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As our friends' children reach their 20s, we've noticed a pattern. Their daughters are often model kids – focused, tenacious, diligent. They get top marks. They have a plan for their life. They have benchmarks and goals and usually achieve them.

The sons are another matter. They're not all that motivated to achieve. They're a lot more inclined to hang around in the basement smoking dope and playing video games. They're not interested in university or marks – or work. Their employment record is spotty. Maybe they'll get their act together by the time they're 30. Or maybe not.

"The majority of boys checked out of classroom a long time ago, when video-game offerings and online activities exceeded anything the classroom could do for them," a male high-school teacher told me in an e-mail. He thinks it's no coincidence that most of Canada's Olympics stars in Rio are women. Guys just don't want to put in the work. "For every 10 motivated and high-achieving female students, there might be one or two male students who can compete with them, due more to natural ability than any higher degree of motivation," he said. He thinks most of his colleagues would agree.

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The gender gap at universities is increasing. As postsecondary education becomes more and more necessary to compete for the good jobs, many North American universities are graduating 50 per cent more women than men. In Britain, white working-class boys have fallen to the bottom of the heap in educational attainment. Campus life has become so feminized, reports the Times of London, that "many campuses now offer 'anti-lad culture' workshops, in which male students are encouraged to curtail their traditional drinking and ribaldry for fear of offending women." (Whether these workshops will encourage more men to sign up for campus life is a question well worth asking.)

So if the guys aren't in school, what are they doing? The answer will depress you.

In the United States, low-skilled young men have been dropping out of the labour force in unprecedented numbers. The standard explanation is that they can't find jobs. But Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, thinks that's too simplistic. In an online interview, he said he thinks that maybe they're not that interested in finding jobs. He conducted an extensive study into how they spent their leisure time, and here are his findings: "The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time." In other words, they aren't using their freed-up time to take retraining courses, start a business, look for other work, mind the kids or retile the bathroom. Instead, they spend 75 per cent of their new-found leisure time playing video games.

"These individuals are living with parents or relatives," he said. "Happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can't find a job, is causing them to play video games." In other words, they're addicted to video games not because they're out of work, but because playing video games is more fun than working.

It is reasonable to assume that if you don't have to leave the basement to find satisfying ways to pass the time, your prospects for socialization into the adult world are likely to be much diminished.

Work and marriage can socialize a man. Without them, many men are lost. Yet in the past two generations our social expectations for young men have largely collapsed, along with the institutions that supported them. Not long ago, any man who failed to work, get married, be a good provider and assume his share of civic duties was thought to be a bum. Now, he's the folk hero in slacker movies.

Girls are much better at self-regulation and social connection than boys are. Boys, much more than girls, need external discipline and strong role models to turn them into successful adults. That's why the military is so good at moulding character, and why single-parent families are difficult for boys. That's why the disappearance of rigid role models and social expectations has hit young men much harder than it has young women. The problem of disconnected men is a big one – much bigger than the so-called problem of equality for women – and it's not going away any time soon.

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