The End of the Working Class
It is common knowledge that professionals are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than less educated workers.
But according to sociologist Andrew Cherlin, the picture has become more complicated as real wages decline. For several decades now, both members of a couple, whether or not they are professionals, have needed to work to make ends meet. Pooling two incomes provided the necessary solid financial foundation. But, he adds, what works for professionals increasingly does not work for the working class. As Cherlin noted, “we have seen declines in marriage among high school graduates who are stuck in the middle of the labor market.”
“In the past few decades, as factory work has moved overseas or become automated, the jobs that sustain these families have dried up for men. At the same time, changing economic and cultural currents have also strengthened the position of women. The combination of these economic and cultural shifts have led to “the fall of the working-class family,” Cherlin said.
“What’s happening is that high school-educated women don’t see good marriage prospects in the future and so they are using their economic independence to start their own families. So, yes, women’s independence is part of this story, but this [alone] doesn’t necessarily lead to lower rates of marriage. It only does so when the possibility of finding a good marriage partner isn’t encouraging.”
Another part of the story is about “individualism.” In the old days that meant working hard, striking out on one’s own, succeeding in your career. “Today,” according to Cherlin, “it often means striving for personal growth, individual development, a happier sense of self. That change occurred among the middle class a few decades ago. It’s now occurring among the working class. We’re now seeing young working-class men and women talk about their lives in the same kind of therapeutic personal-satisfaction sense that the middle class has been showing for decades.” And that expectation is growing among the working class, “even though their economic lives are highly unstable and unsatisfactory.”
In an interview in The Guardian, he sees this as part of the “slow disintegration of the American working class over the past few decades.”
He believes “more than half the young adult working population” are now struggling for a level of economic security and personal fulfillment they are unlikely to achieve. Without a college degree, “their prospects in the labor market have declined substantially and their family lives have changed too.”
So, yes, women’s independence is part of this story, but this [alone] doesn’t necessarily lead to lower rates of marriage. It only does so when the possibility of finding a good marriage partner isn’t encouraging.
If this is not discouraging enough, he added some pessimistic reflections on the future of work in general, echoing what many others have been saying. “On some days I wonder if we just no longer have enough work for everyone to do.”
We have to wonder about the long-term effects. Unemployment is bad enough, but adding crushed hopes and chronic lack of fulfillment is a recipe for social malaise and high levels of emotional conflict.