Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood In An Age of Uncertainty

  • Jennifer M. Silva
  • Oxford University Press
  • 208 pp.

The coming-of-age stories of 100 people highlight the struggles of today's young working class amid globalization and a constantly shifting economy.

As you walk around the streets of Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Va., you’ll encounter blocks of brick buildings that once housed bustling factories. Looking at these industrial skeletons, you can almost hear the whirring of machinery that once turned out shoes and cigarettes and provided a decent living for their working-class residents. It is in these two industrial cities left behind by globalization that sociologist Jennifer Silva examines the coming-of-age stories of 100 people as a way of chronicling the struggles of the young working class today.

Her poignant writing exposes the plight of the 21st-century working class in the way that her Harvard Kennedy School colleague William Julius Wilson’s books When Work Disappears and The Truly Disadvantaged did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. All three of these books use rigid sociological methodology to put a human face on the negative impacts of globalization and a constantly shifting economy.

Silva’s aim with this tome is ambitious. She attempts to explain “what happens when taken-for-granted models of organizing one’s life become obsolete, unattainable, or undesirable.” Given that ambition, it’s impressive that she does so quite convincingly. Though she touches on some well-worn themes, like the rise of service sector jobs, she provides an insightful discussion of how the declines in rates of traditional marriage and religious attendance are harming working-class folks just as deeply as global economic forces.  

Lacking the traditional stepping-stones to middle class life as well as meaning derived from marriage and children, Silva’s subjects feel isolated and hopeless about their economic futures. They are afraid to commit emotionally and wary of their ability to support children. It is in evoking a sense of empathy for her research subjects that Silva makes the greatest contribution of her book. She asks, “Why do working class people vote against their interests,” and then provides the best answer that I have read on the topic:

“I demonstrate how experiences of betrayal, within both the labor market and the institutions that frame their coming of age experiences, teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril … In an era of short-term flexibility, constant flux, and hollow institutions, the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions, but rather the explicit rejection of them.”

The waitresses, National Guard members, retails clerks and single mothers that Silva interviews feel they can only rely on themselves. Rugged individualism is what has worked best for them, in their eyes. Accordingly, they don’t want to give one more cent of their hard-earned money to taxes that will go to support someone who they believe doesn’t work as hard as they do. The research subjects have great resentment for those just slightly lower on the economic ladder who they think are leaching off the state.

Coming Up Short is an academic book. The prose is sprinkled with citations to other academic works, and the casual reader used to a straightforward narrative may have difficulty getting through the research. But Silva’s diligence demonstrates ample support for her hypotheses.

Silva is a little too quick to blame outside forces for some of her subjects’ problems instead of their own actions and decisions. For example, a former firefighter lost his job for failing a drug test for marijuana. In spite of Silva’s assertion that his unfortunate circumstances were due to something beyond the firefighter’s control, this is probably just an instance where a man made a stupid mistake. Some of the people Silva interviews live in poverty because of their own neglect, laziness or ignorance. No government policy or cultural shift can help these people unless they help themselves. Silva would make a stronger case if she acknowledged this and instead focused on the stronger examples of corporate malfeasance and dislocation.

Regardless of such quibbles, Silva’s book is an enjoyable read and raises important issues that we generally overlook.

Dave Sterrett is the health care counsel for Public Citizen where he works to protect consumers from unsafe drugs and devices, preserve Medicare and provide universal health care coverage. 

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