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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 ...