Apart from weakened labor protections and the uneven distribution of productivity gains to workers, marital trends can play a role in maintaining inequality as well. Sociologists such as Robert Mare and Kate Choi argue that the tendency for people to marry people like themselves extends to the realms of income, educational level, and occupation—which means richer people marry those with similar levels of wealth and income.
Marriages that unite two people from different class backgrounds might seem to be more egalitarian, and a counterweight to forces of inequality. But recent research shows that there are limitations to cross-class marriages as well.
In her 2015 book The Power of the Past, the sociologist Jessi Streib shows that marriages between someone with a middle-class background and someone with a working-class background can involve differing views on all sorts of important things—child-rearing, money management, career advancement, how to spend leisure time. In fact, couples often overlook class-based differences in beliefs, attitudes, and practices until they begin to cause conflict and tension.
When it comes to attitudes about work, Streib draws some particularly interesting conclusions about her research subjects. She finds that people who were raised middle-class are often very diligent about planning their career advancement. They map out long-term plans, meet with mentors, and take specific steps to try to control their career trajectories. People from working-class backgrounds were no less open to advancement, but often were less actively involved in trying to create opportunities for themselves, preferring instead to take advantage of openings when they appeared.
When these people wound up in cross-class marriages, those from middle-class backgrounds often found themselves trying to push working-class spouses to adopt different models for career advancement—encouraging them to pursue additional education, be more self-directed in their careers, or actively develop and nurture the social networks that can often be critical to occupational mobility. But Streib finds that while working-class partners may have appreciated their middle-class spouses’ advice, they usually only followed it in times of crisis.
According to Streib, this illustrates the difficulty of transferring cultural capital. Unlike social capital, which involves relationships—think a family friend who can help arrange a job at a prestigious law firm—cultural capital involves being familiar with tastes, preferences, and behaviors that are normative in a given setting. It’d mean knowing that at that law firm, it’s important to show a preference for scotch over moonshine and Cuban cigars over chewing tobacco.
One of the limitations of Streib’s study is that she focuses exclusively on white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class couples in stable relationships, so her conclusions are not necessarily generalizable outside of this group. But her conclusions are undeniably important and have implications for how inequalities may be maintained in the workplace. For one thing, employees brought up in working-class families may find that the skills and values that were helpful to them growing up—an ability to be spontaneous, to wait for opportunities to become available, to maintain an identity apart from work—do not necessarily translate into the professional world. Meanwhile, workers with middle-class backgrounds may hold an invisible advantage, in the sense that their upbringing infused them with the cultural capital that is valued and welcomed in white-collar settings.
These cross-class dynamics may compound the difficulties faced by nonwhite and/or female workers, who are underrepresented in professional environments. Blacks, for instance, are scarce in managerial jobs and in the middle class, and thus may be less likely to find themselves in cross-class marriages. And even when they do, blacks from working-class families may find that even with the well-meaning suggestions of their middle-class black spouses, cultural capital may not be enough to surmount the well-documented racial barriers to advancement in professional jobs. Similar barriers are likely in place for women of all races. For women from working-class backgrounds, middle-class spouses’ models for navigating professional environments may not trump the “mommy tax,” glass ceilings, or the other social processes that can limit women’s mobility in male-dominated fields like law, business, and medicine.
With some additional analysis, then, Streib’s work can provide a useful framework for understanding why professional jobs are mainly the province of those who are white, male, and not raised working-class. It can also offer insights into the barriers that exist for workers who don’t fit into these categories.
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