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  • Insecurity isn't just about a low income. It’s the sense that you don’t matter anymore, that you’re being used. Tweet This
  • Economic insecurity’s impact on relationships is reinforced in a culture that prizes short-term happiness. Tweet This

He was shooting pink paintballs at her car, so Carly pulled into a church parking lot demanding to know what he was doing. Kyle, who at 19 was a year older than Carly, howled with laughter before handing her money for a car wash. They shared mutual friends, and the next day they found themselves hanging out together. Carly had just left her abusive fiancé three days prior, and Kyle made her feel safe. When she asked him if he’d stay with her through the night, he agreed. He slept on the floor, she on the couch—and he never left.

He worked at a printing press. She soon joined him there, and within a few years, they were making bank. It was the early 2000s, the housing market was soaring, and Carly, only 22, was a homeowner with her boyfriend.

They had talked about getting married. They had looked at wedding rings for her, but nothing came of it. There were signs of distrust, like how Kyle didn’t like it when Carly talked and played games with her male coworker on the factory line. He accused her of cheating on him. But overall they were stable.

Then, six years into their relationship, they found out she was pregnant. She had always been a worker, and she could use the extra money, so not until four days before giving birth did she stop working at the factory, lugging one-hundred-pound mail bags on 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

But during her six weeks of maternity leave, everything changed between her and Kyle. She suffered from post-partum depression, and she didn’t feel like going back to work—though she needed the money. During her six weeks of maternity leave, she had no income, though she had set aside money through a Flexible Savings Account at work. Still, it was getting harder to pay the bills. And when she did go back to work, it wasn’t long before she was laid off. “It was just a lot of stress,” she said, recalling the time. “A lot of it was financially, some of it was emotional. I was a nervous wreck.”

“We stopped talking to each other,” she added. “We just quit communicating—altogether. I mean, we would go weeks without saying as much as ‘Hi’ to each other.”

With Carly suffering from depression (and soon unemployment), Kyle, still working at the printing press, began “leaning on other people, talking to them, getting their opinion,” as Carly put it. That’s how he fell in love with another woman at the factory, and how, six months after the birth of their child, he suggested to Carly that they should separate and see other people. Carly, too unhappy herself to deal with his unhappiness, agreed.

“You can try to get financially set, but anything can happen,” she later concluded. She added, “[Our relationship] went from being great, you know, we had the finances all set, we had the house, and then, it just did a complete 360. It was over like that, basically.”

Her thoughts about how to have a successful relationship bore the same marks of insecurity.

Relationships are more, I guess like a card game. What you’re dealt is the luck of the draw. You don’t get to choose your cards. They just come to you. You can trade them out, but it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to get something better. So, you either wait it out, or you fold. You know? See if it’s gonna get any better. And I guess as far as moving in together and getting married, that’s almost like upping the ante a little bit, you know? You bet the hand that you have and hope for the best, hopefully you win it all. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way either.

Carly and Kyle moved back in together four years later—only to separate again because of similar difficulties: Kyle had filed for bankruptcy while he was working two jobs and Carly was working at a call center, and then Carly was told (by a divorcing man she would shortly thereafter date) that Kyle had four girlfriends on the side.

“Our biggest fights were over money,” Carly said about her relationship with Kyle, “because I was paying everything with what little income I had, and he was making $18 an hour [at the printing press] and wasn’t paying nothin’.”

And looking back at the time that she had given birth and lost her job and separated from Kyle, Carly said, “There was a lot more of [money issues] and stress and all of that. And then, I found out that he wasn’t all that he was pretending to be. He had girlfriends at that time, too.”

Stress and money issues and depression and infidelity seemed to intersect in dozens of subtle ways, and sometimes it was hard to know which came first: insecurity at work, or insecurity in the relationship, or even insecurity with oneself. Either way, in Carly’s mind the moral of the story was that relationships were a card game in that you had to bet the hand you’re dealt and hope that everything works out for the best. In this case, it didn’t. As she said, “He screwed me over.” Had we talked with Kyle, maybe he would have lobbed a similar epithet.


Carly and Kyle’s story raises many unanswerable questions. How might their relationship have turned out if, as if in all other countries with advanced economies, her company had provided paid maternity leave? Or if she had never been laid off? Carly said that distrust was a problem before the birth of their child and subsequent money problems—that’s why, she later said, even after six years and talking about marriage, they had never married—but might continued security at work have given them a better chance at building that trust?

I saw how economic stability seemed to help relationship stability with other couples that my wife and I met through our interviews. Like the roofer who, during the recession when his wages were comparatively low, complained that he couldn’t trust his girlfriend and that they fought a lot about money issues. But when I interviewed him again a couple years later, he was advancing in a company, making more money, and talking about getting married (and he did eventually get married). We also know, for instance, that union membership is positively associated with marriage among men (though not women).

In my last post, I explored how family fragmentation sabotages trust and grit not only in relationships and marriage, but also at work, thus contributing to economic insecurity. But the reverse is also true: economic insecurity contributes to relationship insecurity. It’s a factor that contributes to the breakdown of marriages and keeps many cohabiting couples from marrying in the first place.

Economic insecurity’s impact on relationships is reinforced in a culture that prizes short-term happiness. When “You got one life to live, you got to live it the way you want to live it” (a quote from a young man I interviewed) is the working philosophy of many people, the unhappiness produced by layoffs and sporadic work schedules and the stress associated with two spouses working full-time easily leads couples to conclude that they should try to find happiness elsewhere.

Insecurity is about the loss of voice and status and dignity. It’s about the dread that ‘anything can happen.’

Job and financial insecurity undermines marriage security, and it all gets washed up in the larger “insecurity culture” described by scholars like Allison Pugh. The sense of insecurity is deeper than stagnating incomes. It’s an existential feeling that you don’t really matter anymore, that your dignity isn’t recognized, that you’re being used.

It’s the feeling that poultry workers describe in a new Oxfam report that details complaints from poultry workers in plants all across the country—and in four different companies—about not being granted enough time for bathroom breaks. Because of pressure to stay on the line, workers reported wearing diapers so that they wouldn’t urinate or defecate themselves. As one employee at a Texas plant said, “We’re human beings who feel, and hurt, and we work the best we can. But it’s not enough for them. They demand more and more… They demand more than you can do.” Another employee at that plant suggested that management “put themselves in the place of the worker… and stop thinking that we’re machines.”

They are right to raise their voices. Because the same culture in which ordinary people like Carly prize short-term happiness is also home to a corporate culture that prizes short-term profits. It does so at the expense of long-term investments, like a well-paid and satisfied workforce. As legal scholar Lynn Stout points out in The Shareholder Value Myththis myopic thinking is the result of the idea that companies exist to maximize wealth for shareholders. Stout notes that emphasizing shareholder value is terrible for ordinary workers: it effectively treats them as (powerless) middlemen who are there to give customers their low prices and shareholders their profits, rather than as important stakeholders in their own right.

Insecurity is about the loss of voice and status and dignity. It’s about the dread that “anything can happen,” as Carly had put it, both at work and in marriage—no matter how much you save up, how hard you work, or how much in love you are now. And in that world of sandy foundations, you don’t have to take planning too seriously. After all, you’re not the one who controls if the plant is shut down, or if you fall out of love.


In the end, both of those things happened to Carly and Kyle. And there is an intriguing backstory to their relationship that we only learned about long after interviewing them.

A few weeks before we first interviewed Carly, the printing press where she used to work was bought out by Quad/Graphics, which was founded by the colorful and complicated entrepreneur Harry Quadracci. In a previous job, Quadracci had been at the forefront of tensions between striking union workers and management. So when he founded his own company in 1971, he sought to create a different kind of company that invited all employees to think of themselves as equals in a collaborative enterprise, like partners in a law firm.

To put this philosophy into practice, he insisted that all employees, from executives to the people on the factory floor, wear the same uniform. When the company began raking in profits, he set up a profit-sharing plan for all employees. He led the company as it established in-plant health clinics and its own daycare center (the latter was one of the reasons that Working Mother in 1991 recognized Quad on its list of top 100 companies to work for). And when the printing industry began consolidating and the company had to either go bigger or go bust, Quadracci still resisted going public. As his biographer said, he believed that it would put the company “at the mercy of quarterly returns” and make his company “slaves to the stock market.”

By 2010, Harry Quadracci was dead, and under the leadership of his son Joel, Quad/Graphics began acquiring major competitors, including the company that had once employed Carly. Joel Quadracci accomplished his ambitions to finally take the company public just a few weeks before we interviewed Carly. Shortly thereafter, the plant where Kyle worked received notice that it would be shut down and all employees would lose their jobs. A spokeswoman explained that closing plants was simply about creating “the most efficient and competitive company possible.” The CEO pointed out that it would save the company $225 million within two years.

Ever since the big merger, employees had been battling with each other on an Internet message board about what the new regime meant for their respective plants. Some pointed out that the printing industry had seen better days before the digital era, and argued that the company had good intentions and was the doing the best it could in a rapidly changing industry.

Others were more cynical. One employee, posting after the shutdown of Kyle and Carly’s plant (among others), stated his belief that the new CEO only cared about “using his employees to the point of exhaustion and then when he’s done using them, he throws them away.” He added his opinion that in the company “there is no moving forward, no advancement unless your [sic] a major suck up. There is no trust in trust. There is no happiness. I’ve actually been told since I’m not happy here to go and look for happiness somewhere else.”

Whether that employee was right or wrong about this particular company doesn’t really matter. What matters is that what seems like a common-sense matter of efficiency and competitiveness in the boardroom may be experienced as use and abuse by ordinary workers. And when the screws tighten, spouses and partners are crushed, families squeezed, identities bruised.

Perhaps not coincidentally, about a month after notices began going out to employees, Kyle and Carly separated. Obviously, they had even bigger problems to deal with than layoffs: after all, Kyle was forced to file for bankruptcy before he ever got laid off. But insecurity at work is also experienced as another sign that there’s no solid foundation to build on anymore; it’s all about luck (or power), so you might as well do what makes you happy. Life is short.

I guess that’s part of what ordinary workers mean when they say, “We’re screwed.” And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when people complain about their laid-off ex, “He screwed me over.”