If you were a Martian landing on Earth and had 24 hours to learn about “Millennials,” the youngest generation coming of age in a post-industrial economy, you’d surmise from New York Times articles and NPR segments and TIME magazine cover stories that young people are a bunch of downwardly mobile middle-class college-educated baristas who are willfully delaying adulthood. You’d think that they’re putting off marriage and parenthood, crashing with their parents, and languishing in unpaid internships because they are overwhelmed by choices and don’t want to grow up yet.
Jennifer M. Silva, in her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, paints an entirely different world absent of the luxury of choice. She tells the story of the other Millennials, the working-class young people grappling with an intensely precarious, low-wage economy that leaves them feeling isolated, betrayed, and bewildered by institutions that are ostensibly there to help them. They’re avoiding romantic entanglements not because they value their freedom, but because marriage and children feel like untenable demands on top of an already demanding existence. The traditional markers of adulthood—college, career, home ownership, marriage, kids—aren’t just delayed for these young adults. They feel completely out of reach.
And despite the fact that these young people would benefit most from a strong social safety net, they consistently swear by a philosophy of individualism. They make “a virtue out of not asking for help,” Silva writes. “[I]f they could do it, then everyone else should too.” Emotional growth and avoiding the psychic traps of their down-and-out parents are prized by low-income young adults, leading to what Silva calls “privatizing happiness”—internalizing one’s demons in the spirit of neoliberalism rather than getting angry at or galvanized by bigger, structural problems.
Through 100 in-depth interviews Silva vividly pulls us into this world, mostly in Richmond, Virginia, and Lowell, Massachusetts, where her grandparents grew up. The most striking thing about these stories is that they’re not only about debt or empty checking accounts; they’re about small moments wherein our institutions have ignored, confused, or overwhelmed working class people. Isaac doesn’t apply for financial aid for community college because his mother feels uncomfortable providing her salary for the FAFSA. Christopher feels “tricked” for being taxed $400 for not purchasing Massachusetts health insurance because he was unemployed and didn’t know how to look for free health care. Eileen tries to collect welfare, but couldn’t despite her low income because she inherited a house from her mother.
These moments spark not only resentment in the “system,” but between different groups; Eileen, for example, believes she was denied welfare because the system privileges black people. What results is a highly alienated, diffuse group of people with little sense of solidarity, community, or collective solutions.
There are glimmers of hope in Coming Up Short. In the last pages, Silva profiles Wally, a 30-year-old couchsurfer and part-time grocery store stocker who describes himself as a “revolutionary,” someone for whom “a sense of ‘we’ actually does exist.” He’s a tireless local activist, trying to form a union at his grocery store and protesting neighborhood gentrification. Silva links Wally’s story to the larger resistance of Occupy Wall Street and 2010’s student rallies in Britain. For them, as for Wally, it’s been an uphill battle. But it’s the first step, Silva writes, to reshaping this narrative and demanding “a basic floor of social protection” for young adults.
Looking forward to this discussion, and welcome Jennifer!
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]