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Young Men and the Empathy Gap

Why we should be guiding, not demonizing our sons.

As our kids and grandkids head back to school for a new semester, we are thinking about more than their grade point average. We are thinking about their safety, their development, and what’s going to happen when they graduate. Are the kids really going to be all right?

Your daughter probably has a better chance of being all right than your son.

Whether we’ll admit it or not, young men as a group are getting left behind amid the shifting economic, social, and technological landscape. Everyone knows a young man who is struggling, either in school or afterward; "failing to launch," with emotional disturbances, in interactions with the opposite sex, or with drug use and gang activities.

While more and more young women are soaring in education and beyond, a recent Congressional Budget Office report revealed one out of six young men is either not working or is incarcerated—a 45 percent increase since 1980. Mass shootings have tripled since 2011, with the majority being carried out by young men, while young male suicide rates have increased 50 percent since 1994.

There is an empathy gap in society when it comes to having compassion for the challenges boys and young men face, the issues that underlie the statistics above.

Nobody sees investing in boys’ development as “worth it” and as a result boys today are growing up and deciding that it is not worth it for them to invest their time and energy back into their communities.

For many, virtual reality has become a safe haven, and in some instances more structured and rewarding than reality. Thus we see the emergence of terms such as hikikomori, diaosi, bamboccioni, and NEETs, along with the rise of movements such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW). Who can blame them for wanting to opt out?

The shift into alternative realities disconnects young men further. Asking what’s wrong with them or why aren’t they motivated the same way young men used to be aren't the right questions. Society is not giving the support, guidance, means, or places for young men to be motivated or interested in aspiring to long-term real-life goals.

When Nikita Coulombe and I conducted a 20,000-person survey trying to better understand what is causing motivational problems in young men, the number one answer chosen by young men themselves was: conflicting messages from media, institutions, parents, and peers about acceptable male behavior.

With the rise of “toxic masculinity” classes on college campuses, masculinity itself is almost treated as a disease. Yet there is a decreasing number of positive male role models showing younger men the path to acceptable manhood.

Just one out of five elementary and middle school teachers is male, and fatherlessness in America remains above 40 percent. Among boys who do have fathers, the amount of time they spend in one-on-one conversation with their dads is only a fraction of the time they spend in front of a TV or on a computer, where they see men represented as emotionless warriors, hapless dads, or losers who can’t get anything right. In other words, many boys are going from male-absent home environments to male-absent school environments back to male-absent home environments where they then watch toxic male role models on a screen; this begs the question: what kind of future are they supposed to envision for themselves?

In our book, Man Interrupted, we explore what’s happening with young men and where they are headed by examining the individual, situational and systemic factors that are contributing to these trends. The concluding chapters offer a set of solutions that can be affected by different segments of society including schools, parents and young men themselves.

The takeaway: Young men deserve our compassion and guidance. Being a young adult is hellish enough without the added burden of being demonized by society. Growing up in poverty, I saw the difference a mentor could make. If we alienate our sons we’re going to lose a whole generation, to say nothing of the ripple effects that impact us all.

More from Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., and Mel Ganus, Ed.D.
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