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House Calls Podcast
Why Are Boys And Men Struggling For Connection?
With guest Richard Reeves,
Writer and Researcher

Description

As we face an epidemic of loneliness in our country, how are men and boys struggling for connection? What’s driving the increasing rate of suicide among men? And how does our culture affect the ways in which men and boys form friendships? 

The Surgeon General and scholar Richard Reeves explore these questions and more. They discuss the complicated and troubling picture about how men and boys are faring. Educationally, economically, socially, and in terms of their physical and mental health, men and boys are struggling in profound ways. This conversation also examines male social connection in the context of a changing society in which expectations for men in the family, at work, and socially are shifting.  

In this episode of House Calls, the Surgeon General and Richard Reeves discuss how we can help and why understanding this moment in the lives of boys and men is important for all of us. 

 

 

We’d love to hear from you! Send us a note at housecalls@hhs.gov with your feedback & ideas. 

 

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Transcript

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Hello and welcome to House Calls. I'm Vivek Murthy and I have the honor of serving as U.S. Surgeon General. I'd like to introduce you to Richard Reeves, a scholar who focuses on boys and men, inequality and social mobility. Today, we'll be talking about why men and boys are struggling in our society, in particular with their friendships and social connections. When you think about the boys and men in your life, whether they're family members, friends, colleagues, or maybe even yourself, how are they doing? I mean, how are they really doing? Do they have close relationships and people they can rely on? Are they thriving in the classroom or the workplace? Do they feel a sense of purpose? If you know a boy or a man who's having a hard time, my guest today, Richard Reeves, has some insights that can help us understand why. In this episode of House Calls, Richard and I talk about his most recent work, which examines the ways in which men and boys are profoundly struggling, economically, socially, educationally, and in terms of their physical and mental health. "As the lives of women have improved over the last 50 years with changes such as Title IX, the lives of many men have remained the same or worsened, particularly for low income men," says Richard. I know this is a complicated subject to discuss. Women and girls, and people who identify outside of the gender binary, continue to face many challenges too. For example, women still earn only 82% of what men earn, a statistic that hasn't changed in 20 years, and they continue to be underrepresented in C-Suite positions. My hope with this conversation is to pull the curtain back on the mental health and loneliness challenges affecting men and boys, challenges which have serious implications for all of us. In this conversation, we also get personal, speaking from our particular experience as fathers and husbands, and we reflect on the ways in which we've struggled with our roles and cultural expectations. Addressing hard problems often starts with having hard conversations. I hope my dialogue with Richard will spark more conversations about how we can build a future in which all people can be healthy, happy, and fulfilled. Richard, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Richard Reeves

Thank you, Vivek. I'm really looking forward to this.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Richard, I must tell you that I have been following the conversation that your book has catalyzed for the last, gosh, I dunno, a couple of months now, and it has been just fantastic to see on so many levels. One, as I've told you just a little while ago, you've given voice to a topic that I think many of us have been thinking about and been worried about, but haven't quite understood the data behind it, haven't known how to put this, put words to what our concerns are, and certainly haven't known how to address it.

Richard Reeves

Mm (affirmative).

Dr. Vivek Murthy

And so I just wanna commend you on starting a really important conversation about how boys are doing, how men are doing in society, 'cause this is, this is really a vital topic for us to tackle now. And I'm eager to dig into it further with you.

Richard Reeves

Well, thank you for saying that. And I will say that the framing of the conversation is key. What I sought to do was to open up a conversation about boys and men that in no way takes us away from ongoing concern about women and girls. And one of the reasons that I sense people were struggling to talk about it wasn't because they couldn't see some of the problems, but how do you talk about that in a way that doesn't seem to betray other commitments, especially to gender equality, more broadly? And that's, I think that zero-sum thinking is a problem in so many aspects of public life. And this was a particular one where I felt that we weren't having a very good conversation about it. So it means a lot to me that you found it helpful.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Absolutely, and I like, you've said this in several of your interviews, which I find very clear and compelling, which is that we should be striving to make sure that boys and girls are both doing well, and that men and women are both doing well. And if either falls behind, then we have a problem and that impacts all of us. And just as I think that the wellbeing of men and boys directly impacts women who are spouses, mothers, sisters, colleagues, et cetera, I think the opposite is true as well.

Richard Reeves

Mm-hmm. And that's why I think this is an issue, the wellbeing of men and boys, that women should care about. And I think similarly, men should absolutely not only care about, but be involved in addressing some of the key issues and challenges that women and girls have historically faced. So I'm glad that you're helping shed light on this. This is an important part of the conversation. And as in the last couple of years as I've served in office, I've been focused a lot on mental health and wellbeing, Richard, and in particular on loneliness and social isolation. And I wanted to start there, in talking to you about how men and boys in America are doing in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, and particularly when it comes to issues of loneliness and isolation.

Richard Reeves

Sure. Well, in return, I want to commend you for your emphasis on social connection, isolation and mental health in your role. I actually believe now that stating these problems, acknowledging them, is in and of itself almost an intervention. I think we're both probably quite wonky at heart and sometimes we have this tendency to think, "Well, we'll figure out what the problem is and then we'll have some solutions." But in this particular space, I genuinely believe that naming the problem, acknowledging the problem, is part of, is substantially part of solving it 'cause it makes people feel seen and heard. And that's certainly been my experience just in naming what's happening with men. And so whilst your own work, you know this much better than I, that shows this growth in loneliness, and isolation, disconnection, there are particular ways in which that seems to be affecting men in particular and young men. So if you look at work run out of the survey for the Center on American Life at AEI, you'll find that 15% of young men now say that they don't have a close friend. And that's up from 3% in 1990. Now it's risen at a similar rate actually for women, but is lower at 10%. So it's not that there isn't a problem for both, but that it's playing out more acutely in some ways for men and for young men in particular. There is some evidence that after a relationship breakup that men find themselves somewhat more socially isolated than women. So this could get into who's doing the relationship maintenance and so on. So I think that's why one of the reasons why divorce seems to just hit men a bit harder, psychologically. And then of course, there's all the evidence around so-called, "Deaths of despair," the term coined by Case and Deaton, where men are at three times greater risk and four times greater risk of suicide. And I've been really troubled recently by the rise in the suicide rates among young men in particular, aged between 15 and 24, jumped by 8% just between 2020 and 2021. And so out of that, there's a whole series of things going on there. Some of those are identifying subjective feelings of connection. Some of them are about outcomes in terms of despair, and of course most tragically, suicide. But I think they all speak to the ways in which this crisis is playing out somewhat differently in some cases and somewhat more sharply for a lot of young men and boys and young men.

Richard Reeves

Yeah. And this is so disturbing and these discrepancies that you mentioned, particularly around deaths of despair, are really quite striking. I mean, in the United States, we are seeing declines in life expectancy, a phenomenon that we have not seen in decades and decades. And I do think these deaths of despair are key among the factors that are driving that. What is your sense of what is driving men toward this isolation, this loneliness, and to greater rates of suicide and medication overdose?

Richard Reeves

Well, some of the changes that we've seen in society that you documented in your own work around changes in employment are a big part of it. It's true that employment has been a more important anchor of male identity and male connection, historically. And obviously, we've seen huge changes in recent decades, but we are seeing more men who are detached from the labor market. So Nick Eberstadt and others have shown quite clearly that there's just this long run problem with male labor force participation. And so you're seeing particularly men with lower levels of education becoming unanchored in one way or another from various institutions. That includes work, but it may also include then family, community life, church life, religious community and so on. And so, I think upstream of this are some of the economic shocks we've seen. But I think more broadly, and I'd love to know what you think of this idea, the male friendship is somewhat more institutionally created than female friendship, maybe 'cause of different roles on reproduction, et cetera. But I think male friendship is made in activity. It's in work, it might be through college, but of course college now skews almost 60/40 female/male. So I have this somewhat controversial thesis that male friendship is a little bit more fragile, a bit more constructed, takes a little bit more doing in some ways than female friendship does, perhaps 'cause of the way we're socialized into creating friendships. And so, as we've seen fewer men in the labor force, fewer men in college, certainly fewer men in religious institutions. There are more women in every church denomination virtually than men. And so all of those spaces. I've heard you talk a lot about the role of institutions, but those institutions right now have fewer men in them than women. And so it may just be we're seeing some of the consequences of that deinstitutionalization of friendship, which is particularly affecting men. That sound right to you?

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah, it's a really interesting point. No, it, I think there's really something to that because I remember some years ago studying the Men's Sheds Movement, which you may be familiar with, yeah, which started in Australia. And in talking to the woman actually, who founded the Men's Sheds Movement, she told me that in those early days they had this saying that, and again, this doesn't necessarily apply to everyone, but they're saying was, "Women talk face-to-face and men talk shoulder-to-shoulder." And her point was what, it was your point, that men often build their friendships while they're doing something together, whether that's something recreational, whether that's working together, whether it's a service project that they're a part of in their community, but their conversation happens in the course of activity and often not entirely for its own sake. And I do think that has real implications because when there are fewer, it's not just when there are fewer opportunities, I think for activity in the community or at work, but also when recreation has changed so much as it has, when you can just stay home and watch movies yourself and not have to necessarily go out and be with other people. That just, all of these have accumulative effect on reducing the opportunities for physically being together, doing things together. And I do think that it has a profound impact on how men dialogue.

Richard Reeves

Right. I think since you're bringing it up, there's also an interesting piece around culture that I'm curious to ask you about, which is… You've written about how, from just from a cultural perspective, we have different expectations of men and women, of dads and mothers, of how we assess value, frankly, to a man. And you've brought up the important idea that some of these ideas that a man's worth is about whether or not he's the breadwinner in the family. And that perhaps, is an antiquated notion that we need to liberate ourselves from, which I think is really interesting to consider. But I wonder how much culture plays into this as well, into how men form friendships and frankly, into the mindset then and suggestions that are given to young boys as they grow up about what's appropriate, in terms of expressing their feelings towards others to actually taking initiative to building friendships with other boys. But I'm curious what you think the impact of culture is on the nature of friendship formation among men and boys.

Richard Reeves

Yes, it's an interesting thought that to some extent, if male friendship is somewhat more activity-based, this shoulder-to-shoulder point, which I largely agree with, with all the usual caveats about averages and overlapping distributions. But I'm gonna assume anyone listening to this podcast understands what an overlapping distribution looks like and understands that we're talking averages here. If that's true, then to some extent, the clarity of the male role, and especially the breadwinner role and the role in the labor market, sort of did the work for men to some extent, those relationships perform semi automatically through, in particular, the workplace or the training towards that workplace. And then maybe there would be other social relationships through family, et cetera. I'm thinking about my own childhood. And it's quite clear that my mom would do more of this sort of social networking in our community, but my father had his friends not trivially through work. And if that's no longer or so semi-automatically true, it does mean that men will have to work a bit harder

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). than we've previously had to, and maybe from a lower skill base. I think we have generally have a slightly lower skill base than we're used to. And we could be in a cultural lag moment, where we haven't, if you like, 'upskilled,' relationally to compensate for the loss

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). of some of that semi-automatic creation of relationships that used to come just through the role as a father and as a breadwinner. But I'll also say that our sense of identity is still quite asymmetric. And so what women have done is to add new 'palettes,' if you like, to their identity. No… New 'colors,' rather, to their identity palette. So being a worker is now the norm for women in a way that it wasn't before, but still strong identity from being a mom, from being part of the community, et cetera. So a bit more of a 'mixed portfolio,' if you like, whereas it's still true that men put more of their identity eggs in the basket of work. I'm mixing my metaphors in a way that's unforgivable, right now. (both laughing)

Dr. Vivek Murthy

It's totally fine.

Richard Reeves

We've got eggs and pallets, so someone will clean this up no doubt. But it's this idea of… I don't think we as men have broadened yet our sense of ourselves to fit with this new world, where we shouldn't and don't get this automatic identity almost scripted for us through the breadwinner role.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah. And what do you think it'll take to change that?

Richard Reeves

Time. I'm a big believer that, you know it's, cultural change doesn't typically happen that quickly, especially when it's around something as profound as this. And this has been a very rapid change in the economic role of men. So just a couple of data points… In 1979, 13% of women earned more than the typical man. So the guy at the median, 13%. Now it's 40%.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

We've seen a quadrupling in the same period in the share of breadwinners who are women. It's now 40% of breadwinners are women so…

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

These are profound and positive changes in the economic power and position of women, but it also has these downstream consequences. What does that mean for men then? And I particularly think that what's been lost, is endangered of being lost, is the sense of fatherhood. I know this is something you're very interested in too,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yes. that fatherhood used to have something more of a, it was more like an indirect relationship. You know how in an org chart, you get like dotted line relationships? Yeah. Right? (Vivek laughing) I think father-to-child is a bit more like that. So you had a direct line from mother to child, direct line from father and mother to each other, and then more of a dotted line relationship from dads to kids. In other words, it was mediated through the mum to some extent, right?

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

But in a world where 40% of children are born outside marriage, in a world where there's much more economic equality, in terms of breadwinning role, we've got to reconfigure fatherhood. And I don't think we've done a good enough job, candidly, as culturally or as policy makers of really pushing hard on the ideal of responsible and engaged fatherhood. So to be unfair to both sides for a moment, the right tend to say, "Sure you can be a good dad if you're married." But sometimes those on the left are almost reluctant to admit that dads matter, independently from mothers 'cause they feel that I'll be heteronormative or somehow to be in some way disrespectful of same-sex couples, or of single mothers or whatever. I understand those concerns, but the danger is that we are missing an opportunity to send a message to fathers of all kinds, "You matter." And even if you're not in a job, even if you're not making any money, even if you're struggling, even if you've got your own mental health problems, your kids need you, period.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Gosh. So many important points you raised there. I think one of them, I think you're right that culture change absolutely takes time. And I'm thinking about, even in my own life about, how I've thought about myself as a father. And I will say that, early in my career when I actually, around the time that I first became a dad, I was actually, it's interesting, I was serving as surgeon general when I had my first child. And my wife and I were very excited, we're having our son, we wanted to build this new family and this new life. But I was also in a circumstance where, to our best recollection when we did our research, there hadn't been a surgeon general in modern history who had a child while in office. This questions of, what do you do around parental leave, we're coming up, et cetera. And there was a part of me, if I'm honest, that felt like taking parental leave, even though I knew, intellectually, it was the right thing to do. There was a part of me, the part that had been acculturated to think that my primary role, or most important responsibility was work. A part of me felt some guilt around that, and maybe even some shame, at taking time off from work to be with family. And I was able to see, that's not how I wanna operate and not who I want to be, and it's a change I needed to make. So I did take parental leave at that time. I think I took around three weeks,

Richard Reeves

Hmm. of parental leave.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

And it was incredibly valuable for me. I hope it was helpful to my wife and that I wasn't just in the way. And I hope it was ultimately hopeful to my baby boy as well. And I wouldn't trade that for anything. But it was clear to me that there was some internal conflict there that I was working through,

Richard Reeves

Yeah. that was a result of some of the end the cultural norms that I had inherited, you know?

Richard Reeves

Yeah.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

And absorbed from society more broadly. And I would love for us to get to a place where parents, whether they're moms or dads, don't have to think that somehow taking parental leave means that they are less of a mom or less of a dad, or less of a man or less of a woman. But I also think that if we truly believe that being a parent is one of the most important roles that you can play in life, in terms of shaping a child and shaping society for the future, then we should be lifting up the role of mothers and fathers supporting those roles, encouraging people to take the time they need and to invest in those roles, even if that means sometimes that that comes at the expense of how many hours they may put in at the office.

Richard Reeves

Yeah, and to recognize that there will be a trade off, but that we can

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah. between work and family, but that we can (A), make that trade off less through reforming our labor market institutions. It's sort of extraordinary how unreformed our labor market institutions are, given that it's the norm now for both parents to work. I find that quite amazing in some ways that we're just still too slow. And one of the things I think is that we've always been promised… I'm in my fifties now and my three sons are in their twenties. And so I took time out to be the stay-at-home parent for a while, and flexed work and so on too. So I've lived through some of these similar experiences. It probably helped that I served in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK, where within weeks of becoming prime minister, David Cameron took paternity leave.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Ah.

Richard Reeves

And very similar to your situation, that's incredibly important kind of cultural moment. But we're always promised family-friendly work. What I fear we try and end up creating is work-friendly families. In other words,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Ah. what we do is we say, "Look, we need full-time childcare. We need breakfast clubs. We need…" Isn't it inconvenient that the school day doesn't fit the working day? But rather than saying,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). "Well, let's change the working day," all too often our instinct is to extend the school day rather than the other way around. But I'll say one thing about parenting is, I dunno, your kids are still relatively young then, if I've done my math correctly.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

They are, they're five and six.

Richard Reeves

Right, yes. So it's also a long haul, raising kids.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

And I'm slightly worried, the taking of paternity leave or parental leave very early on, important though it is, in no way a substitute for the long game. Right? Right? (chuckling)

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah.

Richard Reeves

It takes

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Absolutely. decades to raise children. You know, people say, "It'll be over before you know it." That's not true.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

Public health warning: It's not true. (both laughing) It takes a long time. And it's wonderful and joyous, and if my sons are listening, I loved almost every minute of it. And so what I fear is that we missed the fact that adolescence, for example, is a hugely important time for kids.

Dr. Vivek Murthy
  • Mm (affirmative).
Richard Reeves

And it looks like that's a period where dads might actually bring something a little bit different to the party,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Hmm.

Richard Reeves

There's some evidence, I don't wanna overstate it, but some evidence that actually the adolescent period actually having more engagement from dad is good for both boys and girls. And so,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). my brother for example, he took his, he's in the UK, but he took his parental leave when his boys turned 14, his twin boys, 'cause he felt that was

Dr. Vivek Murthy

How interesting.

Richard Reeves

No, it took some time before that, which actually, "This is when I'm gonna make the most impact as a dad," right, when they're going into high school. They're figuring all that out. There's raging hormones, et cetera. And I think he was right. And there's a bit of a danger of early years determinism in some of the policy debates here. And so one of the things I think we should do is to be very flexible about when you can take leave and allow parents to be taking it

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). throughout the decades that it takes to raise, and not least for dads. So it's great that you took your time, but as you know, it's not over yet and it won't be over for you for a very long time. In fact, it's never over. And so you may well wanna take a step back eight years from now and that could be great, and public policy should support that choice.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

It's such a critical point you just brought up 'cause you're right, it is a long haul. And there are times where we're gonna need more time with our kids, like you said, during adolescence,

Richard Reeves

Yes. or if they're in a crisis, or if they have a health issue and… I've often wondered, "What is at the center of our lives?" If I were to stop a hundred people on the street, Richard, and ask them, "What are the top three priorities in your life?" I guarantee you a relative, a child, a best friend would be in that priority list, yet when we somehow look at the lives that we all lived, I find that they aren't always people-centered lives. They're often work-centered lives, right? And then we fit people in where it's convenient, but especially when it comes to our kids. I think to be able to flex our, the rest of our life, including work around our families, strikes me as being incredibly important if we truly want our kids to be well, if we want the next generation to be strong. And I think it's just too hard for too many families right now to do that. They're fighting against the tide.

Richard Reeves

Yeah.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

'Cause as you mentioned, society has not caught up, I think, to matching, what it currently has with what we need, which is a truly people and family-centered life.

Richard Reeves

Yeah. I was super impressed that the U.S. military has introduced three months of paid leave for both mothers and fathers, technically birthing and non birthing parents in a way.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah.

Richard Reeves

So I said, what about civilians? Now, I know they need Congress for that, but it seems to me, if people serving our country in the military, and it's equal, it's equal leave,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah. I think that's an incredibly powerful signal. But also as your own work shows, it is these other social networks. There's family and work, but there's also all those interstitial institutions, the social infrastructure is so important and that your own work, and your own recent note points out. And I worry a lot about the decline of afterschool activities for this reason, right?

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

So let's take school as analogous to work and friendship for teenagers and so on as analogous to families or more broadly. One of the things that I think is great about extracurricular, and here I will talk particularly about boys, is the opportunity like, and maybe you're struggling in the classroom, of course, boys are a bit more likely to be struggling in the classroom. But having that figure of the coach, having the opportunity to go and be shoulder-to-shoulder, engaged in some kind of activity, it's terribly important. And so the rise of pay-to-play extracurricular, the decline in the share of coaches, the decline in those activities, is a different kind of work-life balance problem, right? Let's call it a, "School-friend problem."

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah. And of course you can make friends in the classroom, but those extracurricular activities are becoming more associated with class, more associated with affluence, right? So you have very, very busy, the kids of rich parents are very busy after school. That's much less true of lower income kids, and it's less true of boys than of girls. That's like, if we're serious about loneliness, we're serious about friendship, we're serious about developing relational skills, we shouldn't treat extracurricular as an afterthought. In some ways, after school activities are the opposite of an afterthought. They're central to the development of these skills and relationships, right?

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Oh, I couldn't agree more. And in fact, I would say, those kind of recreational afterschool activities shouldn't be extracurricular. They should be curricular.

Richard Reeves

Right.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

They should be part of how we think about the foundation for learning. Because we put so much emphasis, I think, on reading and writing and making sure our kids can do math and learn history. But we know that one of the most powerful determinants of whether a child succeeds or not, not just in school but in life, in the workplace, in the future, are the relationships they build, the secure attachments they develop. And if, and I think also, like, I think it's become very clear that kids don't just automatically have the skills to understand their emotions, to understand the emotions of others, to manage emotions and to build healthy relationships, especially in a very complex world that they live in and are growing up in, where social media has fundamentally changed how kids experience their relationships in the world. So yeah, I think that kind of social-emotional learning should be a key part of education and the kind of extracurricular activities. What's traditionally been extracurricular that you're talking about, especially unstructured playtime,

Richard Reeves

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think is really vital.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I think that's where so many young people over the generations have learned how to negotiate difficult situations and build relationships, and manage conflict and stress on the playground, or building things or working on projects with other kids. And I worry, Richard, that when I talk to young people today, especially in elementary school and middle school, especially in during adolescence and middle school and high school, they say that even when they're in school, a lot of times they're not talking to one another with their full attention. They're distracted by their phones. People are using their devices throughout the school day. And that takes away from the richness of human interaction. And often, I think dilutes the power of the relationships that we can build.

Richard Reeves

Yeah, those relational skills are taught much more in the doing, aren't they, than in the… So I think about my own kids and how they would describe their classes on, they'd have classes on learning how to be respectful. And they would,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). they would roll their eyes. And it wasn't that the teachers weren't trying to do their thing, but the way you learn how to be respectful and communicate well is not with a class, especially with 12-year-old boys, a class on how to be respectful and communicate. What you do is you do it. Kids believe their eyes rather than their ears.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah.

Richard Reeves

And so that is why

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). through these activities, it's usually important to learn them. And it's one of the reasons I've become, if anything, even more obsessed with the decline in the share of teachers who are male

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). than when I wrote my book. Because since I wrote the book I've, first of all, the declines continued. But I've discovered that men in schools, in K-12 schools, also do quite a lot of coaching. They're much wanting to do coaching. Now there's all kinds of reasons that could be true, of course. It may be that they don't have the same family responsibilities that female teachers do. So there may well be gender inegalitarian reasons behind it. But one of the consequences is that as we see fewer and fewer men in our classrooms, it's down to 23% of K-12 teachers now who are male, down from 33% and dropping, is we have fewer coaches, especially of male sports, of boys sports. Now you might not think that sounds like a big deal, but I think it is quite a big deal, especially in the schools where the kids are lowest income. You only have to think about, the idea of Friday night lights or the cultural role of coach, right? And so, I'm an immigrant, but the role of coach is almost iconic in American society. And that's for a really good reason, right? That the figure of the coach, especially if the boys who maybe don't have a strong father figure in their lives or are struggling to make their way in the world, the coach is such an important figure. And so I actually think we need something like a 'Coach For America' campaign, or something.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). to increase the share of who… We've also got a lot of young men trying to figure out what to do. So maybe there's some way in which we could construct a policy here, which sort of brings those two problems together in a way. But one thing I'm sure about is that we're currently under coaching our kids, and especially our young boys and young men.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That's a fascinating idea, a Coach for America campaign.

Richard Reeves

Mm (affirmative).

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I really like that and I especially like your point that it could give young men an opportunity to step up and be mentors and guides for,

Richard Reeves

Right. for younger boys, which I think could be very powerful. So Richard, you've talked about your sons a few times, and I actually, I wanna understand a little bit about how you got into this subject. I know that your own family is a key part of this, but tell us a little bit about your personal journey to exploring the state of boys and men.

Richard Reeves

Yeah, I have this theory that all of our work is at least partly autobiographical. It's just a question of whether we acknowledge that or not, that it comes from somewhere. (both laughing) And in this case, there's no doubt that talking to my sons about the challenges in school and growing up in this world today and what it, discussions about masculinity, on the online world that they were in, gaming, et cetera, it was just a constant theme. And then in my day job at Brookings where I was working mostly on class and economic inequality and racial inequality, I kept stumbling over these data points, where it's like, "Oh, the boys are doing quite badly. Oh, that's interesting."

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

And then I'd bring those back home and we'd discuss them. And so it became my journey as a father trying to raise boys to be, not only to be good feminists, because I think if we define that term correctly, we should all be aiming to do that, but also to be good men. And I wasn't entirely sure how to do that. I wasn't sure exactly what the script was. We've already talked a bit about our own, we're all having to adjust and adapt. And the result of that, what I realized was that I didn't, I thought too many of the conversations people were having around their dinner table were not being had in the open, weren't being had in public. And so that led me to say, "I think we should be having more of a public conversation about what's happening to boys and men and not just be talking about it at the school gate or around the dinner table." And they've, in different ways, had all kinds of struggles. Now I wanna be clear that they're white, upper middle class boys, so they're not the ones we should be most concerned about from an equity point of view. But nonetheless, they gave me a lens through which to look at the world, which was very different. So to give you one example, I really struggled to persuade them that there used to be a time when men were ahead of women in education and when,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Really?! because the only world they've known is one where the girls

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah. are just handing it to the boys in the classroom. They just presume that education is absolutely a female, an area of female dominance. And it's like, "No, it didn't used to be like that." And they're like, "Really?" So I'm getting to give 'em a history lesson. And it's like, yeah. (laughing)

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That is fascinating.

Richard Reeves

Like five minutes ago, where women overtook, roughly speaking. And then you have to go back to your grandparents' generation. And it was very unusual for women to go to college. And they're like, "Oh, really? Okay. That makes sense."

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That is so interesting. You mentioned that part of what you had to figure out was how to talk to your sons about masculinity. And can I ask you, and to whatever extent you feel comfortable sharing, how did you talk to your sons about masculinity and like how'd you define that? How did you paint a picture for them of what masculinity meant?

Richard Reeves

I hope in the end it was more, it was more painting a picture than telling a story, back to my earlier claim that kids especially believe their eyes, not their ears. But to be completely honest, I think my failure to really engage with that question properly is one of the things that led me to (A), try and get better at it and (B), to start exploring it with a more of a policy wonk hat on at the Brookings Institution. So in some ways I'm sort of hiding behind the charts and the data and the studies, right? That's what you put out there, that's the public persona, is the wonk. But behind it is, you know, to some extent, a failed father and a failed husband. And I mean, failed in the sense of just, I think it took me a long time to try and square the circle of a commitment to gender equality, to being absolutely on side with my wife's career, with the move to towards a more gender equal future and also still being a guy. And for too long, I felt that there was this almost inescapable trade off between those two things. And I thought that to be a better feminist, I had to be less of a guy, and I had,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). my masculinity was almost the problem. So rather than it being something I was trying to pass onto my sons, it was almost something for a while I was trying to expunge.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Hmm.

Richard Reeves

And…

Richard Reeves

That led me down to some very interesting paths in my own journey, but I didn't realize it was, going to war with yourself is not great, psychologically. And what ended up in this place is actually, you don't have to stop being you in all of the wonderful variety of human experience. And so, I've tried to show and teach my boys that it's just, it's okay to be different. And in some cases, being different in the classroom or being different out on the sports field, or even just in the way we joke with each other, it's a bit more stereotypically masculine.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

That's okay.

Richard Reeves

It's okay, as long as it doesn't come into conflict with a commitment to supporting each other. And so in the end, I think the fact that they just saw me staying at home, the fact that I was the one picking 'em up from school and taking them to school and organizing their play dates for quite a few years, spoke more volumes than anything else. It's just doing it rather than saying it that probably amounted to it, but I'll be honest. I'm sharing more with you than I planned to. But I think for too many men, we have felt like to be on side with the forces of progress, we somehow have to miniaturize our own sense of ourselves as men and to a degree that makes us different to women. And I personally struggled with that, but I wonder if there isn't a little bit of that going on more generally in our culture.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Oh wow. I mean that was very incredibly powerful, Richard, what you just shared, and thank you for that honesty. I think you're absolutely right that there are many people out there who are struggling with the right balance here and trying to figure out how to be who they want to be without detracting from the wellbeing and the opportunities that their partner has. And I've struggled with this as well too. I have a close friend, close circle I should say, of guy friends. And we talk often about, what does it mean to be truly equitable in a relationship, to actually make sure that our spouses have the right opportunities, the opportunities they want, that they have the time to pursue other interests, to be with their friends at the, that all of the responsibility for childcare is not falling on them. We talk a lot about this concept of equity, but it is challenging. It's not as simple as saying everything is 50/50, you know, or, and sometimes it comes into conflict with our own sense of what it means to be a man. And then we have to pick that apart and dissect that and try to understand… How much of that is who we really are? How much of that is constructs or social norms that we've taken on from our parents and from prior generations? I think one of the, and this is hard work, I think, to figure this out.

Richard Reeves

Mm (affirmative).

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I think one of the things that makes it particularly hard though, Richard, is it feels to me at least, that we don't talk openly about this enough, that we aren't able to grapple with it in conversation, even with friends much less publicly, because there are so many landmines around here that people are worried about stepping on that it creates a silence that I think is actually not helpful. And I'm wondering if you have sensed something similar. And if you have, how do you think we should address that silence and create more healthy dialogue, not just among men, but between men and women on this topic?

Richard Reeves

Well, I think your diagnosis is right, Vivek, that there is something of a fear of discussion around this. And it's one of the ways in which I think, those 'male-only' spaces might be useful in a very new way to the old way. And so we shouldn't necessarily be skeptical of them. And… People of good faith are able to hold the thought that we can be somewhat different on average, as men and women, without that in any way determining who we're going to be, and without in any way dishonoring the exceptions to that rule. And to acknowledge that without overweighting it. Right now, it feels almost as if, weirdly, the silence around these dis- these issues of masculinity say, doesn't actually create more progress. In some ways it creates the conditions for a backlash. So if you look at

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah, yeah, yeah. the survey evidence now is that sort of 50% of American men think that men are being punished just for acting like men. That there is a sense

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). that actually the claim that kind of mainstream society that is somehow against men has become anti-men or whatever, starts to just ring a bit too plausibly in the ears, particularly vulnerable, lonely, isolated young men. This is coming full circle here. If you're an isolated young man and you're not acting out the relationships with other men in real life, you're much more susceptible to the online ministrations of folks who are just queuing up to tell you that, "Yes, you are struggling," which is true. "And the reason for that is because feminists and the cultural left hate you, and they wanna leave you behind," which is not true. But our failure to discuss these problems openly creates that vacuum. And it is an axiom I think of cultural life that if there are real problems that are not being addressed by responsible people, irresponsible people will always exploit them. Richard, I wanna talk for a moment about technology. We've touched on the fact that kids growing up today do have fundamentally different experiences in part because of the prevalence and the nature of social media and technology more broadly. And you've written about this, about how technology is affecting kids. Can you say a little bit about how it is affecting boys as they grow up, and men in young adulthood?

Richard Reeves

Yeah. Well, you don't need me to tell you that there is a youth mental health crisis. You've made that one of your signature themes in your tenure. And that it is undoubtedly related in various, complex ways to this technological shock that we've seen. What I'm interested in is the way that it plays out somewhat differently, again on average, between the genders. And that's partly because actually, boys and girls, young men and young women, are engaging with technology in different ways and on different platforms, right? And so I've seen it with my own sons. Obviously, video gaming and discord is a much bigger deal, and we can't not mention online pornography, all of which are just much more male skewed. Whereas, the more social, social media like TikTok, Instagram, et cetera, is somewhat skewed female. And so actually I've come to believe, and here is Jonathan Hake, Carol Dweck, Jean Twenge and others, more Jean probably, I think bears some of this out that it's not just that the technology shock is different in degree, in terms of girls and boys, but maybe in kind. And what I mean by that is that, it looks to me that you see this huge issue for teen girls in particular, and it's in the recent CDC report and everywhere that, you see this rise in concerns about body image, concerns about mental health, et cetera. And part of that I think is because of the way that girls are using technology, which play into issues around body image, right, the visuals, very visual forms of technology, but also relationally. Actually, now I'll just quote other people are saying that, "It's not that boys and girls bully each other any less. It's that girls tend to do it more relationally, again on average, less physically." Now you could argue that some of these more relational forms of social media can be weaponized. And they can make you feel really bad, right? "Who likes me? Am I in or am I out? Best friends, not friends, cliques, et cetera." At the risk of offending people, they're almost like the mean girls phenomenon online, right, amplified on, that's massively amplified. Whereas for boys, I think it's more of a problem of displacement and retreat. I think it's less that what the boys are doing online is as problematic in itself. I think it's more, and you referred to this earlier, Vivek, around recreation, what they're not doing instead.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah.

Richard Reeves

That it's replacing in real life relationships,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). in real life activities rather than in and of itself being as harmful. So weirdly, I think this whole debate about screen time, how many hours should your kids be on a screen is this big debate. I think it might vary a little bit by the sex of the child. (laughing) And so for boys, actually it might, we might worry a bit less about what they're doing, and that's a blanket statement, but, and more just like, "Why aren't you doing something else?" Because it's too easy to retreat. It's given boys a place to go. Whereas with girls, I think it's a bit more actively harmful. So I don't know, and I can't, very hard to sustain that,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). statistically, but my sense is that we should be very attentive to the ways in which the technology shop might be playing out differently. And I think that for boys, it's more likely to be driving this isolation, this loneliness, this disconnection, and this retreat from the in-real-life interactions. Whereas, I think for girls, it may well be, actually, providing this much more real time sense of damage-to-self through relationships and through self-image. I certainly think we should be…

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

We certainly shouldn't assume that it's the same for both. I think we've got reason to believe that it's quite different for both, which might mean that our approaches need to be somewhat more gendered.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah, no, I think that's a very astute point. And it also highlights why it's so important for us to actually study this more and get the data from technology companies and platforms that our kids are using so that we understand how this is actually, ultimately impacting them. And I know that something we pointed out recently in a product we put out on social media is that researchers across the board say they're having a hard time getting the data that they need from technology companies about the impact on the mental health of young people. And that to me is a fundamental problem. Like I, as a parent, I certainly don't wanna feel like information is being hidden from me about the impact of the products my kids are using on their health and their wellbeing. I wanna actually ask you also about, just about willingness to talk about emotions. This is an area where, Niobe Way, who I think you're probably familiar with and some of her wonderful research at NYU, has suggested that girls and boys actually, may have actually a lot of similarity in how they talk about emotions very early in childhood, but then a divergence takes place around early adolescence, where young boys stop feeling so comfortable talking about their emotions or expressing love or affection toward their friends, especially if those friends are other boys. And I was curious if you have any thoughts on, (1), on this challenge with actually speaking to emotions and expressing affection and friendships that perhaps many boys and men experience, and if you have a sense of where that might be coming from.

Richard Reeves

Yeah, as with all these questions, it's very hard to tease out impossible, tease out the effects of socialization, from what might be some genuine differences in the development of boys and girls and… But in some senses it doesn't matter where it comes from if we know that having an ability to relate emotionally and share our emotions is important, right? What it might mean is that we have to work a little bit harder with our boys, and that policymakers might have to work a little bit harder to reach men who are struggling. It's very striking to me that there's a 10 percentage point gap in the share of men and women getting mental health treatment. Now maybe there's a 10 percentage point gap in the share of men and women that need mental health treatment, but I don't see it in the other data, right? And so to some extent, I do think that finding ways that are more male-friendly to get boys and men to be able to express how they're feeling through activities, through language that's more comfortable to them in spaces, maybe even including a few male-only spaces, where it's kind of easier to do that. I do feel like it's sometimes harder, especially for adolescent boys, to open up in that way when there are girls around. And why that's true

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). could be the source of research until the end of days. But if it's true, let's just acknowledge that and try to create some spaces where they are able to do it. And then the other thing is, there's this great campaign back in the UK and it was a mental health campaign, and it was something like, "Always ask twice." And the idea

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). behind the campaign was if you ask a guy, "How are you?" He'll say, "Fine. Okay, how are you? Did you watch the football?" Whatever, I'm stereotyping horribly here, but… So always ask again. Always ask, "Now how are you really? What's really going on?" Ask twice. Whereas, you get the sense with women, they don't maybe need the second prompt as often, that actually if you ask 'em how they're doing, they're more likely to say, "Well actually, I'm really struggling with my daughter," or whatever, right? But the guys do need

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). that kind of additional nudge maybe, or additional permission to just work a little bit harder. And we could just roll our eyes at this point and say, "Well, that's men for you, so poor them," et cetera. I think that would lack compassion. I think we have to, at least for the moment, we have to treat boys and men where they are. And so our services and our approach should just be somewhat more compassionate towards them. And I will say, and I dunno if you've had this experience, but this speaks to the idea of just naming things, being powerful.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

And I've been writing about loneliness, and you talk beautifully about your own experience, and I've been writing about friendship. People come up to you. I had a young man, who was actually a colleague of mine at Brookings, come up to me after I'd written and done some videos around this idea of friendship and so on, in tears putting his arms around me, thanking me and just saying, "I'm so lonely. And it's so great to hear that I'm not the only one that's lonely and that you see me." And I've just put my arms around this guy and I wanna adopt him at this point, of course, but it's just… And all I'd done is what you are doing so well, which is just to say, this is real. This is a real problem, and by the way, it's a real problem for a lot of young men. And I honestly think a lot of the figures, maybe on the more conservative side of this, especially online, one of the reasons they're able to attract young men is simply saying, "I see you. I get it. You are struggling, and your suffering and your struggling are every bit as important to me as anybody else's. You are as precious to me as anybody else." And that's an incredibly powerful thing to do. But we shouldn't be allowing figures in the manosphere, or online or to be the only one saying to struggling young men or lonely young men, "We got you, we see you, we're here for you." That turns out to be incredibly powerful just to say that. There's this line from a poet who I love, David White. Dunno if you know, he's a British poet. and it's that line in his…

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah.

Richard Reeves

He has a beautiful poem on friendship and he describes friendship in part as, "The privilege of being seen."

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yes. (whispers)

Richard Reeves

Being seen.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That's actually one of my favorite, favorite lines and pieces of wisdom from David White. And I think that's absolutely true, and it, it reminds me of what struck me so much back in 2015, when I was beginning my first tenure as Surgeon General. And traveling around the country and talking to people about what was on their mind and what was bothering them. And so many people, young people in particular, conveyed this sense of feeling invisible, of feeling like if they disappeared tomorrow, nobody would even notice or care. And that is a incredibly destructive feeling. And I think I've always felt that we all have three basic needs as human beings. Regardless of what culture we come from, we all wanna be seen and understood for who we are. We all want to know that we matter, and we all want to be loved. And those three things are deeply interconnected. And sometimes just being able to, as you said, acknowledge what someone is going through, being able to sit and listen to them, which is one of the most powerful ways of acknowledging that they matter, that they have significance, that can go a long way toward helping people feel seen. But there… It is very painful to see that so many people don't feel that way. I'll share with you one story that I encountered recently. There's a doctor's group online that that I, you know, I'm part of. And people post sometimes questions they have about medical diagnoses, about treatment decisions. And it's a wonderful community where people are helping each other think through medical questions and often dilemmas. But from time to time, people also will share other questions of a more personal nature to get people's advice or help on. And there's this one doctor, a young man who wrote, he said, "My wife and I had a child recently and it seems to, and it's been a very intense experience." He's like, "I'm trying to do everything I can to make sure I'm there, that I'm not an absent dad, that I'm taking the time that I need from work to be there for my kid and for my wife." He said, "But one thing I've noticed is that this has been really hard for both of us, but every time my wife mentions that she had a baby recently, it seems like other women step up and offer to help or ask her if she needs anything. They offer their support." Whereas, he was reflecting that in his own experience, he has received very little, if any, even acknowledgement from the men that he works with that he had a child, or asking about how's it going or supporting him in this new experience of fatherhood that he's going through. And he was just reflecting on this, that discrepancy. And he was grateful that his wife found support, but he was wondering, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with the people around me? Is there something about men and guys that prevents us or precludes us from offering and extending the kind of support that we may be too ashamed to ask for, but the truth is, we all really need?" And I was curious if you had any reactions to that story.

Richard Reeves

Mm (affirmative). I suspect you may have heard similar ones in your own time.

Richard Reeves

Yes. Yes.

Richard Reeves

And had related experiences when I was, when I was the primary carer for my own children. There's a social infrastructure for mothers in particular, that usually can start with the classes before and then afterwards. And so to some extent, I think that's one thing that women have going for them, is the creation of some of those relationships around that moment of reproduction. And now that men are less detached from… You know, the old days you might, what do you do? You turn up, have a cigar and a whiskey, if you're from a particular kind of culture. And then off you go back to work the next day. Given that fathers are now thankfully much more involved and that becoming a father is so important. And by the way, the survey evidence shows that men aren't far behind women in saying how that it's the most important part of their identity to be a dad.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative).

Richard Reeves

It means that we need to do better at creating solidarity for those men, but I wonder if it doesn't have to be partly male solidarity as well. You've talked about the female solidarity that your colleague's wife got. And it needs to be father-to-father solidarity, I believe, because it is somewhat different, especially in those early days, clearly different experiences, right? And so, I think just having other dads who've been through it, showing similar levels of solidarity to the way that mums do to other mums. And it brings me to a broader point, which is, I think, part of the problem, this whole debate about boys and men, is that sometimes the women, who are very often working in institutions that might be most involved, they might be brave enough to say, "Are you kidding me? We've spent decades helping, trying to get women and girls. I've still got my hands for helping women and girls. Seriously. It's not women's job to solve men's problems." Now, of course, it's everybody's job to solve everybody's problems. And as you said earlier, we do have to rise together. But I think a reasonable critique to people like us is it's up to us as men, to both figure out what it means to be a man in this modern world and try to live that out and pass that on, but also to be there for each other. There's still a bit of a tendency for us to outsource some of that emotional labor to women and still see it to some extent as women's work, right? You even see,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). and this will be a bit of a critique of the administration, is that the place where you find men's health issues being addressed is at the Office of Women's Health. And sometimes it will say, "As mothers and wives, of course we're worried about the health of our husbands and sons and so read this piece here," right? (chuckling) So it's still even,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). even in government circles, men's health is sometimes seen as a subset of women's health, which kind of what implication says it's women's work. It's not. It's men's work. And it's up to all of us to step into that role and learn from what women have done. But like I know that you are obviously there for your friend and for your guy, and you've needed people to be there for you and me the same. And so I think we've got to just live that out, in terms of male-male friendship and showing our male friends and relatives that we love them.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That is so true, (clicking tongue) and that's very eloquently said. I don't think, I think we should all, we all need to be there to support each other, but men do need to step up to help other men and to figure out how we create a world where men can be good fathers, where they can be good members and responsible members of society, where they can contribute to the overall wellbeing of their communities. And look, I think here too, I think that, and a lot of the debate around, should men have their own circles or whatever it might be. If you look at their research around this, it's interesting. I think about the some these two pro, this program in Chicago, which I really love, called the, "Becoming a Man program,"

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Vivek Murthy

And the, "Working on Womanhood program," which were started together, or started close to each other, but by effectively the same organization with the understanding that when you get young people together to entrusted circles, to be able to talk about what they're going through, to support one another, to build trust with each other, that's when healing begins. That's when people can reach past their areas of discomfort and talk about what's blocking them from being the kind of son or daughter or partner that they truly wanna be. And the fact that it's just boys talking, or in the case of Working on Womanhood, just girls talking, I think is a key part of the success of that program, which has now been run for a number of years. So there's a place for mixed gatherings. And there are also places I think, where sometimes it's helpful,

Richard Reeves

Right. to be able to talk to someone who's going through a similar experience or challenge. And so I do think it's important for us to be, to be open to that.

Richard Reeves

Yeah.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Richard, as art… Oh, go ahead. What were you gonna say?

Richard Reeves

It's just, I think we shouldn't be suspicious of those spaces just off the bat, which I think sometimes

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah. we are, like male-only spaces. But the other thing I was going to say, and this is maybe a broader point as well. We've talked a lot about family and close friends in this conversation, but the importance of just the daily interactions with people in the, what are called,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). "The weak ties," by sociologists, which they just, all the evidence, you know this, I'm sure, that is that actually those weak, the people you interact with, like at just like the person in your coffee shop, or your bar or the bus or the, that fabric, it's hugely important to our sense of belonging and being seen. So you're not only seen by the people close to you. You're also seen by the people in everyday life. There's this a lovely book by a philosopher called, "Gerry Cohen." The book is called, "If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?," which is a funny,

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). funny title for a very good book. But in there, he talks about social justice as being found, not just in the structures of society, but in the thick of everyday life.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yes.

Richard Reeves

And that phrase, "The thick of everyday life," has come to be very important to me, because I do think it's very easy for us to think about big structures or policies, or even just our own families and so on, but how you treat the person in front of you on the sidewalk, in the car next to you on the street, in the person sitting next to you on the bus, the person just, the person who greets you in the workplace, the person that serves you your food, the person who you serve the food, just all of those thousands of interactions. And looking someone in the eye, being respect, just, it seems so trivial, but cumulatively, I genuinely think that's what makes society, the fabric, social fabric doesn't make itself, we weave it through that. So, and these groups you're talking about, I think they do some of that work as well. It doesn't have to be this kind of earth shatteringly close relationship. It could just be that person on the street, but you can impact the life of the person on the street right now.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). You're right. That's absolutely essential. I'm so glad you mentioned that. Those small acts have big effects and they're really, really powerful. Richard, if I can ask you one last question, I might ask you a couple of quick, rapid-round ones.

Richard Reeves

Mm (affirmative).

Dr. Vivek Murthy

But I'm thinking about this a lot, as we raise our son and our daughter. I want them to be strong. I know that. What I've been thinking about is, how do we define strength? And since we're talking about boys and men today, how did you raise your boys to think about what strength is? 'Cause stereotypically, I worry that we've too often told boys, and told everyone, that strength is about being the loudest voice in the room. It's about being able to generate the most force and having the biggest muscles. It's about the person who can be the most confident, regardless of whether it's merited or not. How did you help your boys understand what strength was?

Richard Reeves

Well, I think the key point is the distinction between strength and dominance, which you've

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). just articulated there, which is that your strength is not determined by your power over others or your ranking relative to others. It's determined by how you treat others and your responsibility for others, without needing to minimize yourself. You being strong doesn't make somebody else weak, unless you've misinterpreted what strength means, to mean dominance or status.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). The only other thing I would say, and maybe here is a little bit more of a distinction is, just the nature of the world means that very often men should take responsibility for the safety and security of others, and that's okay too. And it's also okay if you want to ask, let's say, assuming you're straight, it's okay to ask a girl out, right? It's good to ask a girl out, as long as you know, you have the courage to ask her out, but the grace to accept no for an answer. And then I would add the responsibility to make sure that either way, if you're out and about, that she gets home safely.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). Now, you might say, "Some of that sounds a little bit old-fashioned." I don't know and at this point I don't really care. And I would always give my boys a little bit of a gap on their curfew if they were taking someone home who needed their protection that was more likely to be women for sure.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm (affirmative). But just someone who needed their… And I think that's okay. And very few of the women I know hate that idea. What they want is men who are just, who treat them as equals and as respect. And so that's the kind of strength I think we want to see, one which is based on being under your own steam, knowing who you are, comfort in your own skin. And looking out for others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you, in whatever circumstance that is. So sometimes it'll be physical or otherwise. So that's what I've attempted to pass on.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Huh. Well thank you for sharing that. Taking some notes here for when I have these conversations with my own kids. So thank you. (chuckling) Lastly, Richard, what gives you hope that we can shift the tide from where we are right now, where so many boys and men are struggling, to a world in which boys and girls, men and women can all thrive, can be happy, can be healthy, and can be their best version of themselves?

Richard Reeves

I'm really encouraged by the attention that issues around identity, mental health, loneliness are getting. And time for me to thank you for the work that you've done, I think in bringing all of that to the fore, because so much of that underpins the other issues we're having. You can see education statistics, you can see employment statistics, but in the end, this sense of who we are in the world and as you say, "The universal need to be seen and needed," I think just so important. And so I'm hopeful that we're now having a much better conversation about that than we were before. But specifically on the issue of gender, I'm really encouraged by the fact that most people, except perhaps the real fringes, don't think there's a zero-sum trade off between women and girls doing better and boys and men doing better, right? 'Cause boys and men aren't struggling 'cause women are doing well or vice versa. We do rise together. And I've been really encouraged by the appetite that there is for people to have just an honest, good faith conversation about this. And say, "Huh, there's a bunch of places here where boys and men really do seem to be struggling in different ways or sort of more, but also here are the bunch of areas where we should be really worried about women and girls. And guess what? We can think two thoughts at once. We can care about two things at once." You have a son and a daughter. I think you'd be very upset with me if I said, "You can only care about one of them."

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). "You're only allowed to care about one of them." But sometimes, the debate has been framed in such a way around gender that it's almost that choice. People do not wanna play the zero-sum game anymore. And people can see the boys and men in their lives struggling and they want to help them. I think we're in a better place on this than we were two years ago. So the conversation's moving for sure. And I think the culture and policy will ultimately follow, but it won't happen by itself, and back to where we were a few minutes ago. It's gonna take more men to be willing to lead this conversation, who are acting in good faith and who are

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Mm-hmm (affirmative). allies to the women's cause, but also compassionate about what's happening to men. You can be passionate about gender equality and compassionate about what's happening to lots of boys and men. And anybody that tries to make us choose between the two is not our friend.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Well put and a beautiful way to end our conversation. Richard, I wanna thank you both for this conversation, which I found just personally enriching and instructive, but just also for all the work you've been doing over the last few months, since your book came out on this space. Having written a book myself, I know that it is an incredibly challenging process, especially when you write a book that's as high quality a publication as yours was. And so I can only imagine how many years went into it, but it is now helping so many people. And my hope is that if we walk down this path and pursue this conversation that you've helped to spearhead and accelerate for the country and beyond, my hope is that the world will be better for my son and for my daughter, (theme music) and for millions of other boys and young men out there who are struggling today. So thank you so much, Richard, so grateful for you.

Richard Reeves

Well, thank you for your work and for your time today.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Thanks for joining this conversation with Richard Reeves. Join us for the next episode of House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy. Until then, wishing you all health and happiness.