When Jennifer M. Silva was a graduate student looking around for a dissertation topic, she began to notice a genre of self-help books targeted to people her age suffering from a “quarter-life crisis.” The now-familiar premise was that privileged modern twentysomethings are overwhelmed with opportunities: Should they travel or marry, go back to school or settle down in a career? A first-generation college student herself, Silva had been tracing the country’s growing income inequality in her sociology research at the University of Virginia, and it occurred to her that contemporary working-class adults were suffering from a very different kind of crisis: a complete absence of choices.
Silva, who is now at Harvard University on a postdoctoral fellowship, set out to talk with some of these young people about how they were managing the transition to adulthood in the post-industrial economy. In 100 in-depth, in-person interviews, she found a new working-class adult “bewildered in the labor market, betrayed by institutions, distrustful of love, disconnected from others, and committed to emotional growth.”
Those conversations are at the heart of “Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty,” a brief yet devastating book that blends academic analysis and oral history to put a new face on well-documented trends that are more usually described in the abstract. The 21st-century labor market prizes flexibility, education, and technological skills—a landscape that benefits white-collar workers and leaves others struggling to adapt. Well-paying union jobs are being replaced by retail and food-service work, and a financial instability that hurts communities and personal relationships. Silva found people adapting to this landscape of dimmed hopes in surprising ways.
Instead of expressing frustration about their struggles, Silva found, they were adopting an entirely new definition of adulthood in which success was measured not by marriage and homeownership, but by defining and conquering emotional problems, mental illness, family chaos, and addiction. To her surprise, hard-won emotional self-management was often viewed with as much pride as diplomas or marriage certificates.
In an America once defined by the dream of getting ahead, this is a historic shift. As she observes, “it is difficult to imagine the iconic industrial steelworker or coal miner articulating, let alone opening up about, his psychic pain.”
Silva conducted many of her interviews in Lowell, where her family’s history mirrors the arc of working-class America as a whole. Silva’s paternal grandfather started working in a Lowell textile mill at age 9, carrying empty spools of thread to be respun with cotton. He married a local girl, moved to the suburbs, and spent the rest of his working life as a state prison guard.
She spoke with Ideas from her office at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
IDEAS: How were your grandparents’ lives in Lowell different from most of their grandchildren’s?
SILVA: Watching my cousins and my brother as they transition to adulthood, a lot of the opportunities that may have been available a generation ago are harder to find. It’s a little bit more difficult to figure out how to pay for college, or even if you graduate from college, how to get a good job.
IDEAS: How is this different from the hand-wringing we’ve all seen about things like young people having children before marriage, or moving back in with their parents, or delaying certain traditional adult milestones?
SILVA: For the people I spoke with, it’s not just that these markers are delayed. It’s that in some ways they’ve become unachievable. So it’s not that they won’t grow up, it’s that they can’t grow up.
IDEAS: You’ve coined this term the “mood economy,” in contrast to the traditional market economy. What is the mood economy?
SILVA: I was trying to get at this idea that milestones are no longer these shared common or recognizable rituals, like getting married in a church in front of your friends or getting a degree in front of an audience at a graduation. Instead, milestones—basically out of necessity, because the external milestones are not achievable—have become much more internal....It’s more about telling a story of suffering or emotional turmoil, whether in the family or through relationships or struggling with an illness, and sort of recognizing you have a problem and saying, “OK, maybe I can’t control my past, but I’m going to become a better person.”...This was a huge shock to me. I didn’t expect to hear these kinds of stories at all.
IDEAS: What had you been expecting?
SILVA: Maybe anger. Or in some ways, maybe I wasn’t expecting people to be so open or emotional about things like mental illness or addiction or family troubles. But instead, that just ended up dominating the interviews.
IDEAS: Older research has suggested that working-class people haven’t been as likely to use this kind of therapeutic language. So what has changed in the culture? There’s Oprah.
SILVA: It’s on talk shows, in the medical field, the school system. My working-class respondents really did hear it everywhere, whether it’s on television, foster care, education, NA, or AA. So many places, they encounter this narrative that you can take control of your suffering and fix yourself.
IDEAS: It’s remarkable to see people holding themselves totally responsible for their own well-being, even if there are a lot of other parties to turn to not only for help, but to blame.
SILVA: That’s true. Instead of holding institutions responsible, the track they take is to say, “OK, I can’t trust anyone, I can’t rely on anyone, I’m better off on my own. I choose the path of isolation, rather than thinking about who’s to blame, or banding together with other people and coming up with solutions that are more collective.”
IDEAS: You describe this as “privatizing happiness.”
SILVA: I think it’s interesting to think about that spirit of [economic] privatization seeps into people’s emotional lives. It’s suddenly up to you...to figure out if there’s something wrong with you, or if you’re unhappy or you’re not being successful, and to make it your job to fix yourself.
IDEAS: Did the emotionally or economically successful people you interviewed have anything in common?
SILVA: The few people I interviewed who objectively achieved upward mobility by getting college degrees and then using them to get good jobs, what really struck me about them is that they had good networks. They had people in their community who could help them figure out what kind of jobs and then how to go to school. They have someone translating the tools and knowledge and skills they needed to work their way up. Otherwise people are trying really hard, but without knowing the system they often make choices that set them even further back.
IDEAS: So what’s the way forward? Can the government respond in an effective way? What about other institutions?
SILVA: As it stands now, if you’re born to wealthy parents they can launch you into a stable adulthood. But there aren’t any collective institutions that are working for the people I spoke with. We need a basic floor of protection in terms of job security and protection against risk. Beyond that, I’d want to think about, what do people need to build lives that feel meaningful and worthy?
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.