By Andrea Kay
Working-class Americans now are less likely to get married, stay married and have children within marriage than those who have college degrees.
That's the conclusion of new research that looks at working- and middle-class men and women and their ability to plan for a future while feeling - as many people do - so anxious about their own survival.
The University of Virginia and Harvard University study called "Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape," says the decline and disappearance of stable, unionized full-time jobs with health insurance and pensions for people without a college degree has had a profound effect on working-class Americans.
Researchers for the study interviewed working- and middle-class men and women in the U.S. ages 18 to 70 with a range of educational backgrounds. The subjects are white, African-American, Asian and Latino. They are married, single, divorced, living together and widowed. Some have biological and adopted children. Others have no children.
"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, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study.
Her co-investigator, Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva, also noted that people living in an insecure and unstable situation have a tough time trusting possible partners.
This is in part because of the risk of betrayal, and they may feel that marriage's emotional and psychological commitment is too great a demand on top of other challenges.
Workers they interviewed who did not have college degrees "expressed feelings of distrust and even fear about intimate relationships," they said. As a result, they "had difficulty imagining being able to provide for others."
But the study showed that workers with college degrees tend to work in stable jobs with better incomes. This allows for the emotional and material commitment of marriage and having children within marriage, they pointed out.
College-educated middle-class workers with material, cultural and intellectual resources are more resilient when faced with the effects of possible insecure work in tough times, they said.
The researchers found that educated middle-class workers are better equipped to recover from such destabilizing effects than the working class; therefore, they can seek and find stability in relationships and are more able to commit to marriage and to planning families.
Their findings, presented this past week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, also show that middle- and upper-middle-class people with more stable and more generous incomes express high expectations for their marriages.
They center on self-fulfillment and are deeply engaged in parenting. They also ensure themselves against marital complacency, conflict and dissolution through emotional and material investments such as therapy and special date nights.
Most conversations I have with people about their careers almost always come down to the two dynamics at war within us: the desire to be happy and the desire for security.
This research sheds a deeper look at how the intense economic insecurity many workers experience today may affect their personal choices.
Such insecurity seems to have risen to a new level, affecting not just pocketbooks and career dreams but now the institution of marriage.