What does it mean to be a man in America?
If I asked ten of you this question, I’d likely get ten different answers - all shaped by your perceptions of masculinity and how the men in your life are faring. Each of these experiences are instructive in their own right, but have you ever stepped back and looked at the current state of American men as a whole?
For the past few weeks, that is exactly what I have been doing - and the results are somewhat concerning. The past several decades have brought substantial changes and disruptions to America’s social, cultural, and economic fabric, and the data suggests that men as a whole are falling behind amidst these changes, especially in comparison to their female counterparts.
There is far more to be said than what can be aggregated in a single blog post, but below I summarize some of the most relevant findings around how American men are faring in terms of education and economic wellbeing, health outcomes, and relational and spiritual vitality.
Education and Economic Wellbeing
A quick analysis of the relevant data suggests that, while women have become relatively more educated and involved in the workforce over the past several decades, the opposite is true for men on both counts.
From 1972-2019, the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded to both genders shifted from a 12% gap in favor of men to a 14% gap in favor of women - a trend that one author called “the strangest and most profound change of the century.”
Women now graduate high school, enroll in college, and graduate college at higher rates than men, and the COVID-induced drop in postsecondary enrollment was much starker among men (5.1% decrease) compared to women (0.7% decrease). Attending college is, of course, not the only path into the workforce, but men are regressing on this broader front as well - from 1950-2015, the percentage of men in the labor force decreased from 86.4% to 69.1%, while the percentage of women increased from 33.9% to 56.7%.
One of the most worrying public health trends of the past two decades has been the rise of “deaths of despair”, or deaths due to suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol poisoning. Depending on the age group, deaths of despair have increased between 56% and 387% over the past two decades for a (pre-pandemic) average of 70,000 deaths per year, with that figure certain to rise in the wake of COVID-related social disruption. While large groups of men and women have succumbed to deaths of despair, data indicates that this phenomenon might be disproportionately affecting men - Brookings suggests that “significant drops in hope among less-educated white males preceded deaths of despair by several decades”, and social scientist Patrick T. Brown notes that drug-related deaths have risen most sharply among unmarried men over the past decade.
Relational and Spiritual Vitality
Measuring the extent to which men and women are spiritually and relationally engaged is a somewhat more nebulous task, but the available literature suggests that women are faring better than men in this regard as well. Demographer Lyman Stone notes that, although gauging the precise level of gender-specific involvement in churches is difficult, the relevant data indicates that women outpace men in church attendance and engagement in most Christian denominations/theological subsets in the U.S. Among other consequences, Stone suggests that “large shares of devout Christian women will have great difficulty finding a similarly, or even passably, devout Christian romantic partner” in light of this imbalance. Speaking of marriage, Pew Research notes that, as marriage rates as a whole are declining, men are now less likely than women to be married or cohabitate with a partner, which was not the case 30 years ago. Pornography usage, on the other hand, has been increasing among religious and irreligious men for nearly 50 years (we will soon be writing a follow-up article on the effects and detriments of pornography use amongst men).
None of this commentary is to suggest that women are faring better than men, or that women in the U.S. don’t have obstacles of their own (they certainly do) - but rather, to note that men as a whole have been moving in the wrong direction across multiple quality of life indicators for the past few decades, at least.
What’s behind these concerning trends? The answers are surely complicated, but in his brief essay “A Short Story of Men”, author David French identifies some of the likeliest causes of the decline in male wellbeing that I have summarized below.
For most of human history, the world of work has disproportionately favored men. The need for brute physical strength amid difficult living conditions, combined with the lack of effective birth control methods, meant that the responsibility to materially provide for a family organically fell to men while women naturally spent their prime years bearing and raising children. The “information revolution” of the past 30-50 years, however, means that the American economy now values mental acuity just as much as or more than physical strength, and the advent of effective birth control allows couples to have far more agency over if, when, and at what frequency to have children. Add it together and the disproportionate advantage that men once had in the marketplace has decreased substantially.
This is not to suggest that the “old way” of work was better, nor to imply that women are inherently more competent modern workers than men - only to note that our society is amid a profound shift in how we think about work and home life, and the data suggests that many men are struggling amidst this transition. Work has a deeply formative effect unto itself, and the fewer men that are engaged in meaningful work, the more that men as a whole will regress in other metrics. Brookings notes that:
“White men out of the labor force…have the worst health markers in the country…and the lowest levels of hope compared to any labor market cohort.”
American friendship rates are in decline among both genders, but like other metrics of wellbeing, this decline is more pronounced among men than women. In his piece, French summarizes the sobering state of male loneliness:
“Almost half of all men report having three close friends or fewer. Between 1990 and 2021, the percentage of men who reported [having] no close friends quintupled, from three percent to 15 percent. The percentage who reported ten or more close friends shrank from 40 percent to 15 percent.”
The rise of remote work and personal digital entertainment, coupled with the decline of traditional gathering places, makes it simpler than ever for Americans to live relatively solitary lives. (I’m sometimes surprised how easy it is for me to work, meet my basic needs, and keep myself nominally entertained for a whole day without having an actual in-person interaction with anyone outside of my household.)
On average, women are probably more likely to seek out connection amidst these societal changes. Men, on the other hand, might be more prone to lack relationally as the factory or office gives way to the at-home desk and watching the game at the sports bar is replaced by watching it alone on Hulu Live in the living room.
Like participation in meaningful work, having a robust circle of friends advances wellbeing on a variety of fronts, so if men are lacking in this regard, it is unfortunately no surprise that they are regressing in other areas as well.
As if disruptive societal changes involving work and friendship weren't enough, our culture is also amid a profound shift regarding the concept of gender. French notes that, in certain circles, a growing consensus has developed regarding the dangers of “toxic masculinity”, or stereotypically masculine traits that are emotionally harmful or dangerous. Quoting Brookings Institute fellow Richard Reeves, French argues that there are downsides to attaching the label “toxic” to the idea of masculinity itself. Reeves notes that: “
It is one thing to point out that there are aspects of masculinity that, in an immature or extreme expression, can be deeply harmful, yet quite another to suggest that a naturally occurring trait in boys and men is intrinsically bad.”
He argues that the phrase “toxic masculinity” is “counterproductive.” It teaches men and boys that there is “something toxic inside them that needs to be exorcized.”
But if some are seeking to eliminate the idea of masculinity altogether, French contends that cultural rebuttals to this argument are unhelpful for the opposite reason, emphasizing an over-characterized version of manliness that, inevitably, many men just don’t identify with. French writes that while some might present frequently occurring male attributes such as “‘achievement,’ ‘risk,’ ‘competitiveness,’ or ‘aggression’ as harmful”, then others “are going to glorify in the [extreme] stereotypes…There’s an obsession with ‘manliness,’ and manliness is defined far more by [unwise] physicality and aggression than by courage or wisdom.”
Caught in between this cultural sniping are men of all stripes, specifically young men who desperately need positive male influences to give them a healthy, balanced understanding of their own masculinity.
God has a wonderful design for human flourishing for both men and women. It’s important not to overstate or make an idol of the differences between the two, but it’s also important to acknowledge distinctiveness where it exists and help men understand the unique callings and abilities given to them by the Lord. A healthy understanding of masculinity is a crucial element of male wellbeing, and given that our culture seems to be heavily confused on this subject, it is once again no surprise that men are struggling in other regards as well.
This has been a gloomy article, and I don’t want to exaggerate the reality of the problem. Many men in America continue to do quite well, and far more factors than gender alone influence any one person’s wellbeing. But across multiple data points, the picture is clear:
There is a cohort of men in America that are falling behind economically, spiritually, and relationally, and the changing nature of work, friendship, and conceptions of masculinity is at least partially to blame for this decline.
As believers, what can we do to engage the fellow men in our lives, especially those who might be struggling in some capacity? Each man has a unique story that comes with a unique set of needs, but I can think of three simple ways in which most or all men need to be reached:
1. Men need the Gospel
The most important need of every human that ever lived is to be restored to right relationship with our creator, and men in 21st Century America are no exception. No policy prescription or social program can come close to meeting the deepest longings of men’s souls apart from the life-changing news of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. Indeed, Scripture tells us that life is ultimately meaningless when lived without fellowship with the Lord (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12:13), and the combination of lagging rates of religious expression and declining wellness metrics generally suggest that too many men are experiencing this sobering reality.
Men need to know that, regardless of their past, Jesus can redeem their present and transform their future, and that they were created by God with a purpose and to do good works regardless of their status in the eyes of the world (Ephesians 2:8-10). Any effort to reach men needs to have the Gospel at the center to be truly transformative both now and in eternity.
2. Men need (to marry) women
Marriage is a foundational aspect of God’s design for human flourishing - for both sexes, it provides companionship and a sense of purpose and duty beyond oneself. The relative decline in marriage rates among men is yet another example of a traditionally formative institution in which men are increasingly declining to participate.
Of course, not everyone will ultimately marry, and churches and ministries should think carefully about how to care for men who are called to a prolonged season or even lifetime of singleness. But marriage remains the normative pattern for the strong majority of adults, and in many ways our culture probably makes dating and marriage more complicated than it needs to be. Men can help care for other men by showing them God’s good design for marriage and preparing them to intentionally pursue a Gospel-centered union with a wife.
3. Men need other men
Young men, old men, married men, single men, men who have PhDs and men who didn’t graduate high school - men of all life stages and cultural backgrounds need real fellowship with each other. The crisis of modern masculinity won’t be solved by central planning or cultural sniping, but through men taking time to engage with each other, unlock each other’s giftings and talents, and to pursue devotion to Jesus together. There’s no magic formula for how this can happen, but rather the simple yet hard work of men committing to creating spaces where other men can come, be seen and heard, and grow.
We live in a society that facilitates isolation in many ways, and the battle for men’s souls will be won one-by-one in churches, homes, and coffee shops across the country, as men say no to a life of purposelessness and loneliness and yes to a life of following Jesus with brothers and friends.
Here at Heart of a Man, we’re committed to ministering to men on all three of these fronts. Our mission is to build men into character-driven, committed disciples of Jesus, and we do this through bringing men into intentional, Gospel-centered fellowship with one another in a variety of settings. We’ve also equipped many young men with the tools to pursue marriage through wise and intentional dating, and are in the process of creating spaces for more men to learn how to pursue Godly marriage.
Whatever your age, life stage, or church and faith background look like – if you’re interested in learning what it means to be in real community with other men with Jesus at the center, we’ve got a place for you. We hope you will come and join us!
 “The male college crisis is not just in enrollment, but completion” - Brookings (2021)  “Women may never make up half of the U.S. workforce” - Pew Research Center (2017)  “Deaths of despair: the unrecognized tragedy of working class immiseration” - STAT (2021)  “America’s crisis of despair…” - Brookings (2021)  Patrick T. Brown - Twitter (2022)  “Sex Ratios in the Pews: Is There Really a Deficit of Men in American Churches?” - Institute for Family Studies (2019)  “Rising Share of U.S. Adults are Living Without a Spouse or Partner” - Pew Research (2021)  “The Truth About Conservative Protestant Men and Porn” - Institute for Family Studies (2019)  “America’s crisis of despair…” Brookings (2021)