Working Class Jilts America’s Sweetheart Deal

Jefta Images / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Inequalities in employment are making America’s favorite business transaction, heterosexual marriage, less and less attractive.

At The Atlantic, Victor Tan Chen — an assistant professor of sociology and author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy — brings together the latest research on income inequality and education to break down the marriageable-man theory. While marriage rates had previously increased in working class regions in the 1970s and 80s as male earnings rose, Chen finds that this only holds today if women’s earnings also remain relatively flat or depressed. The case now, more often, is that as good jobs for working class men disappear, women are indeed less likely to marry them — unless the bride(-or-not)-to-be is laid off, too, in which case she’ll head to a more gainfully-employed man’s altar.

Here Chen’s examination of income inequality, gender-bending breadwinners, social safety nets, and more illustrates how unemployment disproportionately affects the business of romance in America:

Why are those with less education—the working class—entering into, and staying in, traditional family arrangements in smaller and smaller numbers? Some tend to stress that the cultural values of the less educated have changed, and there is some truth to that. But what’s at the core of those changes is a larger shift: The disappearance of good jobs for people with less education has made it harder for them to start, and sustain, relationships.

What’s more, the U.S.’s relatively meager safety net makes the cost of being unemployed even steeper than it is in other industrialized countries—which prompts many Americans to view the decision to stay married with a jobless partner in more transactional, economic terms. And this isn’t only because of the financial ramifications of losing a job, but, in a country that puts such a premium on individual achievement, the emotional and psychological consequences as well. Even when it comes to private matters of love and lifestyle, the broader social structure—the state of the economy, the availability of good jobs, and so on—matters a great deal.

In doing research for a book about workers’ experiences of being unemployed for long periods, I saw how people who once had good jobs became, over time, “unmarriageable.” I talked to many people without jobs, men in particular, who said that dating, much less marrying or moving in with someone, was no longer a viable option: Who would take a chance on them if they couldn’t provide anything?

And for those already in serious relationships, the loss of a job can be devastating in its own way. One man I met, a 51-year-old who used to work at a car plant in Detroit, had been unemployed on and off for three years. (As is standard in sociology, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) Over that period, his marriage fell apart. “I’ve got no money and now she’s got a job,” he told me. “All credibility is out the tubes when you can’t pay the bills.” The reason his wife started cheating on him and eventually left him, he said, was that “a man came up with money.”

His loss of “credibility” wasn’t just about earnings. He worried that, like his wife, his two young kids looked down on him. He’d always been working before; now they wondered why he was always home. In his own mind, being out of work for so long had made him less of a man. “It’s kinda tough when you can’t pay the bills, you know. So I have been going through a lot of depression lately,” he told me. Unemployment makes you unable to “be who you are, or who you once were,” he added, and that state of mind probably didn’t him make an appealing person to live with.

Read the story