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Richard V. Reeves and Jocko Willink Take on Male Malaise

March 1, 2024


Richard V. Reeves does not want to talk about the Barbie movie. The former Brookings senior fellow and author of the landmark book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, was winding down a busy week. He was speaking to me on the phone from the airport, having just appeared at former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd conference in Florida. It was also the same week that he announced the launch of his new research body, the American Institute for Men and Boys (AIMB). Although he has become the go-to guy on all things related to the crisis of the American male—whose life expectancy has dropped to its lowest in nearly three decades—he shuts me down when I compare the plight of the overlooked American guy to Ryan Gosling’s Ken, a macho caricature so neglected by Barbie that she’s never even wondered where he slinks off to sleep each night. “I want less to talk about the Barbie movie and Tinder,” he said, “and more discussion of adolescent mental health screening and technical high schools.”

And by “we” he means the researchers and subject-matter experts he is gathering from both the left and the right at AIMB to address the gaps in data, policy, and research in a bid to save the American male, who on average is struggling by nearly every societal measure of success. But AIMB isn’t alone in this rescue effort. While Reeves is emphatically not interested in the spicy cultural discourse surrounding masculinity—his stated aim is in fact to make issues related to men and boys “boring” so as to get to real solutions—he acknowledges that culture is a key means of addressing a US male population that is four times more likely than women to die by suicide, and whose boys lag significantly behind girls in both math and English in many places. “There is a need for both,” he said. Both for “a British-accented Brookings scholar with decile charts” (Reeves is British), and those “who are much braver and much more out there, in terms of the cultural stuff” to acknowledge with “genuine compassion” that what men are feeling and experiencing is real. 

If AIMB has taken on the institutional dimension of this wide-ranging problem, there are others working to address it at the levels of culture and the family—another area where men and boys are struggling.

. . .

The AIMB is the thesis of Reeves’ book made manifest. Having put words to a problem people had begun to notice surrounding American men and boys, Reeves was inundated by media attention for his book, appearing on popular podcasts and Real Time with Bill Maher, the focus of pieces in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and even inspiring a weekly section on positive masculinity in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popular daily “Pump Club” newsletter. I stated it, the problem, without thinking it would ever be one I’d necessarily solve myself,” Reeves said, but “I felt a responsibility.” He faced a growing recognition that, having written the book on America’s problem with what he calls “male malaise,” he was uniquely positioned to address the gap in nonpartisan, research-based institutions specifically dedicated to solving the problems of boys and men in the United States.

“Having lost their status as breadwinners and resident fathers, many men find themselves a little lost.”

In writing Of Boys and Men, he had interviewed the experts and identified the scholars, foundations, and policymakers who were similarly engaged with issues surrounding the welfare of boys and men. They were excited as his book gained traction, and Reeves describes being “a bit embarrassed” that he had nowhere to direct that energy and goodwill. So why did he depart the cozy comforts of what he jokingly refers to as the “medieval sinecure” of the Brookings Institute to found AIMB? He determined a need for a wholly independent brand, one singularly focused on addressing the issues surrounding men and masculinity, which could avoid any of the partisan baggage that can weigh down such topics.

His first goal with AIMB is to continue raising awareness. “You can’t really persuade policymakers,” he said, “until they’re convinced there’s a problem.” He said audience members are still shocked, for example, when he tells them there’s a gender gap in college education.

His second aim is slightly more ambitious.

“We’re in the foothills of this,” Reeves said. “There isn’t a field” when it comes to the study of men’s issues in the United States. “We’re trying to build a new scholarly field here.” To that end, AIMB is hoping to sync efforts among the colleges and universities that are researching topics relevant to AIMB’s research areas: mental health, education and skills, black boys and men, employment, and fatherhood and family. The goal is coordinating these institutions under a convening organization, which Reeves proudly tells me he intends to name HE-MAN, or the Higher Education Male Achievement Network. “I’m not claiming to invent a whole new idea here, which is to create a learning community” around a shared policy interest, “it’s just that no one except us is going to do it for men,” he said.

This gap is a symptom of a wider cultural problem. In his book, Reeves writes that the advances women have experienced in the economic and cultural spheres in the past half-century (the number of women who outearn their husbands have doubled since 1981) have not kept pace with a culture that still overwhelmingly views the ability to support a family as the defining trait of a good husband or partner, especially among Americans with a high school degree or lower, who tend not to be high earners. “The very men who are least able to be traditional breadwinners are the most likely to be judged by their breadwinning potential,” Reeves writes, creating problems in both the job and marriage market for working class men. 

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Views toward marriage have shifted too. It is less of an economic necessity for women, and less an essential institution than “a capstone to a series of educational, social, and economic achievements,” according Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin, as quoted by Reeves in Of Boys and Men. “Having lost their status as breadwinners and resident fathers,” Reeves writes, “many men find themselves a little lost.”

Ontological security, or a purposeful sense of self imbued with meaning, is a concept originated by the sociologist David Morgan. Reeves borrows it for his book, acknowledging it is a somewhat abstract goal. That hasn’t stopped men from seeking it wherever it may be found.

. . .

Jocko Willink looks like a Navy SEAL named Jocko Willink. The square-jawed podcaster, author, gym owner, and leadership consultant regularly tweets pictures of his watch during his almost unfathomably early morning workouts (“MAKE TIME.” reads one typical example, accompanying a black-and-white photo of an Ironman triathlon watch, which displays a time of 4:12 AM). Underneath the tweet, his followers, both male and female, post enthusiastic responses with their workouts for the day, as well as their own wake-up times and progress reports.

Although he never explicitly says so during our conversation on Zoom, Willink appears bemused that I’ve identified him as a combatant in the war on male malaise. He is careful to distance himself from what he calls “meninists,” or men’s rights activists who adopt an often-misogynistic language of victimhood, as well as to avoid singling out men as the group of people at whom his leadership consultancy business, books, or podcast are aimed. “From my perspective,” he said—referring to the concept of “toxic masculinity”—“if you take any characteristic of a human being, and you take it to an extreme, it’s going to be a problem,” whether that’s traditionally masculine attributes like competitiveness or aggression, or on the flip-side, excessive self-effacement. 

However, he acknowledges that around 2015 and 2016, his podcast began to increase in popularity, around the same time other media figures who attract large male followings, like Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, also rose in prominence. 

Regarding “meninists” online, who say men are being held down, discriminated against, and feminized, and who traffic in traditionalist tropes about men-as-providers, Willink said, “You start to wonder, ‘What’s wrong with these dudes?’” These online influencers are, he said, “the real complainers.” If anything, Willink sees a need to show boys and young men, including his own son when growing up, “Hey, you can’t break things, you can’t fight everybody, you need to be a little bit more understanding of the world.”

Willink identifies humility as key to his own formula because without it, there is no recognition of a need to change.

Willink is less interested in diagnoses than Reeves, but he shares a similar approach. “I was a frogman [slang for Navy SEAL],” he said, “so a good frogman doesn’t complain about things. They do things. There’s something wrong, they fix it.”

He continued, “When I hear people, for lack of a better word, complain that, you know, men are not getting a good enough education, well, go teach some boys. Go write a couple books about how good being educated is and call those books Way of the Warrior Kid [Willink’s book series about resilience for kids].”

. . .

The academic achievement gap between socioeconomic and racial groups is already well-documented in the US, and it roughly maps onto the screen-time race and class-based disparities reflected in a widely quoted Common Sense Media survey on adolescent screen use. With boys devoting more time to screen media than girls, it may be that there is a similar correlation with academic achievement differences between the sexes, since there are indications that boys are falling behind girls in both English and math in some places. However, such data is less readily available to researchers.

States are not required by law to report their high school graduation rates by sex, although they are required to do so by other measures, such as race. “Could you . . . report the data?” Reeves said. “I know that sounds like, ‘Really? That’s your aspiration?’ But at this point, those are the sorts of wins that I think we’re going to have to take” in order to create awareness and build solutions to help boys and men, especially between the ages of 16-24, who are less likely to be in school than their female peers.

One of Reeves’ recommendations is more men in what he calls the “HEAL” professions: health, education, administration, and literacy. There are certain areas of life where men and boys would prefer to have their needs addressed in-person, by other males. However, the share of men in teaching professions are in decline, as are the share of male psychologists and substance abuse counselors. 

In a similar vein, Reeves is an advocate for coaching. He believes that the rise of pay-to-play club sports is hollowing out affordable school athletic programs and obviating the opportunity for the sort of “institutionally-created” friendship men tend to favor (the idea being that while women tend to prefer to socialize face-to-face, men socialize best “shoulder-to-shoulder”). He sees a potential avenue for AIMB in increasing the number of male coaches (also a vocation in decline) as an elegant solution to closing a gap between boys in search of role models and a sense of belonging and “the number of men who are looking for ways to contribute.”

Jocko sees a related phenomenon at his gym in San Diego, Victory MMA and Fitness, where he said he is seeing more single mothers signing their kids up for jiu jitsu classes.

If raising general awareness, establishing a higher education convening organization, and increasing America’s coaching population seem like rather small and diffuse aims, it’s because the newly-established AIBM—like Willink’s work—is trying to counter a nebulous but tangible crisis of ontological security.  

A unifying theme of both Reeves’ and Willink’s work is an almost defiantly unglamorous approach to human flourishing. Their methods fly in the face of a culture obsessed with hacks and incentivization to make self-help seem less like a chore. 

Willink identifies humility as key to his own formula because without it, there is no recognition of a need to change. He pairs it with discipline as the common traits among his guests, from soldiers, to musicians, to writers and actors, such as The Office’s Rainn Wilson. “He was doing drugs, kind of getting a bit wild, and he had to stop all that, and put his career together, and put his family together,” said Willink. “He’s got a wife. He’s a serious—you know, a guy.” It is the same simplicity behind the “MAKE TIME” approach he displays on X (formerly Twitter), and it forms the basis of his appeal for many of his followers. 

It is patient, painstaking, difficult work that requires the cooperation, hearts, and minds of everyday people working together, shoulder-to-shoulder

Willink said he has known young men with screen addictions and has an anecdote he is fond of sharing. On a podcast episode, Willink advised a man who wrote in asking for advice on how to stop biting his nails, to simply stop biting his nails. In a later episode, Willink shared that the man had written back to say that he had successfully quit the habit. After a subsequent, live event, a man approached Willink. “He said, ‘Hey, I know this is going to sound like the lamest thing you ever heard in your life, but I was addicted to video games,’” said Willink, “‘And I started listening to your podcast.’” The nail-biting cessation episodes had inspired him. He sold his console and games, Willink said, and used the money to come to his event. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, this strategy is not dissimilar to “the little way” of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who from the outside, at least, is worlds apart from a Navy SEAL. Yet her philosophy of “making profit of the very smallest actions,” a way of humility and self-mastery that would yield great things in eternity, is not so different from Willink’s.

Because he sees this approach working in the lives of people he encounters who say they have had their lives improved by his podcast and books and leadership consulting, Willink is optimistic about men and people more generally. “The social media world is not the world,” he said. “A company in Nebraska that’s doing construction, a company in North Dakota that’s got guys out on the oil rig, they don’t care about politics, they really don’t. They’re working hard and trying to lower their cost to produce, that’s what they’re focused on.”

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Willink points to Jordan Peterson, who he said, did not initially set out to speak specifically to young men, but with whom his “12 Rules for Life” resonated, and to Joe Rogan. Willink observes an often-overlooked but key shared characteristic of the two men: they have wives, families, and jobs.

“Like me,” said Willink, “I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids, I’ve got a job.” Were he ever to run for president, he said, it would be under the banner of “the party of just being normal.” 

Similar to Reeves’ contention that the antidote to contemporary male malaise must be boring, Willink rejects the contemporary notion that “everyone feels like everything they say should be some big statement.”

The former commander of SEAL Team Three, nicknamed “Task Unit Bruiser,” knows a little bit about defeating an enemy that’s hard to identify. Read any account of a counterinsurgency, like the one Willink fought in Iraq (full disclosure: Jocko served under my father in Iraq, when he commanded the First Brigade, First Armor Division during the Anbar Awakening of 2006-2007). What you will find is not the Tolstoyan notion of the wounded Prince Andrei, alone at Borodino, working out the meaning of life after a pitched battle. It is patient, painstaking, difficult work that requires the cooperation, hearts, and minds of everyday people working together, shoulder-to-shoulder. 

In separate theaters of operation, the SEAL Team commander and a tweedy British academic are closing with elusive enemies, both internal and external, in the fight for the future of the American male.