Not Oprah’s Book Club: Coming Up Short

Ed. note: This is a guest post from Madeleine Schwartz. Madeleine is a  freelance writer who has written for The Believer, Dissent Magazine, and The New Inquiry, among other publications.

To read most pieces on Millennials, you would think that everyone born between 1981 and 2000 was white, wealthy, and facing a wonderful world of choice. Articles describe a selfish generation unable to commit, or young people who waltz from one experience to another without giving back. Absent is any description of the youth who fall outside of the narrow band of privilege.

Jennifer Silva’s Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty fills this gap. Silva, a post-doctoral fellow in sociology at Harvard, interviewed 100 working-class men and women over the course of a year and half to see how the changing economy has affected them. In her fascinating book, she chronicles how stable markers of adult identity have become elusive for most working-class youth. “Taken-for-granted models for organizing one’s life—whether in terms of relationships, work, time or commitment—become obsolete, unattainable, or undesirable.” In an economy failing its participants, how do working-class youth think of their trajectories?

Over the course of the past few decades, shifts in economy have altered the prospects for working-class Americans. Wages of working-class jobs have gone down 12 percent for people with a high school diploma since 1973; for those without one the fall is even more dramatic: 26%. Outsourcing has reduced the number of manufacturing jobs, once a staple of working-class employment. The growing service sector that has risen in its place is hardly promising: most jobs in retail and restaurants are poorly paid and unstable. As a result, Silva describes, the traditional markers of adulthood elude many young people. Stuck in low-waged work, unable to live on their own, and shifting between relationships, most find themselves aging without achieving recognizable milestones.

Silva’s subjects come from backgrounds rarely visible in mainstream media, and one of the most interesting things about the book is the range of experiences displayed. Silva uses her subjects’ voices generously, quoting them in long, full paragraphs, and allowing them to speak to their own trajectories. “Your book is going to speak for so many people without voices,” one informant told her. Reading the range of stories and hardships, I was struck by how poorly my generation has been represented elsewhere.

Many of Silva’s informants have lived a catalogue of disappointments—failed parenting, incompetent schoolteachers, misplaced ambition. One particular failure is an emphasis on college education that encourages students to take on debt they may never be able to repay. One subject, a 34-year-old man with $80,000 in college loans, tells Silva, “I feel like I was sold fake goods. I did everything I was told to do and I stayed out of trouble and went to college. Where is the land of milk and honey? I feel like they lied. I thought I would have choices. That sheet of paper [his degree] cost so much and does me no good.

These failed promises of advancement have wide-ranging consequences on the shape of lives. In a chapter on intimacy, Silva describes how few of her informants are able to stay in stable relationships. “Couples find themselves trapped between two competing logics of what love should be, yet unable to put either into practice.” On the one hand, they long for the kind of households they grew up in, but do not have the economic means to realize their goals. On the other, they “try to forge therapeutic relationships that foster the growth of their deepest selves, yet quickly learn that self-realization requires resources that they do not have.” Without financial resources, the pursuit of self-actualization for many Silva’s subjects means risking the little stability they have acquired. The result is a generation of men and women who have decided to go at it alone.

As Silva begins to characterize her subjects’ views, she draws from the economy that has surrounded them. “The more ‘flexible’ they become in the labor market—that is, the more they learn to manage short-term commitment and disillusionment—the more hardened they become toward the world around them,” she describes. In the place of workers’ solidarity or demands for systemic change, many of the Silva’s informants feel they must rely only on themselves.

And rather than look for unachievable milestones, Silva’s subjects pride themselves on turning their stories into narratives of self-improvement. “Working-class men and women inhabit a social world in which the legitimacy and dignity due [to] adults are purchased not with traditional currencies such as work or marriage but instead through the ability to organize their difficult emotions into a narrative of self-transformation. … Emotional management has become the new currency of working –class adulthood, promising transformation—and longed-for progress—in exchange for a public denunciation of pain.” In other words, when living one’s dreams is impossible, all that is left is the ability to tell one’s own story.

Skeptics and millennial-haters may see these narratives as yet another example of our generation’s selfishness. But this is a narcissism of necessity, not choice. Unable to control the world around them, Silva’s subjects are left no option but to will themselves to contentment about their lives.

Reading Silva’s book, I wondered how this kind of thinking negatively reinforces itself As Silva repeatedly points out, the causes of change are systemic, but they are often felt as the result of personal choice. These narratives of self-reliance can often have disastrous consequences.  In a heart-breaking episode, Silva discusses Delores, a 34-year-old white woman who worked as a cash register in a bakery. Delores had struggled with mental illness for the much of her life, and had trouble recuperating from a “downward spiral” of manic spending that left her deep in debt. When she found herself in yet another debilitating round of depression, she was unable to get out of bed for weeks and was eventually fired for missing too much work.

A year later, Silva writes, a friend discovered that Delores’ headaches and fatigue had not been caused by depression at all. She had been living with a malignant brain tumor that was undiscovered until her death. One should not blast millennials for their selfishness, but rather ask how so many have found themselves left on their own.

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