Is worrying women’s work?

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Is worrying women’s work?

The gender dynamics of coping with uncertainty in Cooper’s Cut Adrift

by Karen Powroznic on Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 6:12pm

How do we construct a sense of security in increasingly insecure times? Amidst stagnating wages, volatile employment prospects, and competition from abroad, Americans are facing unprecedented levels of economic inequality and financial insecurity.  This increased prospect of financial hardship is accompanied by a shift in the responsibility for managing financial risk from government and corporations onto private individuals.

In her book Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, sociologist Marianne Cooper explores how families across the economic spectrum struggle to cope with financial insecurity and uncertain futures.  Through her 9 year study of families in Silicon Valley, Cooper finds that families engage in individual “security projects” to forge a sense of security both through pragmatic strategies, such as investing in a 401K or forgoing health insurance, and also through emotional work, by shifting expectations, changing priorities, and suppressing feelings of anxiety. By investigating how families at the top, the bottom, and in the middle navigate uncertainty and financial insecurity, Cooper uncovers class and gender dynamics that perpetuate and exacerbate growing inequalities. 

Mapping the new risk landscape

Several forces have come together to produce more financial insecurity for U.S. families. Increasing income inequality, more turbulent and frequent cycles of economic booms and busts, and growing international competition means that families from all class backgrounds feel that they are facing more job insecurity and financial difficulties than ever before. Deindustrialization and the rise of the service economy has eroded the availability of stable, well-paying manufacturing jobs, especially for men, and increased the need for more and more education. The college degree is the new high school diploma and even a college education no longer guarantees new graduates good job prospects. This is especially true as competition for jobs from outside the U.S. increases.

In addition to more volatility in the financial sector and uncertainty in the job market, workers are also expected to manage these risks on their own.  Recent trends in the scaling back of social welfare programs mean that families can no longer count on the availability of social and financial security nets that once existed to help out during difficult times. Combined with the decline of the pension system and threats to social security, workers are more vulnerable to economic downturns, as was recently demonstrated during the Great Recession. 

Coping with insecurity grows income inequality

How do families navigate this new risk and security landscape? Through her research Cooper finds that families from all class backgrounds are kept awake at night worrying about their family’s economic future and have devised strategies to attempt to manage this anxiety.  Families at the bottom and in the middle “do security” by scaling down their expectations and trying to hold on to what little security they have. Downscaling primarily involves trying to feel content with less and families often engaged in this strategy by lowering the bar on how much they believed they needed to accumulate financially to achieve security.  

At the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum, families engage in “doing security” by scaling up their expectations in order to buffer their family from future difficulties. While affluent families do not face the same insecurities as those in the middle or at the bottom, these wealthy families experience anxiety from the anticipation of difficulties for their families due to increased global competition and to cope with this insecurity they work to accumulate more. According to Cooper, these two coping strategies contribute to the growing divide between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else.

The gender division of worrying

What do these changes mean for gender dynamics at home? Women now outpace men in educational attainment and in many poor and middle class families this means that women often have more education than men and therefore may also have access to better paying jobs.  Given these changes, women in poor and middle class households are often seen as better equipped to manage the family finances and plan for the family’s financial future than men.  Women, therefore, become responsible for making important financial decisions during difficult economic times. 

In addition to often being viewed as more capable of handling these decisions, women are also often characterized as “natural worriers”.  According to this stereotype, women should be doing the majority of worrying, while men, although concerned with their family’s future, are often able to unburden themselves with these concerns and pass the buck to their women partners. 

As a result, even as women gain more economic power and educational status they also accumulate more of the worrying burden. Cooper found that many of the women she interviewed were struggling with high levels of stress and anxiety that led to clinical depression, heart palpitations, and insomnia.    

As the income and wealth gaps grow, the strain on disadvantaged families only increases, which intensifies the stress and emotional burden of coping with uncertain futures. For the families, and particularly for the women who bare the majority of this emotional burden, the inequality of attempting to achieve security threatens progress towards class and gender equality in the U.S. 



Sociologist, Clayman Institute

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at the Clayman Institute.  She was the lead researcher for the book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.  Her book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, with the University of California Press examines how families are coping in an insecure age.  She is a core team member of the Clayman Institute’s...

Karen Powroznik
PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology

Karen Powroznik is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.