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Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships
By Sharon Sassler
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Exploring Contemporary Courtship Trajectories
In the spring of 2013, various newspapers and magazines breathlessly declared that cohabitation was the "new normal." Drawing from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth, these reports revealed that nearly half of women's first live-in unions with opposite sex partners — 48% — were cohabitations rather than marriages. The NBC news story featured a blogger for Glamour magazine, who wrote about her experience moving in with her boyfriend and the couple's subsequent engagement. Commenting on the news story, family scholars discussed the growing acceptability of being in long-term committed relationships without being married. "The question becomes not who cohabits, but who doesn't," one prominent demographer of family change concluded.
The number of unmarried couples who live together in intimate unions has increased dramatically over the past few decades. As of 2010, 7.5 million heterosexual couples were living together without marriage. This was a big jump from the 5.5 million unmarried couples who lived together in 2000, and more than double the 3.2 million that were cohabiting in 1990. These households are disproportionately young. As a result, the percentage of young adults who have lived with a romantic partner (or more than one) rose across the last quarter of the 20th century and continues to climb. Furthermore, two-thirds of couples married since the beginning of the new century lived together before the wedding — suggesting that we have truly become a cohabitation nation.
Glossed over in coverage of the new normal, however, are important social class differences in how romances progress. Less advantaged young adults are more likely to cohabit than their counterparts with college degrees and middle-class family upbringings. The outcomes of their relationships also differ. For college-educated cohabitors like the Glamour blogger, cohabitation frequently leads to marriage within a few years. For the less privileged, the sequence is more varied and often bumpier. These cohabitors face a much greater likelihood of having children, often unintentionally, breaking up before a wedding, or divorcing if they do tie the knot.
Describing the relationship patterns of the highly educated as the new normal ignores the challenges to forming stable and fulfilling intimate relationships that the less advantaged face. Compared to their college-educated counterparts, young adults with less schooling and from less advantaged families are taking longer to complete their educations, attain financial independence, find decent full-time jobs, and move out of the parental home. While the highly educated have not been immune to the social and economic changes that have transformed American society over the past few decades, the growing divide in our country between the more and the less advantaged suggests a need to move beyond a narrow focus on the relationship pathways of the highly educated.
What our research discovered is that the very trajectories couples follow — the steps leading up to shared living, the reasons for moving in with a partner, and what happens once couples are sharing a home — are quite dissimilar. For example, young adults from less privileged family backgrounds move in together far more rapidly, often within a few months of meeting, than do those from middle-class backgrounds. Compared to their college-educated counterparts, their reasons for cohabiting more often hinge on economic need or lack of the financial wherewithal to rent an apartment, rather than simple convenience or to test the waters for marriage. Less advantaged young adults more often face barriers to accessing resources — such as family support, health care coverage for contraception, and economic opportunities — that can strengthen relationships. Social class also influences the ways that couples negotiate their relationships, from how housework gets done, to whether and when to become more serious, to what kind of contraception they use — if any. Finally, gender roles — in particular, the ability of the female partner to have a say in how relationships progress or change — are enacted quite differently among more and less privileged couples. In other words, common presumptions about the new normal mask considerable social class variation in relationship progression.
The challenges faced by young adults as they form romantic relationships have intensified by the decade. Fewer Americans are getting married, and for many young adults the specter of divorce looms. Policy makers often tout marriage as a solution for all that ails us. Yet describing the relationship patterns of the highly educated as the new normal ignores the challenges to forming stable and fulfilling intimate relationships that the less advantaged face. A real understanding of the factors reshaping the American family requires a fuller awareness of not just how the highly educated meet, form intimate relationships, and ultimately marry, but also how young adults who are located at different spots on the advantage curve fare. Illuminating those differences is the mission of this book.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT RELATIONSHIP PROGRESSION
While our study set out to examine social class differences in how cohabiting relationships progressed, a great deal of existing research provided empirical and qualitative grounding for our agenda. The basic facts about contemporary union formation — what proportions of adults cohabit, how that varies by educational attainment or race, and shifts in the factors conditioning transitions from cohabitation into marriage — are well known. Less well understood are whether attitudes about cohabitation as an alternative rather than a precursor to marriage differ by social class background, or if gender norms work in ways that differentiate behaviors and experiences. We summarize that background here, from time to time pointing out holes that invited our attention.
Is Everyone Doing It? A Snapshot of How Cohabitation Varies by Educational Attainment
As is the case with other new family behaviors — including bearing children outside of marriage, serial cohabitation, and multipartner fertility — highly educated young adults and those from families where parents also have educational credentials are considerably less likely to have cohabited as their first coresidential union than women and men with lower levels of educational attainment. Data from the National Survey of Family Growth provide a snapshot of these differences. One in five women (20.2%) aged 22 to 44 who had not completed high school were cohabiting in 2010. So were 15.5% of women with a high school diploma or GED. But only 6.8% of women who had a bachelor's degree were cohabiting. Similar trends emerged for men, though college-educated men were more likely to be cohabiting than their female counterparts (see Figure 1).
Focusing on who is cohabiting at one point in time understates the proportion that have ever lived with a partner, as many of these unions either break up or transition into marriage. To get a better approximation of the prevalence of cohabitation and how it varies by educational attainment, demographers also look at those whose first union was cohabitation (rather than marriage). Even though the proportion of those who have cohabited has increased across all education levels over time (see Figure 2), women with a bachelor's degree are far less likely to have cohabited as their first union than women with more limited education. Between 1995 and 2006–2010, the proportion of women who first lived with their male partners grew by 38% among the college educated, compared with 59% among those with a high school diploma. In the words of demographers Larry Bumpass, James Sweet, and Andrew Cherlin, "College graduates have been not the innovators in the spread of cohabitation, but rather the imitators."
Also of note is the age at which people move in with a sexual partner. Women who do not pursue or complete a bachelor's education enter into cohabiting relationships at younger ages than those who obtain a college diploma. By age 25, almost two-thirds of women who received a high school diploma (or GED) but no more schooling (64%) had cohabited, compared with only 36% of women who had completed college. What this means is that even when the most highly educated adults engage in the same behavior as their less educated counterparts, they do so differently. They are often older and have completed their schooling, or at least hold a degree that sets them on the road to the middle class. They may also be better established in the job market.
Finally, there are also sizable differences in what ensues once couples begin living together. Take the case of our happy cohabiting Glamour blogger, whose story begins this chapter. After dating for two years, she and her boyfriend moved in together. Before taking that step, she had plenty of time to determine how they got along, whether they were able to manage disagreements and finances, if she could tolerate how neat or messy he was, his willingness to compromise, if he wanted children or not, as well as whether he left the toilet seat up or put the cap back on the toothpaste. But in this day and age, relatively few sexually involved adults date for long before moving in together — in part because it's expensive to maintain two separate places. Dating couples who are romantically and sexually involved for longer periods before cohabiting are better able to have serious conversations about the future than are couples who move in together early on.
All this leads — sometimes — to the grand finale for many relationships. Our Glamour blogger provides a neat and tidy ending to the story. A little over a year after moving in together, her partner proposed, and when she was interviewed for the NBC news story, they were planning their destination wedding in Aruba. That is consistent with what we know from the national data: Cohabitors who have at least bachelor's degrees often transition into marriage within a few years of moving in with their first and only live-in partner. But while living with a partner is now a normative step in the transition to adulthood, there are important social class differences in the timing, progression, and quality of cohabiting unions. What is it about social class that results in these differences?
The Importance of Social Class
Transformations in family formation processes have taken front stage in contemporary public policy debates in the United States. But much of that attention has focused on the child-bearing and union formation patterns of the most disadvantaged populations — those who have very limited educational attainment and have often grown up in poverty. Overlooked in this emphasis on low-income families is growing evidence of divergence in the life opportunities available for the moderately educated — a group that accounts for the majority of American adults. As of 2006, when we completed our interviews, 58% of Americans aged 25 and older had obtained a high school degree or pursued some postsecondary schooling but lacked a bachelor's degree. Only 28% of those in their mid-twenties or older had a college degree or more.
This group was not always neglected by researchers. In the 1960s and 1970s scholars such as Mirra Komarovsky (1964, Blue Collar Marriage), Arthur B. Shostak (1969, Blue-Collar Life), Lillian Rubin (1976, Worlds of Pain), and Chaya Piotrkowki (1979, Work and the Family System) focused their attention on the family lives of the group that accounted for the bulk of American families. Many of these studies utilized qualitative approaches to better understand the ways that families who were described as "working class" made sense of the challenges of modernization, consumerism, and changing gender roles. Between the 1960s and the latter half of the 20th century, however, the working class went missing from scholarly analysis.
In his 2014 book, Labor's Love Lost, the distinguished family sociologist Andrew Cherlin chronicled the fall of the working-class family, which had been classified largely on the basis of the types of jobs that men held — in industrial factories manufacturing goods, driving trucks, or working in construction. Such jobs, while perhaps not particularly satisfying or stimulating, were relatively stable, paid decently, and often were unionized. Furthermore, they were readily available for men with only a high school degree or even less. But in today's society, according to Cherlin, the challenges facing young adults who lack a bachelor's degree is that "they cannot become working class." Good working-class jobs are hard to find. Workers are no longer needed in large numbers to man (literally) large plants that pump out steel or manufacture cars; technological advances have made these jobs obsolete or companies have transported them overseas. The labor market has hollowed out for those with only moderate levels of schooling, and the jobs of the past have been replaced by low-skilled service positions. The lack of skills required for many service jobs means that employers are not interested in training and retaining workers, often preferring to just replace them. As a result, the economic floor has become far less stable among the less educated, particularly less educated men.
The need to focus on this group has again burst into the foreground. In several books, Cherlin and others have highlighted the need to turn the spotlight on the sizable proportion of the American population that is neither the most disadvantaged (the very poor) nor the most advantaged, but rather the large group that lacks the educational credentials needed to place them firmly in the middle class. The message of these books was somewhat overshadowed by the attention paid to Charles Murray's (2012) Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray attributed the divergence between what he termed the "college-educated elite" and those with less education to a shift away from traditional values such as marriage, religion, industriousness, and morality. Murray's work extends the libertarian and conservative perspectives attributing behavioral manifestations of inequality to individual values rather than to the structural factors contributing to wage declines, marital delay, and rising levels of personal debt. In Murray's view, economic insecurity does not result in changes in family-building behavior. Rather, desires for short-term gratification, weak wills, and inadequate parental guidance have caused the economic crises rocking today's less educated adults.
Unfortunately, Murray fails to test his own assertion that "culture" causes a growing proportion of whites to make morally bad decisions regarding their lives, such as cohabiting (and bearing children within cohabiting unions) rather than marrying. Despite the dramatic historical shifts that have seriously diminished the economic prospects of today's moderately educated men and women, the closest Murray comes to testing his theory is to cite unemployment over time and to assert that plenty of jobs are available. His book does not acknowledge that though Americans without college degrees still aspire to be a part of the middle class, attaining this goal has become increasingly difficult. In fact, the prospects for these men and women, whom we term "the service class" as many worked in service jobs in retail, telemarketing, and food production, are often considerably worse than they were for the working class of previous generations.
In the past few decades, demand for low-skilled labor has steadily decreased, while demand for (and supply of) higher-educated labor has risen. In 2006, when we concluded our interviews, high school graduates 25 years and older were more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared with college graduates, who also had shorter spells of unemployment and tended to earn substantially more for their labor. This was the case for both men and women.
Youth with college degrees and those with only a high school diploma or some postsecondary schooling hold similar views regarding the desirability of marriage, the acceptability of premarital cohabitation, and the challenges facing marriage. But cohabitation has increased the most among those with less than a bachelor's degree. Other factors have also aligned to distinguish the family formation behaviors of the more and less educated. College-educated cohabitors are far less likely to bear children within their informal unions than are less educated cohabitors, though they presumably have a similar risk of conception. Furthermore, the divorce rates of the highly educated have declined, whereas the marriages of couples with lower levels of education continue to dissolve at high rates. The conditions encouraging getting and staying married appear stronger among the college educated than they are for the less educated.
Excerpted from Cohabitation Nation by Sharon Sassler. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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