatedly, through protectionist housing permit laws, cutbacks on child tax credits, preferential capital gains tax rates, and corporate tax loopholes, we persist in the transfer of wealth and opportunity from the young to the old. A bipartisan effort to prolong the child tax credit is desperately required, which could alleviate some of the economic pressure that burdens young parents.
Demographics: The Seismograph of the Future
We hold the choice to implement these ideas or not. Yet, we must recognize that we’re charging towards a geriatric nation where over half of government expenditure will be on seniors, thereby depleting our capacity to invest. This phenomenon echoes the situation in Japan and Italy, culminating in a languid economy that gradually loses its global prominence. The population decline across the West presents a looming threat to democracy. Today, 1 in 6 Americans is 65 or older, a significant rise from 1 in 20 a century ago. In terms of GDP, 7% is devoted to seniors compared to a minuscule 0.5% on children.
The demographic challenge has escalated to such a degree that credit ratings agencies predict half of nations’ ratings will plummet to ‘junk’ status within the next four decades. The population ‘bomb’, as it was dubbed in the seventies, has indeed exploded, but paradoxically, it was an implosion. Democracy and capitalism require household formation, thus necessitating economically and emotionally viable men to form partnerships with women, who’ve attained commendable, hard-earned advancements. The lack of a dependable partner often emerges as a primary reason women terminate pregnancies.
The Call for Investment
In our current landscape, stocks and bonds worth $8 trillion change hands annually. Of this colossal sum, a mere $300 billion symbolizes ‘true investment,’ utilized to foster company growth via IPOs or secondary issuances. The issue? We’ve transitioned into a nation of arbitrageurs as opposed to investors. We manipulate information, propagate whatever drives engagement, and give a wide berth to the pursuit of truth. We exploit fossil fuels, conveniently sidestepping the externalities. Most regrettably, we gamble with the futures of our youth. It’s time to end the wagering and begin investing.