By Beth Cozzolino
Coming Up Short: Working-class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, by Jennifer M. Silva (Oxford University Press, 192 pp., 2013)
What does it mean to come of age in the neoliberal era? For working-class young adults, the traditional markers of adulthood—understood in this book to be “leaving home, completing school, establishing financial independence, marrying, and having children”— seem increasingly out of reach. Through interviews with 100 working-class men and women (50% male and 50% female), Jennifer Silva asserts that they construct privatized narratives of adulthood that reflect the privatized culture around them. Silva’s interviewees, aged 24-34, were defined as working class if their father had not gone to college. Some 60% were white and 40% were black.
Silva argues that their experiences of betrayal by institutions, family members, and significant others force working-class young adults to learn to value “self-sufficiency over solidarity.” As she describes their experiences, she illuminates some key roadblocks to organizing working-class young people.
Contemporary global capitalism has allowed firms to embark upon a “privatization of risk” (emphasis in original), shifting the burdens of potential illness, unemployment, and other unforeseen calamities onto employees. Not only are their employment situations precarious, but the weight of these risks discourages working-class young adults from embarking upon stable relationships—“commitment, rather than being a hedge against external risks of the market, becomes one demand too many on top of the already excessive demands of the post-industrial labor force.”
One of the major betrayals that Silva’s respondents face comes from the institution of higher education. Having heard all their lives that college would help them, they took out significant loans for school but were unable to finish, too often dropping out saddled with student-loan debt but no degree.
So far, no Democratic Left reader will be surprised by Silva’s analysis. She ventures into more speculative waters when she asserts that the increasing prominence of folk and pop therapy (what she calls the “mood economy”) gives working-class youth a therapeutic lens through which to make sense of their precarious lives. It functions in tandem with the forces of neoliberalism to privatize one’s happiness and personal narrative. For, “just as neoliberalism teaches young people that they are solely responsible for their economic fortunes, the mood economy renders them responsible for their emotional fates”(emphasis in original).
Narratives of overcoming past traumas such as addiction and toxic relationships replace markers of adulthood such as establishing a home and financial independence. Individuals “learn to see their struggles to survive as morally right, making a virtue out of not asking for help; if they can do it then everyone else should too.”
Through encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own emotions, the mood economy “privatizes happiness,” making it a product of individual will rather than structural circumstances.”
In 1972, in The Hidden Injuries of Class, Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett mapped a similarly bleak terrain for the working class. Silva pays tribute to this earlier study, but insists on “the hidden injuries of risk,” in a culture where family, unions, fraternal organizations, churches, and other mainstays of working-class community have fractured under the stress of privatization and economic duress.
By demonstrating just how far neoliberalism penetrates our psyche, Silva answers the question of “why young people who would seem to benefit most from social safety nets and solidarity with others cling so fiercely to neoliberal ideals of untrammeled individualism and self-reliance.”
Unfortunately, Silva allows little room for the possibility that working-class people may still be living meaningful lives and having fulfilling relationships. The misery and loneliness that she attributes to her respondents appear overwhelming. One wonders how they manage to get up in the morning if their lives are so lacking in pleasure or connection.
Still, Silva is right to remind us that working-class young adults, and by extension many middle-class young adults, “need new definitions of dignity and progress that do not reduce their coming-of-age stories to a quest to manage their emotions and. . .be content with insecurity and loss.” As social justice activists, it is our responsibility to create these narratives and build a solidarity that would provide security for all.
Beth Cozzolino is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a former co-chair of YDS and former president of Temple University YDS.
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