SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University Library.
SHARON SASSLER: I really am happy to be here to share my work. And for those of you who are relatively new here, I see some students here, I would like you to know that Cornell has this very long tradition of being at the forefront of the study of cohabitation, or the experience of cohabitation. So when I heard Alan was coming to introduce me today, I pulled some information about a well-known human ecology lecturer, Eleanor Macklin, who had been studying cohabitation at Cornell in the 1970s. Unfortunately, she left Cornell in 1975 without getting tenure. So I'm glad that I held off writing this book until I was promoted so that I didn't have that concern.
But we also had a male graduate student who 50 years ago around this time was expelled from the graduate program for cohabiting with his partner, which I just learned today. And a couple of years ago, I was asked to speak on a book by Cynthia Bowman-- she's a professor in the law school-- on unmarried couples law and public policy. So this has been a very nice environment. So there's a rich, deep history of the study of cohabitation at Cornell, which has been a pleasure.
I am glad that cohabitation is no longer considered not an appropriate area for inquiry. But what has changed since the 1970s when Eleanor Macklin was castigated for studying what was deemed as an apparent living arrangement is that over time cohabitation has come to be seen as this heading says, the new normal. So it's considered as normative, and the majority of young adults are expected to cohabit. But what I noticed in my studies is that these common media portrayals of cohabitation tended to focus most exclusively on the behaviors of the highly educated, the affluent. And in doing so, they suggest that their experiences are representative of, if not all, most cohabitors.
So this is an example, there were a lot of news stories that came out in 2013 because there was a newly released report from data drawn from the National Survey of Family Growth that indicated that nearly half of all women's first union's, 48%, were cohabitation rather than marriage. So we have the new normal.
And this story featured prominently this lovely couple, in part because the woman was a blogger for glamour.com. And she wrote about her experiences moving in with her partner and the couple's subsequent engagement. So you can see the nice rock at the bottom of the picture.
Now because she was a blogger, she talked a lot about her relationship for work, and she posted it a little bit more information about how this relationship had progressed, which, as a social demographer, I was very interested in. So if you note here you can see the sequencing of a relationship is relatively protracted for somebody who has an apartment or two apartments in New York City. So she talked about dating for two years before they moved in together. And a little over a year later they got engaged and began to plan their destination wedding in Aruba.
So there were a fair number of stories on this newly released data point, the 48%, and commenting on this story. A well-known family demographer, who is not me, commented about the growing acceptability of being in a long-term committed relationship without marriage. And she was quoted as saying, it's becoming more acceptable to be in a long-term committed relationship without a legal document, before she concluded with, the question becomes not who cohabits, but who doesn't.
I'm going to walk you through the evidence about who is doing it, in part because this is a book about gender and social class and how that differentiates the experiences of living together. And most demographers do know that, even though cohabitation has become far more common across the social class spectrum, it is the college educated who remain the least likely to enter into cohabiting unions as their first relationships. And cohabitation is far more common among those with less education.
So we also see that outcomes of living with a partner differ pretty sizeably by social class. So those with a college degree or higher are considerably more likely to transition within three years into a marital union than are those with less than a college degree. And you can see the important social class gradations.
So media portrayals that present the experience of the college educated as the norm are misrepresenting important transformations in the family that have important ramifications for inequality, gender relations, and family formation. Rather than asking, who is or isn't cohabiting, our book argues that the real question should be, are the experiences of cohabiting youth from more and less advantaged backgrounds similar.
So I do tend to cover too much here. So I'm going to do a spoiler alert and give you the results of the book. Just to let you know that, no, there are really significant differences between the more and less highly educated at all stages of the relationship.
So that starts with how rapidly they move in together. It extends to how they negotiate things like contraceptive usage and whether they can afford the most effective forms of contraception, how they divide up housework, how they communicate about the future, and then where they think they're heading. So there are these stark social class differences that begin prior to the start of the relationship. And that was the research that was missing that motivated this study.
So another reason I began doing this research is that I had noticed that we paid more attention in journalism to the experiences of the highly educated, but we were missing out on a sizable proportion of the population whose experiences are less well-represented because journalists don't necessarily know them. It used to be the case that we knew a lot about the relationships of what were termed working class families. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a lot of research, some by [INAUDIBLE] or Lillian Rubin, that explored the family lives of the groups that accounted for the largest proportion of American families-- the working class. Many of these studies utilized qualitative approaches to better understand the ways that families who were described as working class made sense of the challenges of modernization, consumerism, and changing gender roles.
But when I went to graduate school and subsequently the research moved away from that and began to focus much more on the experiences of high-flying professional women. So we see research books coming out like Mary Blair-Loy's Competing Devotions about professional women, or Pamela Stone's Opting Out, which talked about high-flying lawyers and media people who left the labor force. Or, at the complete other side of the income spectrum, you had books by authors like Kathy Eden and Maria Kefalas that focused on low income women who are having children.
So we see this by bifurcation of the research, and what's gone missing are this important group in the middle. And this is going along at the same time that the middle class is essentially being hollowed out. So I thought it would be important to look at the experiences of that missing group, which used to be called the missing class, but which I in this book call the service class, in part because working class jobs are few and far between.
And most of the service class youth I interviewed are in these high turnover service-oriented jobs. They are waiters or they're nannies or they work at call centers. And while we do see that there are a few young men in working class jobs-- they're mechanics or they work at loading docks-- it's relatively few and they often have to cobble their work together with part-time service jobs. So it is very important to think about this moderately educated group, in part because they still make out the largest share of American adults.
The college educated, even though that's most of our social network, at the time we are doing the interviews of adults over the age of 25, only 30% had a college degree or more. And over half of adults over the age of 25 had a high school degree or some post-secondary college, but no degree.
So it is very important, I argue in our book that our research on the challenges facing the family better reflect the groups most likely to have experienced many of these challenges. And it's particularly important in light of the recent election where we hear a lot about angry voters and this working class to figure out how they're responding to changes in gender roles and whether they embrace them or resist them.
So how do I go about doing this? Well, I was at Ohio State and my first year at Cornell and I engaged in doing qualitative in-depth interviews with cohabiting couples while I was in Columbus, Ohio. So these interviews we conducted, we did them between 2004 and 2006. So these are interviews that were done before the recession when there were plentiful jobs in Columbus, Ohio that paid above the minimum wage.
We interviewed over 130 young adults who were cohabiting at the time. And it was important that we look at two different groups of cohabitors, so we first focused on the moderately educated couples or those who have a high school degree or some college but not a four-year degree, which we call the service class. And then we interviewed college-educated couples, which we're going to refer to as the more standard middle class.
Because we wanted to learn about how both men and women experience their relationships, we interviewed both members of the couple at the same time but in different locations. So this is a great way to get at the he said and she said of relationships. Oftentimes, you hear relatively similar stories up to a certain point, and then sometimes they diverge or sometimes they are refreshingly similar. And other times you're wondering what planet they're on and if they really share a place together because the stories are so different.
And these were extensive, in-depth interviews. They took between one and three hours. And that depended on how chatty the respondents were. But we often emerged from the three-hour interview starving, exhausted, and ready to call it a day.
These interviews were transcribed verbatim, and we have altered the names of all the respondents to preserve their confidentiality. And I will be presenting some of the quotes from these respondents. I'm not going to cover this whole thing because that's the entire book, but in purple I have a couple chapters that I do want to rush through-- and I mean rush.
So the first chapter will be this shacking up, living in sin, or saving on rent, or how couples move in to their shared living arrangement. Then I'll spend a little time talking about contraception among cohabiting couples and how they communicate or not about whether they are planning on having children. And then the third one is about discussions about the future, or the talk as the couples call it.
So I'm going to start with the rethinking relationships or the transition to moving in. This is initially how I got started as a social demographer using quantitative data, in that I noticed we did not know very much about how long it took couples from when they started dating to when they moved in together, in part because there are data limitations. But I was interested in exploring how rapidly relations progressed into shared living.
And then the reasons that people gave for moving in, because what a lot of demographers had done up until that point was to look at the outcomes and then infer what the reason was. If you got married, then it was presumed that this was a precursor to marriage. So I thought it would be interesting to unpack that a bit further.
And I'm going to do the cardinal sin for qualitative research and present a graph of the time to move in for my cohabiting couples because this is based on a really small sample. It is 61 couples. But we did ask questions about when they started, when they became involved, and when they moved in. Couples don't always agree on the tempo, but they're usually off only by one or two months.
And so we looked at the timing and realized that half exactly of our less educated couples had moved in with their partner within six months of the start of their relationship, but the transition into shared living was considerably slower for the college educated. And if you recall, the glamour blogger dated for two years before moving in with her partner. So it seemed like there was a little face validity.
I also should report that I have an article coming out in Demography that is based on several thousand women that further verifies that there are social class differences in the timing from sex to moving in, with the less educated moving and considerably more rapidly than the more educated. So that just tells you they're moving in quicker.
It's also helpful to know why they're moving in quicker. And many of our respondents, regardless of whether they were service class or middle class, mentioned that they needed housing or that it was more convenient. But when you look at all the reasons that they give, we asked what were the circumstances at the time you moved in together, and then we also asked a direct question about why did you decide to live together.
And a couple of different reasons came out-- they vary in important ways by social class. So we find that the service class couples were much more likely to talk about financial necessity as a reason for moving in. So Sherry-- not this Sherry, this Sherry-- said something about my main motivation, this is so bad, was money, because she didn't have the first month, last month down payment that's needed to get a new apartment, so she moved in with Tyron.
Service class couples also talked about how they wanted to be together, but the way they talked about that was not similar at all to discussing cohabitation as the next step or a sign of intensification of commitment. So they talk about attraction and time spent together, and it stops there.
And then a third reason that the service class gave, they often talked about family issues. So for some, they were living with parents, and they were fighting a lot, and they just wanted to get out of the parental home. Or they were living with a sibling who was trying to monitor their pot smoking and they were fighting a lot. But for a few, they were already involved with their partner and they got pregnant, and so they decided that they were going to cohabit.
And these reasons differed in really interesting ways, I think, from the middle class couples who talked about convenience. It was a pain driving all the way home to get her bag or get showered. Another respondent talked about how his clothes kept seeping into her apartment and how much easier it was not to have to worry about where the curling iron was residing. And that's convenience.
The middle class also mentioned frequently what I call economic rationality, that it just makes so much more sense, given that you're paying two rents, two of this, two of that. Or one of the women, she told her partner, do you realize how much money we're wasting. And that's an economic rationality argument that for me is quite a bit different than a financial necessity argument.
And then the third comment that was frequently given was that cohabitation was just the next step. So Evans says, it was a timing/I-knew-this-was-the-girl-I-was-going-to-marry thing. And of particular note is that it's a lot more of the middle class men that are talking about living together as the next step or intensification of commitment. And that will come into play later on when we talk about discussions of the future, because it's a gender thing.
It's also interesting to think about how couples talked about the tempo, because saying that something is fast is pretty subjective. So you want to see how the couple experienced it. And when we asked them how they felt about the tempo, a lot of our respondents, both middle class and service class, said that they thought it had progressed really quickly.
But the service class was more likely to say that it had progressed too quickly. And so we have a number of respondents say that they wished they could slow it down or that they wish they hadn't moved somebody into their apartment within the first week. Or Susan's quote where she says she wished it hadn't progressed so fast.
And we asked her, well, what does that mean. And she said, because to me, normally, when couples start dating, I don't think they should move in like two or three months right after they meet each other. You know, usually you want to get to know each other a little bit more. That part just seemed like it was just really fast.
And we talked more in depth to her. She was a religious cohabitor, and she had felt like this was not something they would have done if she had her druthers until they were married. But they did not, either of them, have any kind of economic support from their parents, and they were juggling with multiple jobs and debt from various degree programs they were pursuing, and car bills. And so this was the option that she and Eugene took, but it was not something that she would have chosen if she had more means.
Our highly educated couples also talked about how things had progressed fast or rapidly, but they seem to mean something different. So they are suggesting that there's some normative script that you follow as your relationship progresses. And so Justine, who was a graduate student in psychology, talks about that she thought that the relationship had progressed really fast because we just really hit it off right away. I mean, even though we technically didn't move in until about a year.
So she's letting you know that she followed this normative sequence, but she said it really felt fast. And then they did say that from the get-go they had spent almost every night together. But they maintained separate apartments for a year until they could really assess that the relationship was stable.
So if I'm going to summarize this, the tempo into shared living clearly differs by social class. And that gives the college-educated couples more time to assess the strength of these relationships before they are doing away with their escape hatch of a separate apartment. The reasons that are offered for why couples moved in together also differ in important ways, with the less educated more often talking about economic necessity, as opposed to economic rationality. And third is that college-educated men are far more likely to be talking about cohabitation as the next step towards marriage.
So I'm going to move right into the next chapter, which is not sequential in the book. We have a chapter on how they negotiate housework. But family planning is also another important factor to think about when you're looking at young couples, in part because there are really high rates of unintended pregnancy among young cohabitors.
If we look at the level of unintended pregnancies, they're highest among young women with less education who are cohabiting. So we thought that it would be interesting to explore from the couple level what's going on with these cohabitors that might account for why unintended pregnancies and non-marital births are higher among the less educated couples than more educated. So we asked about how they had discussed contraceptive usage and whether they wanted to have children together, what their frame was, as well as what methods they were using to prevent pregnancy, if they were not at the moment thinking of having children.
And what we discovered was that most respondents at the time we interviewed them were not trying to become pregnant. So many of them thought that they might have children with their partner down the road, but this was almost always a future thing. And we also have a handful of couples who said that they never wanted to have any more children together. So seven is not a small number, and they tend to raise this issue very early on in their relationship to make sure that their partner is on the same page.
We do also note that agreement about whether and when children might come into the picture is greater among our college-educated sample than our less-educated sample. And that is in part due to the fact that 14 of our 30 service class couples are already parents or living with children from prior relationships. So there is considerable difference between our less educated and our more educated couples in terms of experience with their own fertility.
But this couple level agreement is actually interesting when we think about what are their plans with regards to future children. And we see that there are considerable couple level differences where both partners are not in agreement about the future. And so I've presented these two couples that will come through repeatedly in this sample, because not only are they not on the same page with regards to whether they want children, they're not on the same page with regards to contraception and what they're using. And this might help explain why unintended pregnancy and birth rates are higher among less educated women.
So Spencer and Brittany have been living together for about four years, although it was an on and off relationship-- they broke up for a spell. And Spencer is clear that he does not want to have any more children. He already has a nine and 1/2 year old who is the result of an unintended pregnancy with his high school girlfriend. They got married and then they got divorced. But he's been through that, and he doesn't want to go through it again because, whew, it's rough.
And Brittany who was 20 when she met him at at a bar is less sure about her fertility desires. And I love this quote, but she says, I thought about maybe having one just to have the experience. It's not an experience that you just hand back at the end of the day, but she talks about how her biological clock has not even begun ticking yet. So a little in doubt about whether she thinks she might change her mind because she's only 24.
Adam and Sheryl are a different kind of couple. They both have children from prior relationships, but they still are not necessarily in agreement. Adam says, I don't really like kids. So he's clear he's not interested in having another baby.
But Sheryl is drawn to the idea of a baby, and sometimes she says she really wants one. And she's trying to start up a career in hospitality services, but she's worried that if she does that, she can't do that with a child. But she still sometimes thinks it would be a great idea to have a second child.
So what's notable, especially among these couples-- you would think that if a partner does not want to have a child that they are very consistently utilizing contraception or making sure that their partners are-- is that we note considerable class differences in contraceptive use. And here we have Adam and Sheryl, and Adam does not like children. But the methods that they're relying on are not the most effective method, so we might say.
So we did note, it is a small sample, but only half of our service class couples reported using either hormonal or barrier methods to prevent contraception. These are the most effective methods, and instead they're relying on condoms and withdrawal.
And over the course of a year, if you utilize withdrawal at the usual rate, I think it's something like 27 out of 100 women will become pregnant. So Adam, despite not wanting to have any children, is utilizing withdrawal. And Sheryl is not really good about taking the pill. And they've not gone in to discuss perhaps a more effective method of contraception-- there are plenty out there. So this is a couple where with a little additional discussion they might find a method that's better for them, but they haven't made the time or realize that they should be doing that.
When we talk to our middle class couples, what we get is a very different sense of precaution, right? So they are far more likely to be using hormonal and barrier methods, and additionally quite a few are using two methods. And this perception of paranoia pervades.
So if you look at Kevin's quote at the bottom, he's worried about that 1%. So it's 99% effective, I guess it's that 1% that freaks me out. So they make sure that they're double protecting. And Jessica and her partner, her partner also laughs at her because she's so paranoid. And this sense of paranoia does pervade many of our middle class couples.
They also report-- actually, this is interesting-- they report more pregnancy scares, even though they're using these highly effective methods. So if one is on antibiotics or a condom breaks and it's their second method, they're really still worried about getting pregnant because they're aware of the cumulative risks. And they're really working on planning these pregnancies so that they have them when they're ready for them. So they do seem a lot more concerned about accidental pregnancies.
But we also notice that there's a difference in how couples talk about contraception, with the college educated acting more like a team to prevent pregnancy, rather than viewing it as an individual responsibility of the woman. So Andrew talks about how much they've talked about contraception because both of us recognized early on that we were not going to have a child hopefully until we're ready.
So there's just more discussion upfront. Not always before they have sex, but shortly thereafter. But that is less the case-- we do have a very small number of service class men who are definitely saying that it's the woman's responsibility to prevent.
So Robert and Vanessa had engaged in this negotiation about whether he would use condoms or not. And he basically said, no, and that was it. So less communication and agreement on contraceptive use. This also comes out when we're thinking about housework. You see how the difference in negotiation plays out there.
So you might be wondering, well, why, if you are like Tom Price, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, and you think that every woman has access to contraception, you might be wondering what are some of the issues. And we hear repeatedly through our surveys that many of these women express financial difficulty in affording the methods that they would most like to use. And those are the hormonal methods that are more expensive, but also more effective.
So Marta who already has two children from a prior marriage is partnered with Harry, who is unemployed at the time. And they really, really want to have a baby later on, But they have these erratic work schedules. And so she says that her hours got cut where she was working at a gas station, and so she lost her insurance and she couldn't afford her birth control. This couple is ambivalent-- they really want a baby, they're trying to hold off. But without birth control, the likelihood that they would get pregnant is considerably higher.
Spencer and Brittany, again, I'm featuring them here because she is also working a few jobs and none of them at this point in time provided enough benefits to really cover the contraception that she would like to use. And her partner, Spencer, is aware of this. So he says, she's not currently using Depo-Provera because she can't afford to because she doesn't have insurance. She's just working at a pet shelter and a restaurant, so she doesn't have like benefits. So he's aware.
And she has not yet mustered up the ability to ask him to help share the costs with her. So she says, it's not really something I have money for right now, so I just keep putting it off and putting it off, right.
That is a little bit different than the middle class stories where the couples are communicating more about pregnancy prevention, and more of the college-educated men talk about helping their partners by the birth control method of their choice. So they do discuss what they're utilizing. And if the NuvaRing is too expensive monthly, they will cough up the price of it a bit more. So it looks like it's important to think about men's roles in contraception when we're looking at couples to figure out why some couples-- couples, not just individual women-- are less likely to experience unintended pregnancies.
We also do see social class differences in the likelihood of becoming parents. So our service class respondents are more likely to become parents in these relationships. We have seven pregnancies and nine births among this sample of 60. So two couples had two children, and those are the ones who carried the pregnancy to term. There are two couples among the college educated who had children, but it's much more prevalent among the less educated couples.
And for some of these couples, pregnancy was the precipitation to moving in together. So they had been dating, and they got pregnant, they cohabited. But others who got pregnant within their union, many of them discussed whether or not they would or should get married. And they decided that it was not the best option, but staying together for the child was.
And this is very similar to a lot of the work done on fragile families, about couples saying it's best for the child if we live together, but not necessarily marriage. The college educated, when we talked to them about what they would do if they had an unintended pregnancy-- so this is a possibility-- they were much more likely to say that they would get married before the birth.
So part of what we find might be a sampling issue of who we're talking to. The quantitative data does find that college-educated women who get pregnant are considerably more likely to transition into a marriage before the birth of the child. So they're just harder to find, and that might be shaping our story. But we do see more of these pregnancies and births among our less educated women.
We also hear stories about abortions, and we hear them more within these current relationships among our less educated samples. But I really want to highlight that we also got a lot of stories of retrospective abortions, abortions that had happened in the past for our college-educated young adults.
So Jonathan, who's 29 now, and both he and his partner had previous pregnancies that they had terminated. And he talks about it as a wake up call. So he is somebody who's maybe learned from previous scares. And I have quite a few of the men do talk about this.
I do want to highlight this point, though, because frequently when people talk about less educated and more educated, they tend to castigate the less educated for their poor decisions and their behaviors. And it seems to me that at earlier ages and stages, these middle class young adults were quite similar to the service class. They experienced similar things, but either a parent of the woman made a different outcome, or they weren't ready and they decided differently.
And it's important to think that they're not so different, they had similar experiences. But the outcomes were seriously different, and that affected the trajectories of their lives. So I really want to highlight this because I don't want to be blaming the service class for their behaviors and acting like they're so different from the middle class.
So to sum up the fertility chapter, we find that there is less agreement about the future and whether or not to have children among our less educated samples. But they're also using less effective birth control methods, so they are more likely to come up pregnant.
The men are playing a different role among the less educated than they are for the more educated. They sometimes resist taking responsibility for being part of this contracepting couple, and they less often offer to pay to help out with this responsibility.
The middle class college-educated respondents are also more risk averse or aware of the cumulative risks of getting pregnant if you're sexually active. And in their current relationships, they have fewer pregnancies at least that they report to us. And they should have fewer pregnancies because they are utilizing more effective contraceptive methods. But in some ways when they were young they looked not that much different from our less educated respondents.
OK, so picture. So the book is about social class difference, but there's also a huge gender component of this book because we did see that gender disparities played out in really interesting ways. And one of the ways that it most plays out is in terms of the middle class having more agency in talking about what they wanted and being heard by their male partners. And this is particularly the case when it comes to this very cheesy picture of how couples talk about the future. So it is very gendered in that you have the man on his knee who is clearly proposing with the box in the middle of the field of sunflowers, right? Yes, so it's very gendered.
And one of the things that we were interested in exploring in this research is that couples increasingly talk about wanting to have egalitarian relationships, but we wanted to see if that was actually practiced, all right. And so we were wondering, was relationship progression, was it gendered. Or in an egalitarian couple, could either partner raise the topic of the future or propose, right? And we wanted to see whether there were social class differences in it. So what might happen if somebody tried to flip the script and the woman proposed as opposed to the man.
And we're sadly discouraged by what we found, because it seems that the proposal process has become increasingly gendered. I don't have time series data on this, but the extent to which men are expected to do this all out novel proposal and women are expected to say yes seems to have become more entrenched, although there are ways in which women can push the boundaries that we'll see in a second.
But men generally believe that they control the timing of relationship progression, and they also often said that women were waiting to be asked. So Stan is one example-- his partner was waiting. And she was waiting, she kept saying that she pushes him on it. And he's just telling her to wait and be patient.
And you see how this dance is played out in that women of both classes are often reluctant to talk about the future for fear of being perceived as pushy or having to push their male partner into it. That's how I feel about it. No, no, you're making a face like, what's going on here. And that is exactly how I feel, all right.
So Aliya says, I usually have to force Terrell into talking about it, and he just doesn't want to talk about it. And this extends across class lines, with some of these men feeling like they definitely had the upper hand in this.
So Jack is definitely a jerk, but he is saying, you can walk, don't force my hand. So if you really want a decision, the decision is going to be, you are walking. And he's very confident that he is in charge of the progression. But other guys are just don't want to even talk about it. And this does seem very gendered, but it is pretty pervasive in these interviews.
However, and we do see that it's a two-partner deal. So a lot of the women also expressed the view that men should do the proposing, or that they want to be asked. So even if they would want to speed things up, it's the man's job. So a lot of these women have really ceded the responsibility to the man.
So Laura was a waitress who actually had a picture of the engagement ring that she wanted in her pocketbook and pulled it out to show me. It's a lot like my engagement ring. And I was like, that's lovely. But she was not pushing him and setting a time frame or anything because she wanted him to do the asking.
And when I asked why, she said, because that's the man's job, the man is supposed to do it. And when I asked what her job was, she said to say, yes, to wear the ring. I love doing interviews because you hear things like this.
And a lot of the women expressed great concerns about breaking the rules of gender norms where they are not supposed to be too pushy. So Christina is a 24-year-old architect, so she's professional. And she has learned that women just don't say certain things. And this was pretty pervasive.
Men, they don't have any concerns about the timing of bringing things up. They're often encouraged in various ways so that they will know that if they bring it up the reception will be positive. But a lot of these men-- not all, but the vast majority-- did not think that it was acceptable for a woman to propose to a man.
So both of these are service class men. Robert never wants to get married. But he says, it's not really her place to make the decision. And Ron has this idea of how it should be, and it should be that the man does the proposing. And it's these beliefs that perhaps keep their partners from pushing things more.
In fact, we have a fair number of men who talk about how if the woman proposed they would laugh it off. So Terrell says, it would be funny, I'd probably laugh. And his partner does push him on stuff, but he has let it be known that this is a joke.
We also have this middle class man who says that a proposal would be cute, so it's diminishing women's desires about progressing a relationship. But that doesn't mean that these women don't play any role. Particularly among the middle class, these women have agency enough to try to set a time frame. So they're setting out, they're starting conversations about where the men see this relationship going, so it's the future talk.
Where's the relationship going? Jared says, we pretty much both inched into, yes, I want to marry you one of these days. So he's talking about their talk-- the talk. And then Emily also talks about they are on a camping trip and she's asking where's this heading.
And then Andrea, I think this is also a very funny quote because she's just laying it out there. Do you see us getting married someday. And he said, yes. But that's not enough, she needs to have a better time frame. So she says, OK, in the near future, or is it something that's going to be happening within the next year or so. Like the next year is really far away. So she's definitely setting a time frame. And many of the women, particularly the college-educated women, are doing this.
We also see a couple of instances-- but they're rare-- of ultimatums. And we might not see too many of these instances because if there's not agreement they might not be in our sample. The couples might have broken up.
But this was a successful ultimatum. Taylor and Bree at the time we interviewed them were planning their wedding. And Taylor is the man in this couple, and he is talking about how she laid it out for him. And she said, after this lease is up, if we're not engaged, then it's time to live on my own. I just feel if you're not ready, then I don't know when you're going to be ready.
And asking her in a separate room, she's like, yeah. I was just trying to kick him in the by the little. She was pretty confident, however, that he was going to go along with this because she has been setting the stage for various aspects of the relationship all along. But she did say, I think I would have followed through with it if he was not ready because this is a woman who knows what she wants. And then Taylor says, yeah, I was all right with it, it was fair enough.
So this does give you a sense of couple level negotiation that emerges not just with the future talk but also with contraception and with how housework gets shared. And it gives you a sense of these are couples that have worked through many issues and might be good for the long run.
So to sum up, we do find these important social class differences in who is ready, willing, and able. That's a fertility framework, but it can also be used for marriage. And it is clear that among our sample we had more engaged middle class couples that were planning marriage that had been together for shorter periods of time.
In part, this could be because they have many of the prerequisites that are considered necessary for marriage. They've already at least obtained a bachelors degree, and some of them are working on graduate degrees. But often having that college degree is seen as enough. They have decent jobs with benefits, so they've got some of their ducks in order.
And the less educated are still-- many of them-- hoping to at some point finish degrees, even though they're in their 20's or early 30's. And there is less certainty about what their future holds with economics, with jobs.
We also do find that there is a much stronger partnership between men and women. Men are more amenable to marriage among the college educated than among the less educated, and so this is a two-sex issue. They're contributing to the progression.
We also do find that even though couples express this belief that they should be egalitarian or they want to be egalitarian, that there are these pretty entrenched gender norms with regards to relationship progression that we did not expect to find among cohabitors. And we see middle class women exhibiting more agency and asking for what they want. Service class women are more likely to hint and suggest, and they would propose. And in fact two of them did propose, but the men didn't take those proposals seriously.
So what we find is that there's really a lot of heterogeneity in terms of how couples experience the same process-- cohabitation. And it starts from the very inception and carries its way through at different stages of the relationships. And this results in the very different outcomes that we're seeing. So you can't open the paper today without reading about whether marriage has become a marker of privilege, and that the college educated are far more likely to be getting married nowadays than the less educated.
It is not just marriage, it's couple stability. And these interviews suggest that there are various reasons why the college educated have more stable relationships than do the less educated. But it is important to think about why relationships might be less stable. And there's a lot here about economic constraints and an inability to afford the most effective contraception.
So I just want to emphasize that their experiences differ from the get-go. Our last chapter we do talk about policy recommendations, because I am in the Department of Policy Analysis. And there are clearly some policy recommendations that might make it easier for less advantaged young adults to focus on establishing a career and getting a start rather than maybe moving in rapidly with a partner.
One of these would be affordable housing. So a very large number of our less-educated respondents mentioned how much of their income they were paying for rent. And it was well above the laughable 30% that is the recommendation. Moving into a new place, if you need to get out, is very difficult. You're expected to have three months of rent, and that can be really exorbitant for people who don't have a lot of savings.
And we have not focused a lot on affordable housing and how that affects the living arrangements of young adults or single mothers, for example. So for those people who are interested in thinking about what the policy implication of changing relationships, that is one-- the need to expand affordable housing.
Also, in light of I would make the case that expanding access to affordable contraception with no copay is also clearly important. But given the recent Trump administration's rollback or doing away with the no copay contraceptive access, that doesn't seem likely.
So the policy implications are really about making it easier for less-educated, less-advantaged young adults who cannot necessarily rely on the bank of parent to engage in investing in human capital. I don't know that I think that the middle class norm is the model that everybody should aspire to, but it would make less-advantaged young adults' lives easier. And so that's it.
SPEAKER 2: We're going to take some questions?
SHARON SASSLER: I would love to take some questions.
SPEAKER 3: So I'll run around with the microphone. The reason for the microphone is to get it up on our video recording.
AUDIENCE: I may have missed in this beginning-- oh, thank you for your talk, by the way. It was actually fascinating. How did you get the people in your interview groups? What was your methodology for that?
SHARON SASSLER: So, yeah, I skimped on that. So we actually recruited at a community college. We posted signs up at Columbus State Community College. It's one of the largest community colleges in the nation. And actually, a couple of years ago, I read somewhere that it had the highest rate of when you're not repaying your loan.
So it has a lot of students who start out taking classes in a variety of fields. They have auto mechanics, they have childcare, and they have the standard preparation to go on to the four-year schools. So we recruited there. And then many of the people who saw the signs also suggested to friends.
So we do have about half of our less-educated sample were attending community college. But they also recommended it to other people.
For our college-educated respondents, we put up fliers in high-end grocery stores, in the proliferation of Irish pubs that we're expanding. Because you have to think about who can afford an $8 beer. And so we recruited through these more gourmet grocery stores and high-end drinking establishments.
So it's not hard to find cohabitors, but recruiting is an interesting challenge. There is a group, Alternatives for Marriage, but then you would get cohabitors who were marriage rejectors. Yeah, it would be skewed. So you advertise, and people come in, and you screen them to see if they fit in a certain income category.
We were screening out the low in the lowest income respondents because we did not want this to be a fragile family sample. So I think all of them earned as couples above $18,000 a year. So they were not eligible for various forms of assistance. Some of them did get alimony or assistance for children, but they were not the poorest of the poor among the service class.
AUDIENCE: What factors do you think might have changed in the past 10 years?
SHARON SASSLER: Yeah, we did this 10 years ago. And I am trying to explore-- as cohabitation becomes more normative, it becomes more acceptable, even for the college educated. So I actually have a graph here that shows that it's increased above the 50% mark in the most recent surveys for the college educated.
It has also bumped up for the less educated, but not that much. So there seems to be some cap. We do have religious, less-educated people who will not cohabit. But it's like 75% of women who have less than a high school degree, and 53% of the college educated. So the gaps are not really narrowing, but they're more likely to cohabit.
We also do see an increase in non-marital births to college-educated women, so it's gone from about 3% to maybe 8%. But these are small changes on a growing base. Other changes are that couples are living together for longer periods of time.
So as that happens, it seems like maybe for a growing number of couples, cohabitation might be becoming an alternative to marriage, as opposed to a stepping stone, in part because we have all these stories of respondents saying, why fix it if it ain't broke. Or, we're doing fine and we think that if we get married, we'll jinx it.
And as we see more of these long-term cohabiting couples, it might increasingly turn into an alternative. We particularly see that among our couples with children. So a lot of the earlier research found that such couples were less stable.
But some of the people in my department, we've been exploring whether those are becoming more stable over time as soon as they become more common. So that's some of the changes. It could really be challenging this whole structure of marriage, as more people are cohabiting.
It has also become a normative segue into marriage for the college educated. So I think it's almost 3/4 of recent marriages were preceded by cohabitation. So it is changing living arrangements in important ways.
Some people are also interested in exploring how it's changing among older couples. In most of the data sets that I use don't collect information on women past the age of 45, so it makes it challenging. There are some researchers who are trying to look at cohabitation among older couples, but that's harder to get at. And it's a much smaller proportion of cohabitors.
AUDIENCE: I'm wondering what the racial breakdown was for this, and if it was the same between the two groups.
SHARON SASSLER: It was not. Thank you. Ohio is not exactly the most racially diverse state, and we were in Columbus. The cities are more diverse than the rural areas. But the college educated was far less racially and ethnically diverse than the service class couples. We have a fair number of interracial relationships among the service class, and we have more African-American and Latino couples.
So we also had a fair number of people who identified as Native American in Ohio, which is unusual, because it's got a really small population of Native Americans. But if their partner didn't have any clue that they were Native, we figured that it wasn't a salient identity in their relationship. So it's much more diverse among the less educated, to sum it up shortly.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, Sharon, fascinating talk. I'm curious about the graduate student as a social category. That seems really interesting, particularly people in PhD programs where they have the education but they maybe don't have the savings or even the job security because they're still in the process of trying to achieve that. You mentioned the psychology PhD student,
SHARON SASSLER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: But if there was anything interesting from that grad student sample about maybe timing for cohabitation?
SHARON SASSLER: So the graduate students, there were a few. We did recruit at Ohio State, and so some people recommended people who ended up being in graduate school in a range of programs. So there was this woman in psychology, there was another in speech therapy and education.
But the PhD program respondents, they have stipends. And those stipends are well above poverty level. So when I was in graduate school our stipend was $6,700, so it was really close to poverty level. And if that had been the case for them, we would not have had them in our sample.
So Justine rode horses, she had a horse. There are these other indicators of class positioning that also came into play. And so by virtue of their $20,000-something stipend, they're doing better than a lot of the less-educated respondents. She had a lot of discussion about when would be a right time to get married or if this was the partner for her, and that was sometimes an issue when we had, I think, three or four graduate students among the women in the sample. But again, if they had been really low income, they would've been screened out.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Sharon, thank you. I don't want to overly generalize or draw too many conclusions from the excerpts I've just seen today, but I--
SHARON SASSLER: You need to read the book.
AUDIENCE: I need to read the book, exactly. But I did have a question because it seems like a lot of the differences that you were describing in terms of both outcomes, but also the trajectories, how the relations were progressing, seemed to be a result of these different paths of negotiation along the way, both in terms of contraception, or how do you set the stage for marriage, or do you even have any agency in setting that stage. And I was wondering if you had talked much about-- and we had that one person who said, well, she can walk, versus the woman from the middle class you were quoting who said--
SHARON SASSLER: That was a middle class guy who said she could walk.
AUDIENCE: Oh, that was-- versus a woman--
SHARON SASSLER: Bree.
AUDIENCE: Who said--
SHARON SASSLER: Who said, yeah.
AUDIENCE: I think he'll get on board, but I do have a plan to follow through if he doesn't. I was wondering if you had talked much to the couples about the prospect of dissolution, just dissolution meaning--
SHARON SASSLER: A breakup.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, so in other words, did you hear any differences across class lines about what are the fears of breaking up? Is it a financial fear? Is it a fear of not finding another relationship? What are the things that prevent people from walking? And because that clearly is playing into the background of some of the relationship dynamics too.
SHARON SASSLER: Thank you. So I have a paper that's based on this data set that's called the specter of divorce. And it is how fears of breakup influence-- it's more their attitudes towards marriage. Because they're so reluctant about getting divorced that they won't even take that step. And the specter is much greater for the less educated than the more educated.
And so that's why this don't fix it if it ain't broke mentality comes up. And the less-educated women are particularly cautious about entering into marriage. So there has been a lot of discussion about why that might be. They're with partners who have less stable jobs, who are contributing less in the home to housework, who might be unwilling to share the load or responsibility for contraception. And so they're reluctant to take the next step if that's marriage.
And they're more reluctant than the middle class, although almost everybody expressed concerns about divorce. It's just this scary thing that's out there. We hear the statistics, which are wrong. You always hear the wrong statistics. Everybody has heard one out of two relationships.
And so everybody is worried, whether they've experienced union disruption of their parents or previous one of their own, or not.
But the service class respondents, both the men and women, but particularly women, are even more anxious about what it might mean to stay together to get married, in part because they're concerned about assuming debts of a partner, which doesn't happen when you're cohabiting. They also feel like it's easier to leave the relationship if you're not married.
So there is a lot of discussion about how I can leave and there's no legal tie. And there are some couples in the sample where one partner has their foot out the door. So there's a couple where they have a shared toddler, and she's been spending a couple hours away at her parents' house. And it sounds like they are on the outs, and he's not aware of it.
And she had talked about wedding rings as fancy handcuffs. But there was this whole discussion about how she wishes she could rewind the tape and do things differently, but that didn't happen. But getting married now or getting engaged, she wouldn't mind having the ring. But getting married would make it so much harder to leave, and she doesn't want that. And that comes through more in the women who are already parents, that you're not necessarily sure you want to tie yourself to this partner.
SPEAKER 2: One more question. And then if you have other questions, you can come up afterwards to talk to Sharon. Is there one more?
SPEAKER 3: I see two.
AUDIENCE: Hi. And thank you very much for giving this talk. It was very interesting. And based off of what you were just talking about in the ability to leave at will, I was wondering if you collected information about who was in charge of the residence? Were both people on the lease or on the property?
SHARON SASSLER: We asked questions about that, but it wasn't consistent. So we do know that when couples moved in together, they were far more likely to move into the man's apartment than the woman's. But they didn't all have leases. So among the less educated, there was a fair amount of subletting or month-to-month, in part because those are cheaper.
And so it was harder for us to compare whose home it is. We also have among the middle class couples that some of them owned their home, and they rent out to various people. A lot of these people were living with other people, whether it's roommates, or they owned a home and they rent it to help pay the mortgage. So it was not at all comparable across class levels, and that made it harder.
If somebody is living in their parents' house with their partner, what does that mean? But we do know that they were more likely to move into the men's apartment. I don't want to lay out that I think it would be messier. But it could be that it's bigger, that they want the man to be the name on the lease in case they can't afford it, or something.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University Library.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Many couples in the United States choose to live together. In fact, cohabitation has become normative, both as a typical living arrangement and a precursor to marriage. Yet while the media increasingly concurs that cohabitation is “the new normal,” we know very little about how these relationships begin and unfold. At what point in the relationship do people decide to move in together, and why? And what happens afterwards?
In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Mann Library in October 2017, Sharon Sassler, professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology, explored insights from her new book, co-authored with Amanda Miller, University of Indianapolis. She highlighted impacts of social class and education on romantic relationships in an era of economic uncertainty, and what it means to live together in the 21st century.
Sassler received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Brown University in 1995, and joined the Cornell faculty in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in 2005. A social demographer, her research examines factors shaping the activities of young adults and their life course transitions into school and work, relationships, and parenthood, and how these transitions vary by gender, race/ethnicity, and social class.