“Domestic Tranquility”: I review Andrew Cherlin on working-class families

“Domestic Tranquility”: I review Andrew Cherlin on working-class families February 20, 2015

for the Weekly Standard:

When the sociologist Timothy Nelson asked low-income men who didn’t live with their children what the ideal father was like, eight of them spontaneously mentioned the same man: Ward Cleaver, the dad from Leave It to Beaver. That might make sense if Nelson’s interviews had taken place in the 1950s-60s, when the show aired; but these men were interviewed in the late 2000s. Why did they hark back to a man old enough to be their own grandfather?

Maybe it is because the 1950s were the time when the Ward-and-June family model was most available to working-class men and women. In Labor’s Love Lost,Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins, labels the period from the end of World War II to the 1970s as “the peak years” for the working-class family. During these years, income inequality was low and the “marriage gap”—the difference between marriage rates for working-class and upper- or middle-class adults—was narrow.

Today, the marriage gap is wider than it’s ever been. “It is now unusual for non–college–graduates to have all of their children within marriage,” Cherlin notes. Rich people still live like the Cleavers, in homes anchored in the institution of marriage, but low-income families are built around the much shakier quasi-institutions of cohabitation and single parenting. And middle-class families are starting to look more like the poor than the rich.

Cherlin uses a striking metaphor: casualization. This term describes the shift to temporary, often contractless or off-the-books labor, “stop-gap jobs” rather than “career jobs.” Cherlin argues that the working-class family has also been casualized.

more (and here’s an earlier, howlier piece in which another aspect of Cherlin’s book plays a role, “Sociology as Class War,” which I stand behind although I wish I’d been less catty about it)


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