Published: June 28, 2018

Caption: Professor Kathryn Edin (Princeton) addresses the Life Course Centre Researchers’ Week.

White working class males in the US are “at a moment of profound transition” as they renegotiate their relationships with the traditionally binding social institutions of work, family and religion.

This is the important message from one of the world’s leading poverty and low-wage work researchers, Professor Kathryn Edin of Princeton University. The Life Course Centre was privileged to have Professor Edin as its Researcher in Residence during its Researchers’ Week in June.

A LCC Associate Investigator, Professor Edin presented an early overview of her latest research on ‘The Tenuous Attachments of Working Class Men’. She also hosted several workshops and provided invaluable research advice and mentoring to Life Course Centre students, including highly-interactive and open sessions on interviewing techniques and methods.

Professor Edin, a renowned mixed-method researcher, admitted her latest research was still very much a work in progress and her Life Course Centre address was the first time it had been presented. However, even at this early stage, it pointed to the emergence of what she termed “a radical new form of masculinity” in the US.

The research is based on in-depth interviews with 110 middle educated (high school but no college) men from five working class cities in the US. These interviews are being blended with ethnographic literature and demographic data to create a fresh hypothesis on the pressing question of: what is going on with working class men?

The background to the research is the dramatic increase in the non-participation rate of prime-age (25-54) working class males from the US labour force. There has also been a marked increase in “deaths of despair” (suicide, overdose and liver-related disease) plaguing white working class males, but not African Americans or Latinos.

Professor Edin said while these trends were unique to the US, Australia was the only other country showing a similar pattern. This suggests the research could also potentially resonate with what is happening with working class males in Australia.

“A key part of the story is the tenuous attachment of working class men to the social institutions of work, family and religion,” she said. ‘Working class men are trying to remake their relationships with these institutions to which they were traditionally binded.”

With work, men are rejecting the monotony and limited autonomy of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ life-long manual jobs in a drive for creative self-expression and generativity.

With family, they are withdrawing from the traditional spousal role, have a primary attachment to the father role and view marriage as completely optional.

With religion, men are withdrawing from organised religion and engaging in ‘DIY religion’.

Professor Edin said this “autonomous, expressive, generative self was also the haphazard self” and was leading to what she called “a life without guard rails”.

She said the policy solutions to this have so far focussed mainly on “going back to the past” through renewed calls for greater emphasis on unions, tariffs and assembly jobs. But she warned that the “old days were not the good days” and there was no going back.

Professor Edin said there was a need for more creative policy ideas and solutions, such as making jobs in home aid and care work better paid and also tapping into the expressive, entrepreneurial spirit evident in the “side bets” or side jobs of white working class men.

“Men are wanting to make new wines but don’t fit the old wine skins,” she said. “We need to look at their stories and what they are telling us.”