Sociological Ruminations

A blog about non-fiction books that address societal issues and problems

The New Instability

Today’s New York Times contains a wonderful article written by Stephanie Coontz who is a marriage and family scholar.  A little over a year ago, I enjoyed reading two of her books in a graduate level sociology class on marriage and the family.  In this article, she sums up recent sociological research about changes in gender roles and in the economy, and she discusses the impact that these changes are having on families.  She also cites two new sociological books that have been written about changes in the U.S. economy and how these changes have impacted family life.  One of the books is Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times by Marianne Cooper, and the other is Love’s Labor Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America by Andrew Cherlin.

An excerpt from the article says:

When the sociologist Marianne Cooper interviewed affluent Silicon Valley couples for her new book, “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” she was struck by the anxiety they expressed about their retirement prospects, and especially about how to provide their children with the skills, résumés and entrepreneurial personality traits they believe are now needed to succeed in a “winner-take-all” job market.


OVER all, though, family instability has increased most among less-educated Americans.

Men with only a high school diploma, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin points out in his forthcoming book, “Labor’s Love Lost,” used to be the mainstay of family stability in the working class. However, the male-breadwinner marriages that such men established in the 1950s and 1960s rested on two pillars that no longer exist.

The first was the availability of stable, family-wage jobs for young men without a college education. Blue-collar men could marry early, knowing that even if their starting wages were low they could anticipate predictable increases each year — and expect their children and grandchildren to do even better.

Over the 25 years between 1947 and 1972, the average real hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled, rising by almost 3 percent a year, according to the University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon. Confidence in future progress imbued workers with a sense that deferring gratification and sticking it out would eventually pay off, making work a powerful force promoting young men’s maturation.

The second pillar supporting the stable marriages of the postwar era was the fact that most women could not earn a living wage on their own. Fifty years ago, the average college-educated woman earned less than the average high-school-educated man. Female workers, whatever their education level, had much shorter job tenures than males, and their real wages remained almost flat.

The result was that a young man could take almost any job and expect his earnings to improve substantially with time.

Click here to read the full article.


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