How Boys Today Have No Choice But Failure and What We Can Do About It
On October 7, 2016, just one month before the United States presidential election, we were all horrified to learn the crass and disgusting words spoken by then candidate Donald Trump about women. Referring to Arianne Zucker, who he and Billy Bush were about to meet, he was recorded as saying:
"I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything.” 1
Since that time, we’ve been inundated with a onslaught of shamelessness: explicit lies, ridiculous lies, and unnecessary lies. Regardless of your political stance, I think most would argue that Donald Trump consistently leans into shock value, twisted tales, and straight up lies — and he has been rewarded for his behavior again, and again and again. In fact, he has been celebrated for his stance, his language, and his words, particularly among men.
The point I’m wanting to make here is not quite a political one, but rather that Donald Trump epitomizes what I’d like to call the “Arrested Adolescent.”2
Like their famous member Donald Trump, these men and boys who are stuck in arrested adolescence are locked up in what should be described as both “childish insecurity and lethally bold arrogance.”3
I believe this is a development of those who are in the midst of rejecting shame (“childish insecurity”) for the equally destructive shamelessness (“lethally bold arrogance”).
Our former masculine norms have for centuries included things like strength, dominance, and emotional resilience, leaving little room for vulnerability and the acknowledgement of shame. Psychologist Terry Real highlights that young men may struggle with shame due to societal expectations, asserting that "many men today are stuck in a straitjacket of cultural definitions."4
Simultaneously, societal shifts and evolving norms have contributed to a growing sense of shamelessness among boys and men.
The digital age and social media platforms have created an environment where attention-seeking behaviors and shock value are rewarded, usually at the expense of empathy or personal accountability.
I would like to posit that what was once described as “the low expectations of culture” that any teenager might be able to rise above, is now a reality and culture which is far more like a prison sentence for boys than it is simply pressure to be apathetic.
Therefore, there is no longer simply a myth of adolescence that someone can rise up against, or simply reject. You are not given a choice — you’re locked up from the start, pushed and prodded with few alternatives down a path behind the locked doors of a society that simply doesn’t know what to do with you any longer.
These are the arrested adolescents.
Defining Arrested Adolescent
To define this complex group, I think first you have to understand the desperate state of both boys and men in our society, specifically Western culture — a group often described as hated more than any other group.5
I've realized how overwhelming this topic can be -- it's complex, it's difficult, and it's impossible to say for certain what to do beyond "this is a problem, and we don't know exactly why." I can't write up every single issue, or even begin to address all the problems. But I think it's vital to identify this issue and force each of us to consider causes, effects, and possible solutions.
I also want to state that the phenomenal improvements in society for women are not to be discounted or removed. But that doesn’t negate the problem for boys, which in turn will become a problem for women.
I hope upon completion of reading this, we can begin to agree that what we’re doing right now isn’t working for our boys and our men. They need help, and they need it now.
As far back as 2000, Christina Hoff Sommers was writing “"In many countries, boys are falling behind girls in education, mental health, and future job prospects. Far too many boys drop out of school and end up unemployed, homeless, or in prison."
Little has changed over 20 years later.
According to Pew Research, “Young women are more likely to be enrolled in college today than young men, and among those ages 25 and older, women are more likely than men to have a four-year college degree. The gap in college completion is even wider among younger adults ages 25 to 34.”6
The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that "There are currently more women in college than men, and women earn a majority of all degrees in the United States."7
Perhaps more shocking than the college statistics is the fact that boys in every single state in the U.S. fall behind girls at every age and every grade in every subject.8 This is an issue far beyond young men deciding to simply skip out on college (which some might argue is because of men going into the trades, but sadly we'll learn that's not the case).
What is truly disturbing is that from the outset, boys are experiencing a very different educational system than girls. A system ironically created by men that we are learning is not working for boys.
One of the most interesting studies on how boys fare was one where teachers demonstrated clear gender bias against boys, grading them lower than their female peers when their gender was known.9 10 When teachers were unaware of the gender of the student, they graded them fairly. When they learned the gender, they consistently graded boys lower than girls.
In other words, when young men show up to school, whether it be public or private, the system is often skewed against them.
Research suggests that boys are more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD compared to girls.11 One immediately wonders how many boys who are simply acting like boys are immediately diagnosed with ADHD or other pathology when the reality is they are following ordinary patterns around aggression, impulsivity, and rule-breaking, which are normative for young boys.
Research suggests that boys may have more difficulty with self-regulation compared to girls. This can manifest as challenges in focusing attention, inhibiting impulses, and controlling behavior, particularly in structured and sedentary settings.12 In other words, boys have a tough time sitting still.
Yet our educational system is crafted and created to benefit girls far more than it is to benefit boys.
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CBS in January of 2023 reported that “In 1953, 98% of men in that age range had a job or were looking for one. That number has fallen ever since. Today, 7.2 million men have essentially dropped out of the workforce.”13
And in case you think these men are taking care of someone at home or doing something productive, they are not.
“On average, nearly seven hours each weekday are dedicated to leisure time — relaxing, playing games and watching TV, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2021.”14
According to research from EMSI, “As boomers began exiting the labor market, the total number of prime-age men in the workforce did not grow at all for 16 years, from 2004 to 2020. However, the number of prime-age men not in the labor force swelled by an astonishing 70%. What this means is that even though millennials in particular now outnumber living baby boomers, more and more millennial men are, for one reason or another, opting out of work.”15
Potential explanations for this decline in workplace participation includes the massive amount of money that millennials are inheriting from their boomer parents (estimated to be $68 trillion dollars by 2030),16 disastrous impacts of the Opioid epidemic (estimated to kill 90 Americans every day)17, increased desire for leisure (and increase in part-time work), and of course video games.
From the Sansdemic research:
According to NBER research, the decrease in hours worked for men ages 21-30 exactly mirrored the increase in video game hours played. On average, males ages 21-30 worked over 200 fewer hours in 2015 than they did in 2000 (a 12% decline). They simultaneously upped their leisure hours, 75% of which were spent playing video and computer games. Many of these men do not have a bachelor’s degree, and the data shows they are postponing marriage, child rearing and home buying until their 30s.
“The prime-age male workforce (ages 25-54) plunged from 94% in 1980 to 89% in 2019. That 5 percentage point drop represents over 3 million missing workers when compared to the 94% participation rate. When compared to a hypothetical 100% rate, it represents nearly 7 million.”18
Roles and Place
Ask a young man today where he sees himself in a few years — what career or job he wants — and he’s usually completely lost. I can speak to this anecdotally that the striking differences between young women and young men is disconcerting. It’s of course not 100% — there are so many young men hungry to learn and grow — but most young men are desperately trying to find where they fit anymore.
"Young men are struggling to find their place in a world that is increasingly hostile to traditional masculine values. This is leading to a crisis of identity that is manifesting itself in social isolation, substance abuse, and mental health issues,” said Philip Zimbardo back in 2011.19
Dr. Anthony Bradley has said it pretty plainly: ““Men and boys are lost! They don’t know why the country needs them.”
Tragically, "They don’t know why they are here.”20
And of course (the sometimes polarizing) Jordan Peterson weighs in often, with statements emphasizing that “Many young men are experiencing a sense of hopelessness and despair, as they struggle to find a meaningful place in a world that seems to have no use for them."21
What seems to be reality is that since even as early as 1900, men’s place in this world seems lost: what need do we have any longer for physical strength? In a world where women make significantly more money, where is the need to be a provider? In a world with IVF treatments or no-fault divorce, where is the need for there to be a male partner in a parenting relationship?
Some may argue that these improvements in society (increase in women’s pay, IVF, no-fault divorce) are positives in a world in which women were far too often treated as lesser-than. I of course completely understand and affirm the need for the work done around gender equality. You can at the same time affirm and note the consequences of the current state of affairs.
Men are not innocent in the least in these problems of place. Many of the structures and systems that are hurting men were created by men themselves. As we get to potential “solutions,” one must acknowledge at this point that there is a strong tendency in men to slide to becoming incredibly passive. I do not want to argue that the prison boys and men find themselves in is fully the fault of external forces.
There’s a tension in the reality that this situation is both internal and external in its reality. There is a place for men to step into, but it requires hard work. It requires sacrifice. It requires challenge and change. For many men, they’ve simply given up and stepped away.22
Being male is the biggest risk factor for suicide.
“Parents need to know that being male is the biggest risk factor for suicide,” says Richard V. Reeves, author of Of Boys And Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It. “The chances of your son taking his life by suicide are about four times higher than your daughter’s.”23
A discouraging Pew report this year stated “Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., with more than 48,000 people of all ages dying by suicide in 2021; millions more thought about, planned, or attempted suicide. People 10-24 years old account for 14% of all suicides—surpassing 6,500 deaths each year, which makes suicide the third leading cause of death for this age group.”24
The rate of men committing suicide is spiking among young men in particular, as reported by The Washington Post.25
The number of suicides increased from 45,979 in 2020 to 47,646 last year.
The rate of suicides is now 14 per 100,000 people.
Suicides rose 8 percent among males ages 15-24, the largest rate increase of 2021.
The number of suicides for males was 38,025, compared with 9,621 for females.26
You also have men dying of drugs and cut off from society.
Patrick Brown at City Journal has reported on the spike in men overdosing on drugs:
The latest CDC data shows that 35,419 single and divorced prime-age (25- to 54-year-old) men died of drug-related causes, a 35 percent increase from the year before. The never-married make up about one-third of the prime-age male population, but compose two-thirds of that demographic’s drug-related deaths. Similarly, the share of prime-age divorced men who succumbed to drug overdoses was nearly twice their share of the population at large.27
Another Washington Post article by Jennifer Fink reported that ““Fifteen percent of young men today don’t have a close friend, according to the American Perspectives Survey, and many young men ages 18 to 23 feel that ‘nobody really knows me,’ according to research Reichert is conducting. This lack of connection may explain why so many boys are struggling silently.”28
Unlocking the Doors, Setting Them Free
So what in the world do we do with this?
It’s like the dashboard is blinking every single warning light you can imagine. And impending disaster (and current reality) is frightening to think about.
I believe that men and boys are essential to human flourishing. We not only need them physically, but we need them at their very best.
As a Christian, my first response is to respond spiritually to this situation. What’s challenging, however, is dealing first with the reality that what we are currently doing in the church also isn’t working. Dr. Anthony Bradley has done extensive work on this topic, and I’ll lean heavily on him here.
Dr. Bradley consistently refers to Leon Podles book Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity. Podles argues:
“that since the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians and preachers have told men that they “had to become feminine to be Christians,” with Puritan Protestants eventually following suit. Clergy worked really hard to “squelch anything that might excite men, including dancing, drinking, and sports.” To be Christian was to be, in a sense, feminine.
C.S. Lewis argued that “we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to [God].” Hans Urs von Balthasar maintained that the structure of Christian belief centers on femininity and women’s receptivity, where man is the word and “woman is essentially an answer.”
When surveying the history of Christianity, for “almost a millennium Christians have tended to see their primary identity as feminine,” writes Podles, this as the church often exhibited a quasi-condescending attitude toward women as “weak, helpless, and trained to obedience.”29
The answer to this problem? The men of the church — the laity — must step up. The leadership of the laymen is the key to freeing the captives from their arrested adolescence.
“Men suffer from the existential loneliness that is the lot of every human being, and more so because of their drive for independence,” says Podles. “Men seek to overcome this loneliness in the comradeship of fraternal movements, of fascism, of communism, of terrorist groups, or gangs, or war. Such ways are deceiving and destructive.”31
Many would then say, let’s start getting men “together.” Breakfasts, small groups, or going to hunt together or shoot guns. Not so fast.
“Early morning Bible studies, workout and exercise groups, clergy-organized men’s groups, etc., all eventually fade. In today’s terms, if it has a website and a cookie-cutter program to be applied broadly, assume it will not last. Laymen in local communities need to take more ownership of their lives without needing to be spoon-fed or controlled by clergy. Laymen have been made far too passive by ready-made “resources” to help address their needs instead of being empowered to do what works outside the clerical gaze. Fathers have been sidelined into apathy far too long by youth workers and parachurch ministries.”32
I can’t help but be struck by Dr. Bradley’s call to action: “The men positioned to reverse the distressing rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, death by addiction, labor force disappearance, violence, and educational underachievement are not the ministry ‘professionals’ but average guys who do not realize how much of an asset they are to their communities.”
He points his readers to Sebastian Junger’s key questions for men: “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?”
I must note, however, that I would not encourage what Tim Keller has called “enculturation.”33 He wisely warned that there is often a tendency within Christianity itself to marry itself to popular or traditional U.S. culture. This includes “gender exaggeration - due to fundamentalism’s tendency to ‘baptize’ American culture, there is a legalistic tendency toward non-biblical gender stereotypes (especially those of the 1950s); a denigration of women, and cover up of abuse.”34 In other words, our calling is not to train men to become Americans.
Instead, I would offer up Jon Tyson’s wise definition of manliness to help define what we as men should be both seeking after and training up: “An image bearer and son of God entrusted with power and responsibility to create, cultivate, care and guard the life he's been given. This is for God's glory, his joy and the good of others.”35
My Personal Experience: A Band of Brothers
From my own personal experience, it’s here I’ll speak. In addition to having my Dad as a key influence in my life — this shouldn’t be understated even as I lay out some of the material below — I was exposed to this kind of laity impact in both my teen years and in college. I can only speak at this point from my personal beliefs and personal experience. I don’t have anything but that to back up that I believe these things made a difference in my life.
In High School, there were 2-3 key lay leaders in the church that made a key effort to bring together boys in fun and engaging ways. It was usually the father of one of my friends. The combination of Sunday morning having this older man teach, pray, and talk with teenagers combined with throughout the week time just being boys and young men was vital to my upbringing.
There was not a program. There was not a strategy. There was faithful presence in the lives of sons and young men that included spiritual teaching along with camaraderie and fraternity.
Every Wednesday night at 9 p.m., nine college guys, ranging from 18 to 25 years old, would amble into an urban Louisville garage. We called ourselves the “band of brothers.”
These meetings started several months earlier when we were crammed into a 15-passenger van on a church trip. We began confessing how we wish we could know more “man skills”: how to change the oil in our car, fix spark plugs, replace a light socket, start a fire without matches, and tie a Windsor Knot.
We were thrilled when the man driving the car quietly said, “I can teach you how to do all of that.”
That man was John Powell.
We all admired John. He was a confident leader and a biblical thinker. He was kind, gentle, and convictional. He loved his family. He treated us like we were men. He challenged us to be men. So, we committed. John made a syllabus and emailed it to us. He expected us to be there. We were thrilled this was really going to happen. So, week after week—on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.—we’d show up to that garage, and John would teach us something new.
When John died unexpectedly and tragically, it felt like we had lost someone who was more than just a friend. Every single one of those young men who John mentored — and he was just a faithful layman at the time — were there for that funeral.
I think the key point here is to understand that as frustrating as it may be, there is not some kind of clear answer to these problems, but there is a clear call to men (outside of the clergy) to step up and deal with this problem — and to do it with creativity and passion.
Again, Sebastian Junger: “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?”
Spencer has reminded all of us of both the sacrifice John made for young men (he’d be up late with us vs. settling in for the night with his wife), as well as the creativity he used to disciple us.
John did crazy things to invest in us. He attached a 55-gallon drum barrel to bungee cords in his garage to teach us how to bull ride. He took some guys to a ranch hundreds of miles away to learn how to farm and brand animals.
That may not seem like an obvious avenue to discipleship, but these creative investments taught us that discipleship doesn’t just happen at coffee shops and in crisis situations. Sometimes they happen—when you’re with a guy like John, at least—while changing oil.
Your Call to Action
My call to all men — myself included — is to not simply look at this landscape and walk away, shrugging our shoulders and believing “we can’t do anything. It’s too late.” There are hungry, passionate young men right now who need us.
Are we going to step up to the challenge, or are we going to let the government attempt to do something not even the local church has been able to do? There is no way they can solve this problem.
It’s coming down to you, and to me. We have to help these young men, and the men around us, escape this imprisonment.
We are the ones who must free them from their arrested adolescence.
Tom Nichols, “THE NARCISSISM OF THE ANGRY YOUNG MEN” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/01/lost-boys-violent-narcissism-angry-young-men/672886/
Tom Nichols, “THE NARCISSISM OF THE ANGRY YOUNG MEN” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/01/lost-boys-violent-narcissism-angry-young-men/672886/
Real, Terry. "I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression." Scribner, 1998
What’s behind the growing gap between men and women in college completion?https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/11/08/whats-behind-the-growing-gap-between-men-and-women-in-college-completion/
National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/
OECD. (2015). The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior, Confidence. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/ABC-Gender-2015.pdf
Biederman, J., Faraone, S. V., & Monuteaux, M. C. (2002). Differential effect of environmental adversity by gender: Rutter's index of adversity in a group of boys and girls with and without ADHD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(8), 1556-1562.
Lengua et al., 2002; Kochanska et al., 2000
Peterson, Jordan B. "The Crisis of Masculinity and Its Cultural Origins." Quillette, 24 Oct. 2017, quillette.com/2017/10/24/crisis-masculinity-cultural-origins/.
The White House. (2016). "The Long-Term Decline in Prime-Age Male Labor Force Participation."
Hurst, E. (2017). "The Transformation of U.S. Labor Markets and the Future of Work". The University of Chicago.
Putnam, R. (2000). "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." Simon & Schuster.
Seidler, Z. E., Dawes, A. J., Rice, S. M., Oliffe, J. L., & Dhillon, H. M. (2016). The role of masculinity in men's help-seeking for depression: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 49, 106-118.
Podles, Leon. Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity