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Love and Work Don’t Always
Work for Working Class in America, Study Shows

NEW YORK CITY, August 13, 2013 — The decline and disappearance of stable, unionized full-time jobs with health insurance and pensions for people who lack a college degree has had profound effects on working-class Americans who now are less likely to get married, stay married, and have their children within marriage than those with college degrees, a new University of Virginia and Harvard University study has found.

The research, “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” will be presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“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,” said Sarah Corse, an associate professor of sociology in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences and the study’s lead author. “Insecure work changes peoples’ non-work lives.”

The study was conducted through direct interviews and surveys with more than 300 working- and middle-class men and women in the U.S. The study participants were white, African-American, Asian, and Latino, between the ages of 18 and 70, and with a range of educational histories. They were married, single, divorced, cohabitating, and widowed, as well as non-parents and biological and adoptive parents.

The researchers found, generally, that educated middle-class workers are better able to recover from the destabilizing effects of insecure work than the working class, and therefore can seek and find stability in relationships.

“Marriage is becoming a distinctive social institution marking middle-class status,” Corse said.

People who are living in an unsecure and unstable situation have difficulty being trustful of possible partners because of the risk of betrayal, noted Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva, Corse’s co-investigator, who earned her sociology Ph.D. at U.Va. They also find it difficult 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.

“Marriage has lost its relevance as a marker of adulthood,” said Silva, author of the book, Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, to be published in August by Oxford University Press.

People with college degrees, however, tend to work in stable jobs with better incomes allowing for the emotional and material commitment of marriage and having children within marriage. Middle- and upper-middle class people, as a result, express high expectations for their marriages, centering on self-fulfillment, deeply engaged parenting by both parents, and psycho-emotional awareness. They also “insure” themselves against marital complacency, conflict, and dissolution through private material and emotional “investments,” such as therapy and special “date nights,” Corse said.

According to Corse and Silva, wages for the non-college-educated have fallen dramatically in the United States as manufacturing work has been outsourced to other countries, greatly reducing the number of high-paying union jobs with good benefits.

Increasingly, the jobs available to those without a college degree are service-sector jobs, many of which are short-term and/or part-time and lack benefits, they said.

“These are foundational changes in the labor market for the working class and they broadly affect people’s lives,” they said. “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.”

College-educated middle-class workers, with material, cultural, and intellectual resources, are more resilient, however, when faced with the effects of possible insecure work in tough times, and therefore are more able to commit to marriage and to planning families.

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The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

The paper, “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” will be presented on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 10:30 a.m. EDT in New York City at the American Sociological Association’s 108th Annual Meeting.

To obtain a copy of the paper; for assistance reaching the study’s author(s); or for more information on other ASA presentations, members of the media can contact Daniel Fowler, ASA’s Media Relations and Public Affairs Officer, at (202) 527-7885 or pubinfo@asanet.org. During the Annual Meeting (Aug. 10-13), ASA’s Public Information Office staff can be reached in the on-site press office, located in the Hilton New York Midtown’s Clinton Room, at (212) 333-6362 or (914) 450-4557 (cell).

For more information about the study, members of the media can also contact Fariss Samarrai, University of Virginia, at (434) 924-3778 or fls4f@virginia.edu.    

Papers presented at the ASA Annual Meeting are typically working papers that have not yet been published in peer reviewed journals.