Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty by Jennifer M. Silva, Oxford University Press.
I am looking for a new place. I don’t have a job. My car is broken. It’s like what exactly can you do when your car is broken and you don’t have a job…Where are you going to live, get your car fixed?…I find myself being, like, oh what the hell? Can’t it just be over? Can’t I just go to Iraq right now? Send me two weeks ago so I got a paycheck already!
People used to get married at twenty one. You don’t see that anymore. Trust is gone. The way people used to love is gone.
So I will say coming into adulthood is, when you are a person who has so many disadvantages you tend to construct yourself based on what people want and what people expect…My therapist actually wanted me to withdraw (from school). And I told her I’m not a quitter.
I suffered from a lot of depression and social anxiety…I was unemployable.
These were the voices in my head over the New Year’s lull. I was reading Jennifer Silva’s Coming Up Short, her attempt to reveal and explain the psychological state of American working class youth. The overall picture is one of instability and pessimism, which fit my mood the way the moon can block out the sun during an eclipse. When was the last New Year that saw less reason for optimism, more causes for anxiety and despair? When 1999 rolled over into 2000, some wondered if the end of the 2nd millennium—Y2K!—was going to trigger a world-wide disaster, with computer malfunctions upending banks, paralyzing flight control towers. Were ancient Mayan predictions about to become a reality? Was it time to stockpile paper towels and bottled water? Would it be foolish to leave the fortress of your own home? Yet, despite months of dire warnings, including some ranted from the floor of the US Senate, that New Year’s Eve was far, far less nervous and gloomy than the one we just hobbled through. At my house, the Y2K mood was one of great hilarity—and never more so than when a couple of the teenagers sneaked into the cellar and pulled the master switch on the house’s fuse box, plunging us all into darkness on the stroke of midnight.
2017, however, hobbled in if through a back entrance, while denunciations of 2016 continued to accumulate. And it was in this state of mind that I read Coming Up Short, a piece of sociological fieldwork that—even presented in the careful diction of the peer-reviewed—unveils a group portrait of working class youth that is heartbreaking.
Based on 100 interviews with 20-somethings in Lowell, Mass. and Richmond, Virginia, Coming Up Short, describes a class’s downward trajectory, and its fateful encounter with the ideology of neoliberalism. Anyone who has bothered to notice the defeat of the trade union movement, and the stagnation of real wages over the past 40 years will not be surprised that the sons and daughters of a once robust and confident working class find themselves adrift in a miasma of under-employment, unpredictable employment, substance abuse, and dysfunctional relationships. What is less predictable in Silva’s sensitive rendering is the extent to which those who have been sidelined by an economy that has rendered their services unnecessary end up blaming themselves, and adopt the language of pop psychology and self-help manuals to describe their own predicaments. Without a union to join their individual challenges to the interests of their class, without a social and economic explanation for their unemployment or under-employment, Silva’s respondents remain introspective, self-blaming and isolated in their struggles.
They accept as inevitable that the kinds of work that sustained their families over several generations will not be available to them. And they also accept as simply realistic that in order to survive in today’s labor marketplace they need to be capable of a flexibility that includes a willingness to acquire new skills, a willingness to relocate, and a willingness to postpone traditional markers of adulthood—a home of their own, marriage, children. Their plans for somehow escaping the cycle of instability—in which a stalled car or a DUI means moving back into your parents’ house—to a surprising degree center on working on themselves as individuals, whether that means getting sober, seeking counselling for other behavioral issues, sorting out childhood memories that might be holding them back, or coming to terms with their own personal inadequacies.
Silva follows her interviewees through young adulthoods in which little can be taken for granted. “For the post-industrial generation of working-class men and women, it is not blue collar work but rather flux and flexibility left behind by its disappearance that defines their coming of age experiences. Young working-class men and women employ emotional suffering as the new currency of adulthood; it is through managing this suffering within the self that they access the dignity and sense of forward-moving progress due adults. This model is ubiquitous in their every day interactions, propagated through school psychologists, family services, the service economy, self-help literature, online support groups, addiction recovery groups, medical trails, or even talk shows…The mood economy underlines a drastic transformation in the relationship among selfhood, inequality, and emotion…Weaving together the therapeutic ethos with timeless American cultural tropes of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, and religious narratives of redemption, the mood economy transposes self-reliance, progress, and success from one’s character or one’s soul to one’s psyche. To put it succinctly, the mood economy dovetails with neoliberalism by privatizing happiness.”
Silva finds that the familiar tent poles of a respectable life are not readily available to a growing subset of young people. Community and family are suddenly luxuries as working class youth play a game of economic musical chairs, with the music going faster and faster and faster—until there is no music at all, only silence. She writes that the only way her subjects believe they can survive in an economy in which every decent job draws several applicants is to remain highly flexible themselves, unencumbered by any obligation but to pay their own bills.
From broken marriages, fuckups at work and at school, stoned behavior, to deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the kids in Silva’s study are far from the old proletarian ideal of Marxist iconography, neither noble nor particularly strong. They are adrift, and vulnerable, and not likely to attain the material and emotional rewards their fathers and mothers enjoyed. What is most remarkable in Silva’s study is the lack of anger coming through in the interviews, the overall mood of self-disgust and despair. Without strong unions or other class-based organizations to link their grievances to the grievances of millions in similar straits, Silva’s young workers are offered no coherent analyses of their situation, making it more likely that they will accept the therapeutic paradigm—as it is disseminated on TV and by social workers—as an explanation for their own discontent, their own misery.
The success of the Sanders campaign in speaking to some working class youth is a cause for some guarded optimism. The Democratic Socialists of American has in recent months received thousands of applications for membership (including my own) (and you should join, too—it doesn’t make sense not to) but the US is still without a significant political opposition staked out against the received wisdom of American capitalism—namely that the road to success and happiness and even safety is self-reliance: owning your own business, following your own dreams, packing your own gun. Important as Silva’s thesis and her findings are, Coming Up Short is a sad and saddening piece of work, and the gloomy mood of her subjects makes you wonder if the fury of the working class that supposedly animated rust belt voters to support Trump in ’16 might have been in large part an expression of nihilism, a roaring Get Fucked to those who peddle conventional, outdated ideas of American possibility, and what constitutes a normal life. It could be that Trump’s promises to bring jobs back from the past were just as unbelievable to many in the throngs that welcomed him as they were to the liberals who couldn’t understand how such bullshit could be swallowed. Reading Silva you are reminded that Trump’s multiple marriages, his wing-nut conspiracy theories, his barroom put-downs, and his pathetic insistence on his own ability to reason and think were not impediments to his appeal but its very heart and soul. For young working class men or women holed up in their parents’ spare bedroom, going through the local papers and circling ads for jobs that are already filled, and pretty sure that the only guaranteed way to get paid on a regular basis is to put on a helmet and get shot at in some war no one can really quite explain, hearing someone in authority dismiss the rules of the game as it has hitherto been played can come as a galvanizing relief, even if the man who is riffing on these notions is a billionaire who probably plunges his arms into a vat of Purell after shaking their hands. If Silva’s thesis is correct—that economic uncertainty has trapped young workers in a perpetual adolescence—it is a wonder that we now have a president who often sounds like a child himself.