Andrew J. Cherlin believes the American working class — made up of those with a high school diploma but no college degree — is falling on very hard times — a complicated combination of lack of jobs that provide a wage adequate to support family and cultural changes that include a decline in marriage among all but the college-educated.
It's the topic of the noted sociologist's latest book, "Labor's Love Lost." He is a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"Two generations ago, young men and women with only a high-school degree would have entered the plentiful industrial occupations which then sustained the middle-class ideal of a male-breadwinner family," background material for the book reads. "Such jobs have all but vanished over the past 40 years, and in their absence ever-growing numbers of young adults now hold precarious, low-paid jobs with few fringe benefits. Facing such insecure economic prospects, less-educated young adults are increasingly forgoing marriage and are having children within unstable cohabiting relationships. This has created a large marriage gap between them and their more affluent, college-educated peers."
People who are not married are having children but are raising them in single-parent or cohabiting households. Neither of those situations has proven as stable as married households for families in America, he said.
In an interview with The Guardian, Cherlin noted that pattern would have "ripple effects" for society. "The only way to stop the trend, Cherlin says, is to strengthen the economic standing of working-class families with better jobs and wages, ensuring class mobility," Siri Srinivas wrote. "But some days, he said, 'I wonder if we just no longer have enough work for everyone to do.'"
Belinda Luscombe also recently interviewed Cherlin for Time and wrote, "Cherlin doesn’t have any easy answers for the nasty bifurcation in the family life of America. Somehow, young people have to be persuaded to delay childbirth. Somehow, people have to be educated and trained for jobs that pay enough that they can begin to feel enough ground under their feet to start a more permanent sort of life. Somehow, those jobs, such as those in manufacturing, have to be created."
In a blog for the Institute for Family Studies, W. Bradford Wilcox said there's no longer a political division over the question of whether marriage is foundering, although people have different views of what it means and how to solve it. He said Cherlin's research "shows that conservatives 'who insist that family changes are wholly a matter of cultural shifts' are as wrong as progressives who insist that America’s family problem is simply a 'matter of economics alone.' Instead, Cherlin deftly points out how shifts in the economy and the culture have together combined to undercut the health of marriage and the stability of family life in working-class communities across the country."
Katherine Peralta of U.S. News and World Report wrote recently that "the wage advantage of going to college has improved in recent years in large part because of the worsening fortunes — especially since the Great Recession — of those who didn’t attend college," based on research from the New York Federal Reserve. "Between 1970 and 2013, compared with workers with just a high school degree, those with bachelor’s degrees made 56 percent more and those with an associate’s degree make about 21 percent more."
The news magazine was one of many to note that women, in particular, are less interested in marriage if their potential partners do not earn a decent wage. "And never-married women place a high premium on a spouse with a steady job, according to a recent Pew Research Center study," wrote Peralta. "The bleaker employment potential among low-wage, less educated Americans, therefore, doesn’t bode well for their ability to form stable families, according to Stephanie Coontz, family studies researcher and history professor at Evergreen State College."
Marriage is not just an economic tool or a way to promote familial stability, although it serves well in both roles. A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research controlled for happiness levels prior to marriage and found that marriage does make people happier, compared with what happens in the lives of those who don't marry. That's particularly true in hard times, like during a midlife crisis, as Claire Cain Miller wrote in The New York Times.
"Those whose lives are most difficult could benefit most from marriage, according to the economists who wrote the new paper, John Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics and Shawn Grover of the Canadian Department of Finance," Miller wrote. “'Marriage may be most important when there is that stress in life and when things are going wrong,' Mr. Grover said."
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