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Labor's Love Lost

Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America

Andrew J. Cherlin
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Labor's Love Lost
    Book Description:

    Two generations ago, young men and women with only a high-school degree would have entered the plentiful industrial occupations which then sustained the middle-class ideal of a male-breadwinner family. Such jobs have all but vanished over the past forty years, and in their absence ever-growing numbers of young adults now hold precarious, low-paid jobs with few fringe benefits. Facing such insecure economic prospects, less-educated young adults are increasingly forgoing marriage and are having children within unstable cohabiting relationships. This has created a large marriage gap between them and their more affluent, college-educated peers. InLabor's Love Lost, noted sociologist Andrew Cherlin offers a new historical assessment of the rise and fall of working-class families in America, demonstrating how momentous social and economic transformations have contributed to the collapse of this once-stable social class and what this seismic cultural shift means for the nation's future.

    Drawing from more than a hundred years of census data, Cherlin documents how today's marriage gap mirrors that of the Gilded Age of the late-nineteenth century, a time of high inequality much like our own. Cherlin demonstrates that the widespread prosperity of working-class families in the mid-twentieth century, when both income inequality and the marriage gap were low, is the true outlier in the history of the American family. In fact, changes in the economy, culture, and family formation in recent decades have been so great that Cherlin suggests that the working-class family pattern has largely disappeared.

    Labor's Love Lostshows that the primary problem of the fall of the working-class family from its mid-twentieth century peak is not that the male-breadwinner family has declined, but that nothing stable has replaced it. The breakdown of a stable family structure has serious consequences for low-income families, particularly for children, many of whom underperform in school, thereby reducing their future employment prospects and perpetuating an intergenerational cycle of economic disadvantage. To address this disparity, Cherlin recommends policies to foster educational opportunities for children and adolescents from disadvantaged families. He also stresses the need for labor market interventions, such as subsidizing low wages through tax credits and raising the minimum wage.

    Labor's Love Lostprovides a compelling analysis of the historical dynamics and ramifications of the growing number of young adults disconnected from steady, decent-paying jobs and from marriage. Cherlin's investigation of today's "would-be working class" shines a much-needed spotlight on the struggling middle of our society in today's new Gilded Age.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-844-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. About the Author
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Chapter 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    American society has now experienced the rise and fall of a distinctive kind of home life: the working-class family. It originated in the early 1800s when the industrialization of the American economy began, and it accelerated later in the century as the growing number of manufacturing jobs attracted millions of migrants from Europe and rural America. It centered on marriage and was, as historians and social scientists like to say, a deeply gendered form of family life. Husbands were expected to take factory jobs and to work full-time—which in the nineteenth century usually meant ten or twelve hours a...

  7. Chapter 2 The Emergence of the Working-Class Family: 1800–1899
    (pp. 24-59)

    In nearly all societies in human history, there has been a division of labor between men and women, but both have done productive work. In the hunter-gatherer societies in which we lived throughout most of our evolutionary history, women gathered edible plants, which provided much of the food, while caring for young children. They nursed their children for a long time, thus reducing fertility (because nursing slows the return of ovulation), and carried them while foraging. Men’s main job was to hunt and to defend the group against outsiders. Then we began to plant crops rather than move from place...

  8. Chapter 3 Good Times and Hard Times: 1900–1945
    (pp. 60-89)

    Henry Brady, who was seventeen years old when he was interviewed during the winter of 1935–1936 by the sociologist Mirra Komarovsky, was the only person in his family who had a job. He earned $12 per week. His father, who had been a railroad engineer prior to the Great Depression, had been on relief for three years. His older brother didn’t have a job, nor did his mother and two younger siblings. Once, according to his older brother, Henry was about to go out to see his girlfriend when his father said, “Why don’t you stay at home—it...

  9. Chapter 4 The Peak Years, 1945–1975
    (pp. 90-120)

    In the late 2000s, the sociologist Timothy Nelson, who was writing a book on fatherhood in poor neighborhoods, began to interview low-income men who had children not currently living with them. In the course of the interviews, he asked them to talk about the characteristics of the ideal father. He had this conversation with Will, a twenty-four-year-old white man:

    Nelson: Ideally what kind of dad would you like to be? If you could be a picture perfect dad, what kind of dad would you want to be?

    Will: Like Ward Cleaver.

    Nelson: Like Ward Cleaver huh?

    Will: Yeah.

    Nelson: Why...

  10. Chapter 5 The Fall of the Working-Class Family: 1975–2010
    (pp. 121-147)

    In 1983, twenty years after the television seriesLeave It to Beaverended its run, Beaver Cleaver, now thirty-three years old, returned in a made-for-television movie on a cable channel, followed by a 1985–1989 series,The New Leave It to Beaver. Time had been unkind to Beaver: he was unemployed, he had trouble communicating with his two young sons, and his wife was divorcing him. He and his children had moved back in with his mother June. Ward had passed away, along with a generation of effortlessly successful breadwinners.

    Many young adults, it turns out, were struggling in the...

  11. Chapter 6 The Would-Be Working Class Today
    (pp. 148-175)

    The family lives of young adults without bachelor’s degrees, whom I have called the “less-educated,” have changed greatly since the end of the post–World War II peak. They are the would-be working class—the individuals who would have taken the industrial jobs we used to have or married someone who did. Let me delve more deeply into how those changes have altered the way they lead their daily lives, including their attitudes toward the world around them, their self-identities, the values they are passing along to their children, and the instability and complexity of their families. To better understand...

  12. Chapter 7 What Is to Be Done?
    (pp. 176-196)

    Should anything be done about the fall of the working-class family? Should our sense of social concern extend to the young adults who are trying to form families while dealing with the shrinking middle of the hourglass economy? Should we as a society take action to assist them in forming stable families? In any such effort, we need not hold the 1950s family as our model: its midcentury reign was sustained by the high-water mark of American capitalism, and its rigid distinction between the gender roles of men and women is out of step with the twenty-first century. Historically speaking,...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 197-224)
  14. References
    (pp. 225-244)
  15. Index
    (pp. 245-258)