If you’re among the Americans who bypassed college in favor of a traditional manufacturing or other skilled labor job, you’re part of a shrinking post-World War II middle-class workforce that continues to face decimation and destabilization as a once-healthy jobs market gives way to the low-wage service sector.
A joint study conducted by the University of Virginia and Harvard University reveals that the decline of America’s manufacturing workforce has far-reaching societal and cultural ramifications and that the typical American dream — which revolves around nuclear families, lifelong marital relationships and raising children — isn’t a tenable way of living for many who’ve been affected.
In the study, titled “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” researchers found that marriage, in particular, has become linked with a stable and secure middle-class existence. And if someone is still trying to work his way upward toward the middle class, his economic circumstances typically aren’t amenable with the expense and commitment that stable family life requires.
“Marriage is becoming a distinctive social institution marking middle-class status,” said Sarah Corse, a Virginia associate professor of sociology and the study’s lead author. “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. Insecure work changes peoples’ non-work lives.”
The study also finds an increasing gap between the material success and stability of today’s non-college-educated workforce and those who seek the kind of full-time, unionized jobs that powered America’s middle-class strength from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Those who hold college degrees tend to find more stable, better-paying jobs. That, in turn, allows for a measure of freedom to marry and raise children.
“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,’” the study states.
The study isn’t an endorsement for finding economic stability only through obtaining a college degree. Rather, it’s an observation of how dramatically the American economic environment has changed, at the expense of millions who, in previous decades, could find and keep good jobs — often in or near their hometowns — all without having to seek a college education in order to advance their vocational opportunities.
But for the would-be investor, the study provides strong evidence that until an individual can secure his own livelihood and at least some modicum of middle-class stability, his opportunities to set aside even a small portion of his disposable income with an eye toward the future are almost nonexistent.