Work and family lives: Who has a chance of having it all?

In Episode 6 of Series 2 of our podcast, we talk with Professor Anette Fasang from Humboldt University and Professor Silke Aisenbrey from Yeshiva University about their research looking at how inequality plays out in the parallel work and lives of black men and women in the United States.


Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the life course. In this series, we discuss findings from DIAL’s Equal Lives project, which looks at how inequality impacts the lives of young adults. Our guests are Anette Fasang and Silke Aisenbrey, they’ve been looking at the parallel work and family lives of black and white men and women aged 22 to 44 in the United States. I started by asking Anette to explain the background to their work.

Anette Fasang  0:27 

So recently, or for a longer while actually there has been quite a bit of talk about intersectional inequalities, so overlapping categories of inequality, very prominently, gender and race that we also look at in our paper. And here the ideas that black women, for example, face specific disadvantages that white women don’t, but that are also different from the challenges that, for example, black men face. And this is a type of our field of research that often works with qualitative data, for example, or is quite theoretical also activism oriented. And that’s actually not at all where Silke and I come from, we are more sort of quantitative statistics oriented people do inequality research in this area. But we found this new intersectionality approach extremely important, and tried to get sort of a quantitative what we call life course, perspective on intersectional inequalities. And for us, the life course perspective here is really important. Because when you think about differences between social groups, if you measure them at one point in time, for example, their incomes at age 30, you will, of course, find differences, and you’ll find inequality. But what we try to do is follow people really from age 20, to age 40, to see how different types of advantages and disadvantages accumulate, because what accumulates over the life course, tends to be much larger than disparities measured at any specific time point. And we think that’s particularly important when you’re trying to assess differences between social groups, to not understate the actual extent of disadvantages and advantages that people accumulate over time,

Silke Aisenbrey  2:17

Where we are coming from, it’s really to look at at the life of a person in terms of a movie, like understand it really, as this bigger concept and understand every step of the way, as a result of what happened before. Anette and I did like a big project where we did something similar, where we addressed similar questions about the intersection of careers and family careers, so to speak, where we compare Germany and the US. And in that research, we found that there’s a lot happening within the US that we actually can’t get a grip on. So that was the start off point for this project, where we’re like, there’s so much race segregation in these life courses happening in the US that we actually want to kind of look deeper into that.

Christine Garrington  3:07

Anette then just take us a little bit more deeply then into what it was you were looking specifically in this paper to get to grips with and why?

Anette Fasang  3:15 

Yes, we used a great data source, the so called National Longitudinal Study of youth for the United States, which has followed individuals for many years, re-interviewing them every year. And here we could for men and women born in the 60s, we could reconstruct their entire life courses from age 20 to 40. So their educational and work careers, when they were in school, when they finish, whether they were unemployed, whether they were on family leave, and which types of jobs they were in, where we could also distinguish was this sort of a low level low paying lower skilled job or a higher level highest high skilled job? So that’s how we could reconstruct their careers and for their family lives we also know exactly – were they living with a co-residential partner? When did they have children? Did they separate? Did they re-partner? And so we were able to reconstruct these entire life courses for black and white men and women to assess what kind of advantages and disadvantages accumulate over time for these different social groups.

Silke Aisenbrey  4:24 

We’re talking about comparing black individuals to white individuals in this paper, and that, of course, leads to this question – so why is that our focus? There are more groups than that in the US. And for us, it was that we really wanted to clearly focus on the on the white privilege and not kind of on the underprivileged group, and compare those to the group that we had the most data on and that were black women and black men. So we excluded Hispanics and other minorities in this specific research, so that’s why you’re having the comparison of black and white individuals here.

Anette Fasang  5:00   

What is often done, especially in this quantitative inequality research is that you have one point of reference and that’s typically white men. And then you interpret differences of white women, black women, black men, all referring to the white male experience and this in a way normalises it that the intersectionality approach or intersectionality theory criticises and we kind of jump on this paradigm by comparing all four groups visa vie as each other. So we compare black men to black women, to white women, to white men, and so on, and have all these pairwise comparisons to contextualise each group situation much more than only using this one reference point, as is often done.

Christine Garrington  5:44 

You talked about the normalising there Anette – what are the advantages? What makes it better if you like by taking this approach? Perhaps Silke you want to pick up?

Silke Aisenbrey  5:52 

Anette has said this beautifully. And I think your question is exactly on point so that the idea is that it normalises the privilege by not talking about the privilege. So in a way, if you compare every group to white men, the privilege that white male careers inhabits it basically gets unseen. So our commitment here and also the commitment of intersectionality research is really to say like, point out the privilege also describe the privilege and don’t only focus on those who are underprivileged. And we were very committed to that approach throughout the paper.

Christine Garrington  6:29 

That’s so interesting. Now, let’s dig right in now and look at the comparison that you made between white and black men, what were the key things to emerge there?

Silke Aisenbrey  6:38 

I think that the one thing that comes over and over is really when we look at the group of white men is really, basically they can have it all in the sense that they can have the high prestige career. And they can combine this high prestige career with any kind of family formation, they can be like single, they can have three kids, they can have one kid. So all of that is possible for white men, whereas for all the other groups, I know you just asked about black men, all of these variations are not open in the same way.

Anette Fasang  7:12 

A core focus of our paper was that we wanted to have these both aspects of the life course – work and family – and also look at the interplay between the two. And the idea here was that if events for example, in the family life strongly constrained economic opportunities. For example, if typically women but also men have children very early, that really limits their career prospects later on, especially if this is single parenthood. So this would be one way how an event in the family life course can constrain opportunities in the work life course. And the other way around, for example, for men, and we see this especially for black men holding a stable job, at least a stable job, even if it’s not a high stakes high earning job at at least a stable job is almost a precondition for then forming a stable partnership and having kids. So the two life course domains are interrelated in these many different ways that play out in mutually affecting each other over these entire 40, 20 years, that we observe the life course. And here our idea was is that if the connection between the two life domains work and family is very strong, that means that events in one life domain condition and constrain what is possible in the other life domain. So this is a in a sense, a sign of disadvantage, because there are more limited opportunities economically, but also for different family lives. And if they are unrelated, that means whatever happens in the work and family domain, whatever disadvantages or advantages there are, doesn’t spill over into the other life domain. And there’s just a wider set of possibilities for how life courses evolve. And indeed, what we found was that this interrelationship between work and family lives, was really, really low for white men. So basically non-existent, as Silke just described, it doesn’t mean that everybody gets what they want. Not all white men get get what they want. But for them, everything is possible in the sense that it actually occurs empirically, you have these very many different combinations of work and family lives. And this was quite different for the three other groups. And here we found that the strongest interrelation between work and family lives where they sort of condition and constrain each other was evident for black women.

Christine Garrington  9:43

Yes, on that note, I’m really interested to know because the picture was slightly different, wasn’t it for for black and white women.

Anette Fasang  9:49 

Yes, that is also I think an important point of our paper, that there’s a lot of research showing how the for example, family lives of lower educated black and white women are quite different. But we see equally large differences among highly educated black and white women. There’s really a lot of evidence that initial economic resources and then economic opportunities along the life course – so education, access to high quality jobs and so on – but also resources in the parental home. Those, those all have really strong effects on family lives. And then there’s also evidence showing how events and family lives like becoming a parent has repercussions for careers. So here there’s this whole literature on motherhood penalties how mothers make less money than childless women. But overall, the evidence that economic starting conditions are stronger predictors for family lives, is more convincing, and just broader than for the other way around that family events restrict their opportunities and work lives. And so what we argue here is that black men and women’s family options will be limited because they, on average, have worse economic starting conditions. And then for women, on the other hand, compared to men, there will be more repercussions of their family lives for their careers, which is also based on previous studies. And so if you take those two together, then of course, white men will have the most options because they are on average in economically privileged situations compared to the other groups on average. And their work events in their work lives, even unemployment have relatively modest effects on their family lives. Whereas when you go to the other end of the extreme here, black women, they’re both disadvantaged because they are black and face, on average, lower economic resources that limit their family options. And then because they are women, their family lives have stronger repercussions on their work careers. So that’s how the strongest interrelation in this long term interplay between the two life domains plays out according to our data,

Silke Aisenbrey  12:01 

I just want to go back to what I said earlier that one of the like, important things about our research is that we really also want to look at privilege. So I think it’s worth kind of just looking at this high prestige group to kind of make that comparison and what you can really see when we look at black women that there is this double under privilege happening, that you can’t even find empirically any black women in this high prestige group. So you you do find white women, and there mainly have no kids or have a kid later in life. And you do find some black men who also only have one kid and later in life, but you can’t even find black women. And I think that’s something that needs to be pointed out and needs to be underlined.

Christine Garrington  12:46 

No that’s a really important point to make Silke thank-you. So when you were thinking about the policy intervention implications of all this, then you sort of started to consider what might work best, what was your thinking Silke?

Silke Aisenbrey  12:59 

It’s a very complicated question because you you will see that when you look at at the medium prestige group and at the high prestige group that a lot is attached to having children or not having children and for women also, to have partners. And as we know, a lot of work in home still falls on the burden of women. So I think childcare is definitely like a very, very big thing. And especially in the US, where like most childcare for smaller children is private, it is hardly accessible for anyone who is not working in a high prestige career. So I think childcare is really one of the like main things that we need to like look at.

Anette Fasang  13:37 

So another thing that I found really striking was when we looked at these work, family life courses, and which ones are most prevalent for black men, but we found as Silke said, there is a smaller group of black men who have that highest earnings, one or two children, usually late or classic, successful upper middle class life course. But these are only 12% of black men. That means the remaining 88% have low, in our case really low prestige jobs with low earnings. There are no stable middle class careers among black men of these generations that we’re looking at. And what I found particularly striking and this is something you can only see in this longitudinal process perspective, that 62% of them have unstable low prestige, low income careers. So that means they are frequently interrupted by periods of unemployment or being out of the labour force entirely. So that means 62% of black men in these cohorts have really precarious careers. And all of them actually have family lives that are either childless or they’re single fathers. So these precarious work careers really go along with having sort of non-traditional or at least family careers that don’t go along with stable co-residential partnerships. And how this bridges into the policy point is that I think one thing our findings, if you take them all together really support quite strongly is that the lack of initial economic opportunity sets, especially black men and women on a difficult path early on, and really limits their family opportunities. So what is implied and this of course, is if you want to equalise work family life courses among these four intersectional groups, then equalising economic starting conditions would be quite important early in early childhood or in early adulthood. And this is these early interventions are particularly important because then you can break cycles of increasingly cumulatively, increasing advantages or disadvantages like these vicious or virtuous cycles that we know from many different studies tend to play out over time in these life courses.

Silke Aisenbrey  16:00 

I also think that the access to education is just still very, very segregated for different groups in the US. So I think that’s also always something that needs to be said.

Anette Fasang  16:09 

What also was interesting about these findings is actually how the large proportion of people who remain in similar career tracks that they entered early on, there is of course, some upward mobility there is also some downward mobility. But we see many people are kind of locked in the same precarious careers over 20 years from age 20 to 40. That never make it out. So I think many things are missed. If you only look at, for example, people’s work situation at age 25. When you take into account how many of them who are in disadvantageous positions actually remained in those for very extended periods of time.

Silke Aisenbrey  16:52 

Parental leave also, of course comes to mind when we think about these full careers. And this is also important because when we talk about cumulative advantages, we see that in the US parental leave is often only accessible if you have careers and medium or high prestige jobs. So if you’re once on this career track, the advantages just cumulate between like childcare, and parental leave, all of these things are accessible, much easier to people who are already in privileged positions.

Christine Garrington  17:25 

“Uncovering Social Stratification; Intersectional Inequalities in Work and Family Life Courses by Gender and Race” is research by Anette Fasang and Silke Aisenbrey and is published in the journal Social Forces. You can find out more about the Equal Lives project at and subscribe to the DIAL podcast to access earlier and forthcoming episodes. Thanks for listening to this episode, which was presented and produced by Chris Garrington.