The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family
How can young men and women 'integrate satisfying work with ample time for children and family' (p. 3)? In The Unfinished Revolution Gerson examines how 'social shifts have created both opportunities for gender flexibility and new conflicts between breadwinning and caretaking' (p. 99). Using data from in-depth interviews with 120 young adults in the United States she looks at how they are using their experiences of growing up during the 'gender revolution' of the 1980s to shape their own lives. In focussing on the children, the products of the upheavals in family life during the eighties, Gerson has found a novel way to look at the effects of the changes in family types in the final quarter of the twentieth century and their effect on the next generation. Disappointingly this shows that the 'gender revolution' does indeed have some way to go.
The book is divided into two sections: the first examines the different childhoods the respondents experienced. Part two looks at how the young people are building their adult lives based around what they learnt from their own family backgrounds. By seeing family types as changing through their childhoods from, for example, 'traditional' male-breadwinner to both parents working, or from an unhappy marriage to a more stable single-parent household, Gerson positions family as a process rather than a fixed entity. This enables her to challenge, amongst other things, the received wisdom that divorce is bad for children. This perspective, from young adults who have left home and childhood behind and are therefore able to see the 'whole picture' of their childhoods, presents a more nuanced view of the effect of family break-ups on children than that found in research with younger children. Much of this first part of the book is taken up with emphasising the paucity of information contained in a label such as 'single parent family', which could perhaps have been dealt with more succinctly.
Part two of the book focuses on distinct differences between the genders in their strategies for coping with the continuing difficulties of combining financial provision and caretaking. For these young women, being 'self-reliant' and providing financially for children is generally viewed as part of being a 'good mother'. However, men tended to want to avoid financial responsibility for a family by remaining 'autonomous' and not committing to a relationship. Gerson concludes that despite seeking egalitarian relationships, the 'invisible inequality' (p. 166) surrounding work and family life still pushes young people into continuing with inequitable relationships. The final chapter highlights some of the institutional and cultural changes still needed, at least in the USA, to enable new forms of family life to flourish.
Whilst the rich data from so many in-depth interviews is clearly essential to the construction of this argument, I found the number of quotes from the numerous different participants a little distracting at times and would have preferred instead some detailed case studies, such as that of 'Josh' which the book opens with, to illustrate the broader points. However, in focussing on family trajectories rather than static family types, Gerson brings a new understanding of twenty-first century forms of family life to the sociological table, making a valuable contribution to the literature on families, gender and youth transitions.
Manchester Metropolitan University