Work, family, and religion have traditionally played an important role in furnishing working-class Americans with economic resources, moral guidance, and opportunities for civic engagement (Cherlin 2009; McLanahan 2004; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Wuthnow 2002). Ongoing attachments to work, family, and religion connected working-class men to social bonds and defined identities that kept them in the formal labor market and forestalled health problems. Conversely, precarious attachments to these key social institutions, we argue, may now dilute their power to shepherd and shift men’s trajectories and may place them at risk of a host of negative outcomes. This is in line with sociologist Emile Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide (1897 ), which argued that “anomie,” or normlessness, could explain variations in suicide rates across countries and over time.
In this essay, we explore how working-class men describe their attachments to work, family, and religion. We draw upon in-depth, life history interviews conducted in four metropolitan areas with racially and ethnically diverse groups of working-class men with a high school diploma but no four-year college degree. Between 2000 and 2013, we deployed heterogeneous sampling techniques in the black and white working-class neighborhoods of four metropolitan areas: Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; and the Philadelphia/ Camden area of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We placed fliers in public places, sought referrals from a variety of grassroots organizations, and engaged in street sampling (approaching men on commercial streets and transit stops during daylight hours). We invited each of these men to refer up to two men to our study.
Because we were interested in these men’s family ties, we screened to ensure that each respondent had at least one minor child. In Charleston and Philadelphia/ Camden, we limited our sample to men with at least one child who could potentially have made the respondent subject to a child support order, because he was neither married to the child’s mother nor living with her. We interviewed roughly even numbers of black and white men in each site for a total of 107 respondents.
We spoke at length with each respondent at least once, but usually twice. Interviews ranged from 90 minutes to three hours. All conversations were transcribed verbatim and coded using MaxQDA, a software program that is useful for identifying and systematically examining themes in qualitative data. We sorted men’s narratives into codes capturing information relevant to prior constructs, as well as themes that emerged inductively from the transcripts. In the first three sections of this paper, we describe the pattern of tenuous connections we found to key social institutions of work, family, and religion among the working-class men with whom we spoke. Although others have made similar arguments (Putnam 2015; Wilcox, Wolfinger, and Stokes 2015), we provide new evidence. Unlike past research, however, we show that working-class men are not simply reacting to changes in the economy, family norms, or religious organizations. Rather, they are attempting to renegotiate their relationships to these institutions by attempting to construct autonomous, generative selves. For example, these men’s desire for autonomy in jobs seems rooted in their rejection of the monotony and limited autonomy that their fathers and grandfathers experienced in the workplace, along with a new ethos of self-expression (Cherlin 2014). Similarly, these working- class men focus on their ties to their children even when they have little relationship with the children’s mothers, and they seek spiritual fulfillment even though they disdain organized religion. The drive toward generativity, by which we mean a desire to guide and nurture the next generation (Erikson 1963), is often rooted in past trauma often deriving from their family of origin. Many say that “giving back” in ways that they believe can make the world a better place is a way to redeem their own past as well as protect and nurture the next generation.
In sum, these working-class men show both a detachment from institutions and an engagement with more autonomous forms of work, childrearing, and spirituality, often with an emphasis on generativity. Autonomy refers to independent action in pursuit of personal growth and development. Personal growth has come to be highly valued among middle class Americans (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton 1985), but until recently has not been associated with the working class. The emphasis on activities directed toward personal growth among the working class that we and others (Silva 2013) found surprised us, as past scholarship typically assumed that such forms of action would usually only be found among those so materially comfortable that they needn’t spend time worrying about their economic circumstances (Inglehart 1977). Subsequent to Eric Erikson’s definition, which emphasized guidance and care of the next generation, researchers have expanded the concept of generativity to include “being a responsible citizen and a contributing member of a community” (McAdams, Hart, and Maruna 1998, p. 7). In other words, generativity is a special type of autonomous action, one directed at encouraging the growth and development not of oneself but of persons one cares about and knows well, such as one’s children, as well as those in the community that need care and protection, such as the youth in one’s neighborhood.
Our primary goal is to show that in order to comprehend these men’s lives, we must consider both the unmaking and remaking aspects of their stories. We then turn to a discussion of the extent to which this autonomous and generative self is also a haphazard self, which may be aligned with counterproductive behaviors. As a secondary aim, we discuss racial and ethnic differences in what have been called “deaths of despair”: the recent rise in mortality among whites with no more than a high school diploma due to suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver failure (Case and Deaton 2015, 2017; see also Coile and Duggan, this volume). Working-class adults often make comparisons between their own and their parents’ standards of living when their parents were their age, as shown in our in-depth interviews. However, drawing both on our interviews and representative survey data, we find that this comparison often leads to more negative assessments among whites than minorities (for both men and women in survey data). The reason is that non-college-educated whites are often comparing themselves to a generation that they feel had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are more often comparing themselves to a generation that, in their view, had fewer opportunities.
Our interview methodology has both weaknesses and strengths. First, we are not drawing on a representative sample. Our interview subjects do not include working- class men without children, or from smaller cities and rural areas, or from the western or south-central regions of the United States. Moreover, men in our sample are more disadvantaged than a simple random sample of men with a high school degree but no college diploma, in part because they were all living in cities where many traditional working-class neighborhoods were in decline. However, an advantage of our approach is that it allows us to explore complex questions in a rich and granular way that allows unanticipated results to emerge. It is also useful for identifying processes and mechanisms that may not be captured in surveys or administrative data sources. Finally, in-depth qualitative interviews allow researchers to situate specific actions and attitudes within the larger context of respondent’s lives. The autonomous, generative identity we describe here can be seen in part as a way in which working-class men have reacted to structural changes in the labor market. Yet the way people describe their perceptions and aspirations will also have further effects on their behavior. We view the hypotheses advanced in this paper, derived from these interviews, as starting points worth further exploration by social scientists, not as definitive evidence.