The Changing Middle Class Family—What Else is New?

“Fractured Families” by Kay Hymowitz, a book review of “Labor’s Love Lost” by Andrew J. Cherlin. The Wall Street Journal, 1/6/2015.

Fractured FamiliesIn the 1950s, blue-collar working men proudly took home paychecks that often exceeded those of professionals. Their wives stayed home, raising the kids, taking care of the house, often on orders of their husbands. (“No wife of mine is going to work!”) We assumed the separation of a husband off at work and a wife remaining at home was the eternal pattern, the way nature intended, but that arrangement was only a temporary anomaly. Up to a century ago, husbands and wives usually worked together as a team on the farm or in the shop.

Women soon grew bored staying at home all dressed up like June Cleaver. Bridge clubs, garden clubs, book clubs, clubs of all kinds, proliferated, but they were not enough to overcome the confinements of housework and child-rearing.  “Nothing’s more important than raising children,” the men would say, but none volunteered to take the women’s place.

By the late 1970s, the pattern was changing. Business competition jumped as the rest of the world recovered from WWII.  Manufacturing jobs, largely held by men, moved to cheaper labor markets as companies struggled to stay competitive. By 1996, a 30-year-old male high school graduate made 20% less than his father.

Many wives with time on their hands and bills to pay took the new “pink collar” clerical jobs that had opened up and found they no longer needed a husband for support. As men increasingly became unemployed and balked at doing housework, the newly self-sufficient women found them to be a burden, an impediment to their autonomy, and a drain on their finances.  Marriage became an unappealing option.  Starting about 1980, women with only a high school diploma began to postpone marriage like their college-educated friends, but unlike them, did not postpone motherhood. By 2010, their rates of non-marital motherhood doubled, and their families resembled those of the inner-city poor. “Impregnate me, but then leave,” was their attitude, like the honey bees who drive the drones away when they are finished with them. A big change from the 1950s.

Marriage today is seen as only tangentially related to childbearing (as seen in the proliferation of gay marriages) and an unnecessary complication for heterosexual couples. As one unmarried father said, “You need to have way better reasons than having a kid to get married.”  Like what?  He doesn’t say.

These dynamics will continue to change, but expecting a return to the 1950s golden age of the stable middle class families we knew is unrealistic. No point in hoping for it.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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