The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Drawing a Salary or Earning a Wage?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Most young adults understand and desire the relative advantage of employment with an annual salary over employment for hourly wages. That advantage, indeed, defines one of the more important markers separating the middle class from the working class. In a study recently completed at the University of Warwick, sociologist Richard Lampard has established that this advantage is also a marker statistically separating those who have grown up in intact families from those who have grown up in broken homes.

In trying to determine why some young people win salaried positions while their peers end up working for hourly wages, the Warwick scholar takes a close look at national data collected as part of Great Britain’s 2005 National General Household Survey. Lampard focuses particular attention on the family structure of the homes in which young people grew up. His analysis limns a consistent pattern: “A smaller chance of a salariat occupation [that is, an occupation paying a salary rather than hourly wages] is evident for those who lived in a lone-mother family, lone-father family, or biological-mother stepfamily as a young teenager, reflecting different features of these family types, but consistently reflecting lower educational attainment.”

The statistical linkage between the family structure in the homes where young people grew up and their subsequent likelihood of winning a salaried position is substantial. Compared to peers who grew up in intact families, young people from lone-mother and mother-stepfather families were about one-fifth less likely to secure a salaried position (Odds Ratios of 0.81 [p = 0.003] and 0.77 [p = 0.033] respectively). Though a small sample size for young people from father-stepmother families prevents his results for this population from reaching statistical significance, Lampard reports that young people from such families were more than one-fourth less likely to secure a salaried position than were peers from intact families (Odds Ratio of 0.72). 

As the researcher reflects on “the lower likelihood of salariat attainment for [young adults from] various forms of ‘non-intact’ family,” he suggests that the diminished likelihood for young people from “lone-mother families . . . reflects financial problems and non-employment” among the mothers. In contrast, Lampard speculates that diminished likelihood of salaried employment among young people from “biological-mother stepfamilies . . . relates to reduced parental involvement.” However, regardless of the type of non-intact family he has in view, the researcher sees “lower educational attainment [as] the vehicle of their negative impact.” “Something about [these non-intact families],” Lampard explains, “seems either to reduce the amount of capital that can be converted into institutionalized cultural or educational capital, or to make the process of ‘transforming’ it less effective.”

The Warwick scholar acknowledges that some might use his findings as a justification for the “widely held positive view of lone mothers taking up paid work.” But with wisdom now unusual among social scientists, he warns that “employment may not, in itself, enable lone mothers to act as effective role models or to increase their children’s educational capital, and may instead reduce levels of parental contact or involvement.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, salaried employment for young people—as well as other positive life outcomes—surely depends less on moving single mothers into paid employment than on creating intact families in which married mothers can rear their children.

(Richard Lampard, “Parental Characteristics, Family Structure and Occupational Attainment in Britain,” Sociology 46.6 [2012]: 1020-1038.)