Modern Family - Series 06

by Noelle Chesley

Have you ever noticed what is not “modern” about ABC’s celebrated sitcom Modern Family? Spoiler alert: all of the households in this TV world are headed by a breadwinner father. We get to see a gay couple raising a daughter and a second inter-ethnic marriage with children, but we can’t seem to get rid of the idea that men, and especially fathers, work to support their families while at-home parents (often mothers) do the bulk of caregiving and domestic tasks.

Breadwinning is both an economic arrangement supported through policy (think maternal leave policies) and a gendered social arrangement that pushes men into primary employment and women into primary caregiving roles. While a number of key trends undermine support for breadwinner employment—stagnant wages, increased job instability, and women’s growing educational attainment among them—2013 research by Karen Kramer and her colleagues documents that about 30% of U.S. married couple families with children maintain male-breadwinner households, and this number has held steady for the past two decades.

Social commentators have also noted growing numbers of female breadwinners. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 40% of mothers were breadwinners, up from just 3.5% in 1960.

In a time when work and family arrangements are increasingly diverse, what can the experiences of contemporary breadwinner workers tell us more generally about work, and life outside it, today?

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by Terence E. McDonnell

For many Americans, safety pins have suddenly appeared everywhere: Pinned to shirts, posted to Facebook, or worn by celebrities. When I started wearing one a handful of strangers asked “what the heck are these safety pins all about?” This is the challenge of new symbols. Before they can work people need to know what they mean.

Americans had similar questions in 1991 when celebrities attending the Tony Awards donned red ribbons on their lapels and gowns. In a new paper at Poetics (coauthored with Amy Jonason and Kari Christoffersen) that traces the different trajectories of red AIDS ribbons and pink breast cancer ribbons, we argue that new symbols must be both retrievable (visible and available in the public sphere) and recognizable (people share an understanding of its basic meaning) to have the intended effects. While red ribbons might be publicly available, they can’t effectively raise awareness if they don’t denote “AIDS.”

New symbols often borrow from pre-existing cultural symbols in order to harness their cultural power. The single-looped awareness ribbon is now iconic, but its first instantiation in the red AIDS ribbon intentionally borrowed the ribbon idea from the contemporaneous public practice of using yellow ribbons to denote support for troops in the first Gulf War.

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by Allison J. Pugh

Income inequality is a major focus in today’s national agenda.  From the White House to the campaign trail to the halls of Davos, political and economic elites are joining a public conversation about the vast disparities between the top and bottom of the economic ladder.

But these conversations about income inequality lack one crucial focus:  job insecurity.

For lower income workers, studies indicate that knowing you’ll have a job next week is as important as the size of the paycheck that’s coming.  My own research shows that the impact of job insecurity extends beyond the individual worker or the workplace, and is felt at home, by spouses, parents, children and others.  The withdrawal of employer commitment raises the salience of commitment in all aspects of life.

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by Kristen Myers

Fox News in Chicago recently invited me to do a Father’s Day segment during the noon news hour explaining how “Dads today are better than ever!” Aiming for a feel-good piece celebrating dads, they prompted me to talk about how “real men” cuddle with their children. On the one hand, I cringed at the use of the term, “real men.” What is a “real man?” Although sociologists have shown that there is no one right way to be a man, the notion of “real” manhood remains salient in the popular imagination. The expression, “real men do x,” is typically used to call men out, to shame those who don’t do x into “manning up.” The popularity of language like “real men man up” reminds us that the rules we’ve made for men haven’t actually relaxed all that much, even though some dads are able to interact with their children in ways that their own dads never could have.

On the other hand, Fox News was using the expression “real men cuddle” ironically, to encourage traditional men to do something non-traditional, like show emotion. This gave me an opportunity to focus on ways that men can do things differently than they have in the past, how they’re “undoing gender,” as Francine Deutsch would say. More men today are able to physically and emotionally bond with their children without risking a blow to their manhood. The Pew Research Center has documented trends in the work world and the household that are permitting dads to be more involved than ever in childrearing and housework.The time is ripe for men, no matter how traditional, to take advantage of these shifts. Sometimes these men must be pushed out of their comfort zones in order to take the first steps.

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It is difficult to speak to a discipline like sociology, which has a diverse set of interests and various approaches to study society. However, Kevin Leicht’s recent post on this blog did just that and very successfully. The last time I checked, the post had been shared more than 200 times on Facebook. Many sociologists find his diagnosis of our intellectual illness accurate as well as brave and refreshing.

Leicht argues that, in an era of hyper-inequality, the study of inequality should shift away from between-group inequality to within-group inequality; from education to jobs and labor market institutions; from a narrow focus on diversity and sensitivity to an emphasis on the divide between haves and have-nots.

I think Leicht’s prescriptions are right on the money, especially at a time when Donald Trump gains increasing support from working-class Americans and Hilary Clinton called half of his supporters “a basket of deplorables.”  Indeed, one can argue that the current hyper-inequality began in the 1970s when the Democratic Party started to embrace college-educated professionals over their traditional blue-collar workers as their main constituency. Working-class Americans, lured by the Republicans with nationalism and the “Cultural War,” began to vote against their class interests.

But Leicht’s diagnosis does not cut deep enough.

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by Christine Williams

I was recently on a plane and sat next to a young woman who was returning to college for her sophomore year. During the flight, she pulled out a sandwich shop’s menu and started putting the names of sandwich combinations on index cards. Naturally, I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was starting a new job at a fast-food restaurant chain the next day. She was studying to make a good first impression.

But after talking to my seatmate, I am convinced that these jobs are a bad choice for college students today. The young woman told me that she depended on her job to make ends meet. Her college expenses were beyond her family’s means.

Jobs in the fast-food industry are a common choice for college students. For many, including me, it is their first job experience.

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by Lata Murti

My eight-year-old daughter received the classic Hasbro Game of Life as a holiday gift this past year.  What caught my attention right away while playing the game with her were the salaries.

All the “College Careers” – those requiring a college degree – started at $80,000 each payday, with teachers making a whopping $100,000 each payday!  I saw on the box that kids chose the careers for this latest version of the game, and I began to wonder if they chose the salaries too.  That might explain the inflated salaries.

After all, in a culture and society that often asks kids to imagine what they want to be when they grow up but seldom how much they want to make, how would a kid determine the salaries of common careers?

For that matter, how does an adult determine the salaries of common careers?  Pay secrecy – or a taboo against revealing one’s salary – is the norm in both US institutions of employment and US society at large.

Indeed, although U.S. employers cannot legally prohibit employees from discussing their pay, many employers implement a formal or informal policy against employees discussing their salaries.  Such policies help employers maintain complete control over wages, thus preventing employee demands for higher pay and wage equality, according to a 2015 study by Jake Rosenfeld and Patrick Denice, two of the few sociologists to study pay secrecy.

In other words, pay secrecy is essential to capitalism, which, at its core, is about unequal wages.

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