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Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty

Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty

by Jennifer M. Silva

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What does it mean to grow up today as working-class young adults? How does the economic and social instability left in the wake of neoliberalism shape their identities, their understandings of the American Dream, and their futures? Coming Up Short illuminates the transition to adulthood for working-class men and women. Moving away from easy labels such as


What does it mean to grow up today as working-class young adults? How does the economic and social instability left in the wake of neoliberalism shape their identities, their understandings of the American Dream, and their futures? Coming Up Short illuminates the transition to adulthood for working-class men and women. Moving away from easy labels such as the "Peter Pan generation," Jennifer Silva reveals the far bleaker picture of how the erosion of traditional markers of adulthood-marriage, a steady job, a house of one's own-has changed what it means to grow up as part of the post-industrial working class. Based on one hundred interviews with working-class people in two towns-Lowell, Massachusetts, and Richmond, Virginia-Silva sheds light on their experience of heightened economic insecurity, deepening inequality, and uncertainty about marriage and family. Silva argues that, for these men and women, coming of age means coming to terms with the absence of choice. As possibilities and hope contract, moving into adulthood has been re-defined as a process of personal struggle-an adult is no longer someone with a small home and a reliable car, but someone who has faced and overcome personal demons to reconstruct a transformed self. Indeed, rather than turn to politics to restore the traditional working class, this generation builds meaning and dignity through the struggle to exorcise the demons of familial abuse, mental health problems, addiction, or betrayal in past relationships. This dramatic and largely unnoticed shift reduces becoming an adult to solitary suffering, self-blame, and an endless seeking for signs of progress. This powerfully written book focuses on those who are most vulnerable-young, working-class people, including African-Americans, women, and single parents-and reveals what, in very real terms, the demise of the social safety net means to their fragile hold on the American Dream.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Silva, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, explores the impact of neoliberal economics and the ongoing recession on young individuals struggling to enter the workforce and come to terms with adulthood. Grounding her research in 100 interviews conducted with working-class men and women in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Va., Silva reveals a generation disillusioned with the system: they feel they’ve been betrayed by school guidance counselors, crippled by debt, lied to about their potential, and deceived by their own government. A sense of “powerlessness and mystification” clouds their pursuit of stability; job markets are abysmal; shifting gender roles have reshaped notions of intimacy and marriage, and many are opting out of relationships all together. They perceive themselves to be “completely alone, responsible for their own fates,” insisting that if they must “survive on their own, then everyone else should too.” Silva asserts that in order to cope, working-class people have developed a flinty and rugged individualism, but at the cost of community and solidarity. Impeccably researched and skillfully articulated, Silva’s work is a timely primer on the current state of blue-collar Millennials. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Impeccably researched and skillfully articulated, Silva's work is a timely primer on the current state of blue-collar Millennials." —Publishers Weekly

"In the tradition of Studs Terkel's Working and Lillian Rubin's Worlds of Pain, this poignant and powerful book takes us inside the lives of today's working class. With remarkable empathy and painful detail, Silva illuminates the personal stories of young workers with no unions, no pensions, no assets, and little hope for more than unstable low-wage jobs. Rather than blaming neoliberal capitalism for their precarious futures, she finds that these young people blame themselves. A smart and compelling page-turner, Coming Up Short is a truly masterful work." —Sharon Hays, author of Flat Broke with Children

"Capitalism and its devastating effects are best examined at the bottom of the social order, where men and women struggle with unemployment, with intimacy, and with forming self-respect. Coming Up Short studies working-class lives from a new perspective: that of the management of risk. It is a masterful contribution to our understanding of how capitalism creates the many anxieties that make up our lives." —Eva Illouz, Professor of Sociology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

"This outstanding book offers a heartbreaking account of America's 21st century working class as they transition to adulthood. Dreaming of a life of college education, steady well-paying jobs, marriage, home-ownership, and children, they confront a reality of student loan debt, low-paying service sector jobs, unstable relationships, and a changed landscape of individual risk and self-blame. Silva's extraordinary ability to connect with these young people brings their perspectives to life, and her sharp analyses link their lives to wider social currents. Written with a rare combination of empathy and clear-eyed reasoning, Silva exemplifies sociology at its very best. This should be required reading for every young adult in America, and everyone who loves a young adult." —Mary Waters, M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology, Harvard University

"If you care about our country's future, ponder the compelling personal histories that Jennifer Silva portrays in this impressive book. Silva describes with grace and sensitivity how the economic and social changes that have rocked America in the last half century reverberate in the lives of young working class adults, radically isolated and striving to craft a sense of self in a world without security, without solidarity, and without trust. It is a chastening tale." —Robert D. Putnam, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University, and author of Bowling Alone

"[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." —Boston Globe

"Silva has made a major contribution to understanding where young adults are coming from, what influences them, and what they consider to be common sense." —The American Conservative

"Fascinating" —Feministing.com

"[A]n enjoyable read and raises important issues that we generally overlook." —Washington Independent Review of Books

"Coming Up Short is a brief, but powerful, update of the status, difficulties, behaviors and distresses that characterize the lives of young working class adults. Based on in-depth interviews with 100 subjects, both White and African American, the book is — among other things — a reminder of the power of qualitative research, where the subjects' statements and the vignettes about them poignantly document a number of themes in a way that statistical tables could not... Coming Up Short is highly recommended for sociologists and social welfare students and academics alike. It informs in telling detail the difficult circumstances and self-perceptions of a significant portion of the American population. It is also a window into how the 'helping professions' have influenced the thinking of young adults and suggests that those professions need help their clients see their troubles in broader terms than they apparently currently do." —Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

"I enjoyed reading this book. It will stay in my memory long after it returns to my bookshelf, although I suspect it will not stay there long. For sociologists of youth and adulthood, like me, it contains many insights that spur the sociological imagination. But above all, the young working-class lives that Silva enables us to hear will continue to haunt me. They may be "coming up short" in an economic and social system that promises much, yet often delivers little, but to my mind and throughout Silva's book, they are adults with important messages to convey and lives to lead." —American Journal of Sociology

Library Journal
For many, the hallmarks of growing up remain getting a good job, owning a home, and having a stable family. But the last 50 years have been marked by an unmooring of blue-collar work, the erosion of established family structures, and a decline in prospects for many working-class Americans. With the gap between aspirations and possibilities increasing, many young people have had to adapt. Toggling between showing how economic and social trends are pushing traditional markers of adulthood out of reach and how individuals "ascribe meaning, order and progress" in their lives, Silva (postdoctoral fellow, John F. Kennedy Sch. of Government, Harvard Univ.), through interviews with youth in Lowell, MA, and Richmond provides thought-provoking perspectives on what it means to be an adult while being underemployed, uncommitted, and without many possibilities for betterment. The book is strongest in its discussion of the "mood economy" and how overcoming emotional trauma and transforming oneself are increasingly becoming important indicators of adulthood. VERDICT While this work is timely, thorough, and important and asks very good questions, it is written with professionals in mind. This title will appeal to readers of sociology and to social scientists with an interest in class.—Ahmer Qadeer, Brooklyn

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Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author

Jennifer M. Silva is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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