walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Unfinished Revolution_, Kathleen Gerson (kindle)

Subtitled: How a New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America

I was reading this several weeks ago and then didn't pick the kindle up for a while. B. was out sick today, so while I was following A. around and playing with plastic items and keeping her from toppling off the playset in the dining room, I grabbed the kindle to try to remember what I was reading before taxes and a (wonderful) houseguest so thoroughly distracted me.

Gerson took the middle road between ethnography and multiple-choice questionnaire: she and a couple grad students did in depth interviews with a bunch of young people around the age of 25. Thus they had all grown up in a world in which divorce and mothers working were quite common. Gerson's work is rooted in Stephanie Coontz', so it is unsurprising that Gerson would conclude that static categories for families lacked explanatory power in terms of how the grown-up offspring would feel about their childhood and whether the family's economic trajectory was positive or negative.

What did that mean? Well, it means that Gerson found a bunch of people who grew up with a father who worked and a mother who stayed home wound up very unhappy with the results and vowed not to reproduce that. She also found a few who liked that and had that as a goal. She found a bunch of people whose parents broke up and may or may not have then started new relationships, and some of the offspring liked that and some didn't. She found parents who abandoned the family, and sometimes that was good and sometimes that was bad. She found breadwinner dads who were unable to keep up and when mom stepped up, the family really did well -- and sometimes mom got stuck doing everything and the kids were really wary of getting stuck in a similar situation as adults.

Kind of a duh thing, but the details do need to be worked through.

Gerson's focus was quite tightly on gender flexibility leading to success and gender inflexibility creating fragility and often leading to a downward economic path. Her examples do a reasonable job of supporting this analysis.

Gerson does a lovely bit of analysis showing that young men and women share an ideology of work-life balance in which all parents have fulfilling work that earns money and all parents are involved in childcare -- but when that ideal encounters reality, women are very emphatic about not wanting to become dependent and men are very emphatic about not having to sacrifice a time-demanding career to family needs. The result is that the fallback position is a neotraditional one for men -- and a very different arrangement for women.

And that is what makes the book worth reading. It is _incredibly_ valuable to have data showing that there is vast agreement between men and women on the importance of family AND of fulfilling work. It is even more valuable to realize that the sociopolitical environment (and its conspicuous lack of support for this set of ideals) is driving the conflict. Gerson correctly -- but vaguely -- points to the need for political, collective solutions to this problem. Individual solutions will continue to be inadequate, and drive family conflict.

Wonky, and likely to annoy people who find reading social science stuff annoying. But it is well done and an important work.
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