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  • Working-class young people struggle to attain good degrees, jobs, and relationships as social safety nets disappear. Tweet This
  • When young adults fail to succeed in our social institutions, they come to believe they are better off on their own. Tweet This

For working-class young adults, “coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.” So reports Jennifer M. Silva, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow and author of the recently released Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (Oxford)Starting in 2008, Silva began interviewing working-class young adults in Lowell, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; and a few other cities to better understand their coming-of-age stories. In my interview with her, Silva asks if working-class young adults are really entitled, talks trust, interrogates neoliberalism, shares her most memorable interview experience, and more.

The interview will appear in two parts and has been edited for clarity. –Ed.

David Lapp: Why did you want to talk specifically with working-class young adults?

Jennifer Silva: As a scholar of inequality, I was concerned about the lack of attention to working-class adults in discussions of the delayed transition to adulthood. The popular media cast the millennial generation as entitled, self-absorbed, and lazy. In 2013, for example, Time magazine’s cover story on “The Me Me Me Generation” was headlined: “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” We are all familiar with the story of the privileged young adults who take a long time to settle down because they are off traveling the world or move to New York City for an unpaid internship. But I was starting my project in 2008, just at the beginning of the Great Recession, and I wondered: what about the young adults who don’t have resources like supportive parents or a college fund or social networks? How will they find good jobs, pay for college, and move out?

DL: Many of your interviewees talk about their trouble forming trust. Tell us more.

JS: When I think about what it means to grow up, I think about people moving through the major institutions of our society: joining the workforce, getting married and having children, buying a home, graduating from college. Common celebrations of adulthood like weddings, graduations, housewarmings, or birthdays are more than just parties; they are rituals for marking community membership and shared, public expressions of commitment, obligation, rights, and belonging.

I heard story after story of betrayal and distrust experienced within a vast array of social institutions.

But for the young men and women I spoke with, there was little sense of shared joy or belonging to be heard in their accounts of coming of age. As they attempted to undertake these rituals, they encountered obstacles at every turn. I heard story after story of betrayal and distrust experienced within a vast array of social institutions, including higher education, the criminal justice system, the government, the military, and the family. For example, Christopher, a twenty-four-year-old who has been unemployed for nine months, told me, “I have this problem of being tricked.” When they can’t figure out how to succeed in our social institutions, they become distrustful, and believe they are better off on their own. And national data confirm that working-class youth are in fact becoming less and less trustful.

DL: What is neoliberalism, and how does it figure in working-class young adults’ coming-of-age stories?

JS: I use the term “neoliberalism” to refer to a cultural shift in the way we think about people’s relationship to the government, to the workforce, and to each other. Professor Jacob Hacker talks about the neoliberal shift in the early 1980s as “America’s sweeping ideological transformation away from an all-in-the-same-boat philosophy of shared risk toward a go-it-alone vision of personal responsibility.” Neoliberalism is an ideology of rugged individualism, personal responsibility, and self-reliance.

That might seem like a good thing on the surface! But this idea of everyone going it alone has meant that solidarities have eroded, and people tend to think about themselves and about their rights and obligations as workers and citizens in terms of “I’s” rather than “we’s.” This shift has meant the decline of unions and the end of the social contract between employers and employees. It means a relentless pursuit of profit even if that profit is concentrated among a smaller and smaller number of Americans. Whole communities have been shattered by jobs moving overseas and automation. And young adults growing up today have a hard time finding a place in this competitive, fast-paced economy, especially when the weakening of communities means they don’t have anyone to rely on for help.

Many of the social safety nets that existed for previous generations are disappearing.

DL: But hasn’t the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude held a long career in Americans’ self-understanding? Compared to their grandparents, what’s significant about the way today’s young adults think about self-sufficiency?

JS: The “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” story is a really important part of our cultural history. As a first-generation college student myself, I know how empowering it feels to work your way up. But I think it is important to realize that many of the social safety nets that existed for previous generations are disappearing. For example, when I interview older Americans who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, they often mention a community or neighborhood mentor like a pastor, a teacher, or a friend’s parent who provided them with guidance and support. They talk about having stable families that provided a foundation. And they were growing up in a world where it was possible to support a family on one salary and to work your way through college.

Kids today believe in the American Dream, but with a lack of access to good jobs and affordable education and guidance, and with their families and communities being pulled apart, it is hard for them to know how to invest in their futures. I talked to people who enrolled in expensive for-profit colleges and took out massive loans and had no one in their lives who could give them good advice. When I look at my own upward mobility, I can see how my family, neighborhood, and community played an enormous role in helping me figure out how to make hard work pay off.

Part two of this interview can be found here.