The Perniciously Simultaneous Erosion of Work and Family Stability

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Last month I had the pleasure of attending and presenting my work at two stimulating conferences. Interestingly, a prominent speaker at each conference echoed a similar theme--that is, scholars of work and those interested in the well-being of workers and their families need to pay attention not only to rise of job insecurity, but also to the interplay with the rise of family insecurity.

At the American Sociological Association meetings, Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University, emphasized that increasing economic insecurity has been accompanied by a decline in personal relationship stability. Importantly, these are not independent. At the same time that parenting intensification is needed to combat the economic insecurity of the next generation, relationship instability makes this parenting intensification harder to achieve (as presumably does the increase in the parents' economic insecurity). So, as Professor Gerson notes, the worlds of work and care are colliding.

Later in month at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Research on Work hosted by the Turku University, I was then struck when Jill Rubery, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Manchester, again raised this issue. Professor Rubery's keyword was "fragmented." She discussed the well-known ways in which work and employment relationships have become increasingly fragmented, with negative consequences for job security and job quality. Like Professor Gerson, Professor Rubery insightfully demonstrated that these changes are placing greater strains on families at the same time as family structure is also becoming more fragmented. A striking number of OECD countries, for example, have experienced double-digit increases in the proportion of births that take place out of wedlock.

Granted, these are complex dynamics. Does an increase in job insecurity cause greater family fragmentation--for example, due to the increased stress of uncertain finances? Does greater family fragmentation contribute to employment relationship fragmentation--for example, by reducing human capital accumulation? Are fragmented families with stable jobs better or worse off than stable families with fragmented jobs? It will take a lot of careful work to rigorously understand issues as complex as these.

In the meantime, even if not fully understood, the likely interrelationship between work fragmentation and family fragmentation should be another strike against the myth that sees work and family as two separate spheres. What happens in the workplace, affects the family. What happens in the family, affects work. Ideally, stability in one domain should be able to help cushion the blow of instability in the other. But many workers and their families are not so lucky. As work and families are both increasingly more fragmented, it is critical that we pay closer attention to these linkages. From this can come better strategies to address the host of negative effects for workers, their families, and their communities.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.