This is the second installment of David Lapp’s interview with Jennifer Silva, author of Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Go here for part one.
David Lapp: I was startled when you noted that the few men in your interview sample who found stable jobs first had to leave their families and risk their lives by serving in the military. Tell us more.
Jennifer Silva: For young men (and some women, too) who grew up without any idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up, the military provided a kind of second chance: it gave them structure and routine, a steady paycheck, a set of goals to work for, and guidance in the form of a drill sergeant. People were really drawn to the idea of serving their country and working their way up. My own dad joined the military at 17 for this very reason! Many of the young men who joined the military were then able to get good jobs as police officers and firefighters—some of the few remaining blue-collar jobs that pay enough to buy a home and raise a family.
But of course, this route is very risky—and people returned with PTSD from what they experienced. It was also really hard for parents to leave their kids behind when they deployed, even though they knew they were doing it to give them a better life. Unfortunately, difficulties with navigating the system of benefits (like free college tuition) when they get home often made it impossible to get ahead like they expected to.
DL: What is “the mood economy,” and why does it matter?
JS: When I began interviewing young adults, I expected to hear them talk about their struggles to find jobs, and maintain relationships, and pay for college. But they were much more focused on describing their emotional hardships. Sometimes they would talk for an hour about their struggles to recover from a painful past, whether an addiction or family turmoil and trauma or a mental illness. They told their stories of growing up as journeys of self-healing, of creating a transformed adult self out of the pain of the past. As a sociologist, I wondered: why are young adults focused on the past instead of the present? What does this focus on overcoming a painful past accomplish for them? This is where the “mood economy” matters.
Young people are remaking dignity and meaning out of emotional self-management and willful psychic transformation.
As the sources of dignity and meaning of adulthood of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations—the daily work of the shop floor, masculinity and femininity, the making of a home and family—slip through their fingers, the young men and woman I spoke with are remaking dignity and meaning out of emotional self-management and willful psychic transformation. Instead of grounding their identities and sense of self-worth in more traditional sources, they must take it upon themselves to bring happiness and meaning into their lives. We see this mood economy everywhere: just think of bestselling self-help books titles like The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? or Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. We live in a world where our jobs and relationships are tenuous, and if we want stability and order, we have to make it ourselves. Both economically and emotionally, we have only ourselves to rely on.
DL: Compared to older generations, what is different about how today’s working-class young adults think about adulthood?
JS: They can’t wait for the traditional milestones like a lasting marriage or a stable job to become adults, because they might be waiting forever. So they have redefined adulthood to mean individual emotional growth. Adulthood, like everything else in their lives, is something that they have to do alone.
DL: You suggest that many working-class people don’t have the “means” to fulfill their ideal of a successful relationship, and that this creates “unequal access to intimacy.” Could you explain?
JS: I think our expectations of marriage are very high, but the institution of marriage itself is fragile. Contemporary forms of marriage envision it as an institution dedicated to the couple as equal individuals, and hinges on communication, emotional and personal growth, and expressiveness. A good marriage today means happiness, equality, mutuality, and self-actualization.
Although the shift in the definition of marriage meant increased independence for women and liberated many people from sterile, abusive, or unfulfilling situations, it also means that the pressure on marriage is much higher. That’s because a marriage that needs to grant happiness, equality, mutuality, and self-actualization takes enormous individual resources, such as communication skills (vocabulary, the habit of self-reflexivity, time for in-depth conversation, and perhaps psychological counseling or other expert help as well), problem-solving, and trust—all of which are difficult to come by for people who live paycheck to paycheck, have difficulty trusting others, have less elaborate vocabularies, or little free time.
A marriage that needs to grant happiness, equality, mutuality, and self-actualization takes enormous individual resources.
The men and women I spoke with saw commitment as a risk because they know that if their commitment doesn’t work out, they will end up divorced, and that will bring more emotional and financial burdens. Since they have to struggle just to support themselves, and have to be able to move to take a new job at a moment’s notice, they are afraid to invest in another person. But this means that they also don’t get the material and emotional rewards of commitment like their more advantaged peers do.
DL: What was your most memorable interview experience?
JS: I met John, a 27-year-old black man who sells shoes, while he was studying for an accounting exam at a Richmond community college. Halfway through the subsequent two-hour interview, he told me point-blank: “You know the average white woman won’t even look me in the eye. They look away. I was so shocked when you sat down and talked to me and would even look me in the face . . . then I learned that you wanted something from me and it made sense.” I was shocked and heartbroken to be reminded in this way of how enduring racial inequality and division limit our possibilities for meaningful human interaction, sometimes in ways I don’t even see.
DL: What do you hope people take away from reading your book?
JS: I hope that people think twice about labeling all young people as lazy and entitled and think about how we should rebuild our social institutions to make a place for them. I also hope people will question the message in our society that it is up to you to choose to be happy. Instead, we should think, together, about how to make bigger changes that lead to fulfilling lives.