The working class man is a hot topic this month. The publication of Andrew Cherlin’s new book, Labor’s Love Lost, a series of New York Times articles, and recent Washington Post articles on the middle class have called more attention to the social and economic plight of the working class man. For thinking conservative men, such as the New York Time’s Ross Douthat and the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox, much of that inquiry is focused on the issue of gender: is the move toward “an egalitarian vision of gender roles in parenting and breadwinning” part of the reason for the reinvention of marriage for the elite and of its decline for the working class? And is greater tolerance of non-marital sexuality an essential part of this egalitarian vision? An op ed in the Wall Street Journal this week went even farther to declare that the “biggest culprit” in family breakdown “is feminism’s devaluing of males and the conceit that “strong women” can do it all.”
We are particularly interested in the relationship between economic inequality, gender, and family structure not just because we teach family law, but also because we are often attacked for our claims that family structure – and the legal developments that underlie it — are tied to the economy. But we are bemused by the claims that changes in gender roles are a cause rather than a consequence of the increasing instability of working class families. Instead, we are wondering if the focus on gender isn’t really a distraction – a distraction from the remarkable development taking place in discussions of the family. Now that marriage equality no longer occupies the disproportionate share of national attention, there is something close to consensus taking place. That consensus is that family stability for the working class is unlikely to return without better jobs.
Few serious academics dispute that the disappearance of stable, well-paying jobs for blue collar men has a lot to do with the decline in blue collar marriage and the increased rate of divorce. And few serious academic disputes that cultural changes reinforce the effect. The point of our book, Marriage Markets, was to explain how the law institutionalizes a new model of marriage (the subject of our next blog) and (the focus of this blog) how a changing economy does not just produce less marriage in some straight-line fashion that varies with the latest marginal change in unemployment rates, but rather how it changes the way men and women relate to each other producing reinforcing cycles of gender distrust.