Class Inequality and Adult Attainment Projects among Middle-Aged Men in the United States, 1980—2010

Jeremy Pais, D. Matthew Ray

Sociological Science, April 29, 2015
DOI 10.15195/v2.a11


Adult attainment projects (AAP) consist of a series of traditional adult statuses: labor force participation, residential independence, marriage, parenthood, and homeownership. This article examines these status indicators as integral parts of an individualized attainment project that is best assessed later in adulthood. Close examination of AAP gives novel insights into the changing U.S. opportunity structure that go beyond what can be achieved through studying temporal patterns of adult status indicators independently. From 1980 to 2010, rates of completed AAP declined by double digits, and the difference in the odds of completing AAP between men on different ends of the income distribution doubled. There are structural and cultural explanations for these trends. Divergence hypotheses favor structural explanations involving social stratification processes. Convergence hypotheses favor cultural explanations based on the loosening of norms regarding traditional adult statuses. This article uses factor analytic models on data from the Current Population Survey, in conjunction with formal measurement invariance testing, to evaluate these hypotheses. The adaptive differentiation hypothesis, a blended explanation positing analytically distinct AAP profiles for different socioeconomic groups, receives the most empirical support. The results affirm a structurally prevailing change in the lives of poor, working class, and lower-middle class Americans.
Jeremy Pais: Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut.  Email:

D. Matthew Ray: Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut.   Email:

  • Citation: Pais, Jeremy, and D. Matthew Ray. 2015. “Class Inequality and Adult Attainment Projects among Middle-Aged Men in the United States, 1980—2010.” Sociological Science 2:211-234.
  • Received: October 10, 2014
  • Accepted: January 17, 2015
  • Editors: Jesper Sørensen,  Stephen Morgan
  • DOI: 10.15195/v2.a11

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