Social scientists at the University of Virginia and Harvard University suggest that the decline of stable, unionized full-time jobs with health insurance and pensions for Americans without a college degree has caused working-class people to become less likely to get married and more likely to divorce than people with college degrees.
“Working-class people with insecure work and few resources, little stability and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others,” says Sarah Corse, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology in U. of Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences and the lead author of the study, “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape.”
In brief, the decline of the blue-collar worker is a story of vanishing high-paying union jobs with good benefits. In America today, marriage is fracturing along class lines. Middle-class and upper-middle class Americans who have four-year college degrees marry in large number and enjoy stable marriages. For those without degrees, mostly blue-collar Americans, marriage is seen as an option they cannot afford. Their wages have plummeted in the United States because manufacturing work has been outsourced to other countries. In its place, blue-collar workers face a horizon where insecurity is the norm.
The study, which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City, involved direct interviews and surveys of more than 300 working- and middle-class men and women who were white, African-American, Asian and Latino, between the ages of 18 and 70, and with a range of educational histories. Some were married, single, divorced, cohabitating and widowed, as well as being biological and adoptive parents and nonparents.
In general, educated middle-class workers recover from the destabilizing effects of economic fluctuations better than the working class worker, and they seek and find stability in marital relationships, including childbearing within marriage, according to the study.
“Marriage is becoming a distinctive social institution marking middle-class status,” Dr. Corse says. By comparison, people living in precarious situations have difficulty trusting possible partners because of the risk of betrayal, says Harvard sociologist Dr. Jennifer Silva, who also worked on the study. Marriage for the working class has moved out of reach and “has lost its relevance as a marker of adulthood,” says Dr. Silva.
Poorer people struggle to meet material or financial obligations and may feel that the emotional and psychological commitment required by marriage is too great a demand on top of other challenges. When faced with economic trouble in tough times, by comparison, college-educated middle-class workers respond with material, cultural and intellectual resources and bounce back.
The educated middle class works in stable jobs with better incomes, which permits the emotional and material commitment of marriage and children. As a result, middle and upper-middle class people express high expectations for their marriages, centering on self-fulfillment, deeply engaged parenting by both parents and psycho-emotional awareness. Educated people have resources to prevent marital complacency, conflict and dissolution through private material and emotional “investments,” such as therapy and special “date nights,” Corse said. A measure of security places the educated middle class on a firmer footing to commit to marriage and to planning families.
By comparison, workers without college degrees increasingly find that the only jobs available are short-term service-sector jobs, which are often part-time and without benefits. “Our interviewees without college degrees expressed feelings of distrust and even fear about intimate relationships, and had difficulty imagining being able to provide for others.”
“These are foundational changes in the labor market for the working class and they broadly affect people’s lives,” say Silva and Corse.
“Insecure work changes peoples’ non-work lives,” says Dr. Corse.