Shut Out and Turned Off

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_Cozzolino2.jpgBeth 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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DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
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Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
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  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.