Welcome Jennifer M. Silva (Harvard Kennedy School) and Host Nona Willis Aronowitz (The Roosevelt Institute) (Twitter)

Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty

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]

138 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jennifer M. Silva, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty”

BevW August 31st, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Jennifer, Welcome to the Lake.

Nona, Welcome back to the Lake, and thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Hi, so happy to be here! Excited to chat with Jennifer and everyone else–”Coming Up Short” has been incredibly helpful to me already in all the work I do.

Jen, first off: can you tell us why you chose Richmond, VA and Lowell, MA to investigate?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Hi! Thanks so much for having me! I chose Lowell and Richmond for both personal and professional reasons. My own family started out in Lowell, MA – my grandfather worked in a mill as a child. My family moved from Lowell to the suburbs and achieved upward mobility – and I was a first generation college student. But the past generation has not had the same opportunity, and Lowell to me symbolizes that struggle. It is a city of de-industrialization and scarce public finding.

dakine01 August 31st, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Jennifer and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon. Nona, welcome back!

Jennifer, I have not had an opportunity to read your book but do have a question/comment. I am among the long term un/underemployed within the Boomer generation (61)

Within your research, were the Millenials seeming to buy into the “rugged individualist” myths influenced by the Traditional Media, Talk Radio, blogs, or the influences of family and friends? Which predecessor generations do they most blame for the problems? Do they vote?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Richmond has a similar history of decline, and gave the study more variety.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:02 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 4

They do blame themselves – they blame themselves for not taking the right risks or working hard enough. One young man told me: “But at the end of the day looking in the mirror, I know where all my shortcomings come from. From the things that I either did not do or I did and I just happen to fail at them.”

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Although–it wasn’t clear that they were influenced by talk radio so much as the self-help culture and Oprah, yes?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:03 pm

The men and women I spoke to embrace self-reliance – they do not blame the economy for their problems. Most of them do not vote, and do not follow politics. But they have a general distrust of government and institutions – they feel like they are being tricked all the time.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Right – they listed self-help literature and Oprah as well as self-help groups like AA or NA as sources of inspiration for fixing themselves and doing better

BevW August 31st, 2013 at 2:04 pm

What is your age grouping for this book? 18-30 yr olds?

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Jen, you’re young, too—you said a bit about this, but can you tell us more about how you reconciled your personal journey/history with the interviewees’ stories?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:05 pm
In response to BevW @ 10

I studied people who were 24-34. At 18, most of these young men and women would have expected a more traditional or successful adulthood. But by their late 20s and 30s, they are coming to terms with the fact that “adulthood” – moving out, getting a stable job, getting married, and having kids – was passing them by. So I wanted to know how they were redefining adulthood.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:07 pm

That is a great question! I was 26 when I started the project, and thinking a lot about my own transition to adulthood. But while I was lucky to have the support of teachers, a university, family, and a larger community, the people I studied did not. They lacked the tools and guidance to figure out their futures. So it made it clear to me that there are two worlds of adulthood – the privileged and the disadvantaged.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:09 pm

There are the young adults whose parents pay for college, help them find internships, support them when they travel…and then there are the young people I spoke with who have no idea how to prepare for their future. And they have a lot less hope.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Yes, totally, speaking of this split…you shy away from discussing “Millennials” or “Generation [whatever].” Is there a way to talk about generational identity in a useful way, even if middle class and working class Millennials live in different worlds?

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I’ve got the book but haven’t yet had a chance to get into it.

I’m a pastor in metro Kansas City, and see a fair number of these kinds of people at free meals served by churches around the area. One dynamic I’ve observed is that those events you listed — moving out, getting a stable job, getting married, and having kids — rarely take place among this cohort of young people in that order. Does your book get into this at all?

BevW August 31st, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Are the young adults staying at home or getting into “group houses” for support? I would think they might want to be around people of their own age and experiences.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Jennifer, I have to say, following the therapeutic mode, that this is the most depressing non-fiction book I have ever read. It is an unrelieved story of disappointment, loss, and wrong turns. Even your last story, Wally, can’t find traction, even though he is the single example of apparent understanding of the forces that pushed him and his working class cohort to the wall.

I read the section on methods. It seems that most of the people you talked to have stories that emphasizes a problem, whether it’s abusive childhoods, drugs and alcohol, psychological problems like OCD or ADD, or lack of direction, or inability to cope with systems.

Do you think this sample fairly represents the group of working class young people?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:12 pm

I do avoid those terms, because they conjure up an image of a privileged young adult who is frolicking away the decades after college, traveling, exploring identities and careers – but who will likely settle down eventually. But the people I spoke with face an uncertain future of jobs and relationships and it doesn’t look like they will ever achieve stable lives. So we would need to make these groups more aware of each other – I would imagine that many Millenials are not connected to people outside their own social location and have no idea.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:14 pm
In response to Peterr @ 16

Absolutely – my big question is what it means to be an “adult” in a world where stable markers of adulthood like marriage and jobs and moving into a place of your own are harder and harder to attain. And I find that people are more likely to search inside themselves for progress – like if they overcame an addiction or a difficult family past – because they really can’t find external markers of achievement like holding a job.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:15 pm
In response to BevW @ 17

Most are bouncing around – from a parent’s home, to a friend’s, a partner’s, maybe some time in a group home. Often they move to try to get a fresh start but end up back where they were. It is hard to say where they even live.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Jen, just as a technical note, there is a “reply” button on each comment…may help the audience follow along a little better!

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:16 pm

For the afterthoughts, that is (I see some floating comments after the replies.)

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:18 pm
In response to masaccio @ 18

Sorry for the depressing read! My goal here was to let these young men and women tell their stories – I served as a kind of witness to the pain and suffering they went through. In terms of my sample, these were men and women I found working in service sector workplaces, in community colleges, in fire and police stations, in army training sites. And I was shocked to hear all the stories about past emotional and psychological troubles, too. But I think the issue is not a weird sample, but instead that this psychological language is all around them – on TV, in self-help books, in foster care and prison and education – and they learn that while they can’t control their pasts, they can fix themselves. And since they can’t fix anything else – a job, a marriage – they turn inward and really focus on telling their stories in terms of suffering and self-transformation.

whaley August 31st, 2013 at 2:18 pm


Thanks for taking the time to chat today. I was wondering if you had any ideas about how to improve the lives of these working-class young adults?

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 2:19 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 4

Welcome, Jennifer.

I find your book fascinating. As the parent of two “recent college graduates” [ages 25 & 27], I’m familiar with some of these issues. Fortunately both of my kids are employed, but one endured a horrid year of unemployment and job searching. And my kids are lucky to have a lot of the support mechanisms your subjects don’t

Re dakine01′s question: one of the things I found astounding was that you reported how much their situation(s) lead these kids into blaming the “wrong” culprits. They blame themselves. If they’re white, they blame people of color for getting “preferred treatment.” They never see who the real villains are, and, as a result, they’re susceptible to appeals to “cut off welfare to the undeserving” or whatever crap is being peddled.

The lack of any recognition that as a GROUP they’re screwed, and who did the screwing, is really frightening to me.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:21 pm
In response to whaley @ 25

That is the hardest question! I think we need to attack this problem from several angles. These young adults need a lot more guidance so that they do not take out tens of thousands of dollars in student jobs and then not find a job. They need more support to take the right risks. But they also need a floor of protection so that getting hurt or sick doesn’t set them back so much. And they need more community and family support to fall back on so they don’t think they are alone.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 2:23 pm

That is sort of my question. Do you think that the problems they describe are actually the cause of their situations?

You quote many of them at paragraph length, and they seem fairly articulate about these matters, but I wonder if they are missing the boat by thinking that there is something really wrong with themselves that needs fixing?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:23 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 26

I agree – there was no sense of solidarity as a group of young people who are being exploited economically. In fact, they reject the sense of “we” because they don’t trust people around them and think they are better off alone. There is no sense of a social contract – in their eyes, it is broken. They don’t think they are owed anything, but at the same time, that means they don’t owe others either. So they blame themselves for not making it, and they are hostile to those who can’t make it on their own.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 2:24 pm

One thought that struck me when you talked about “support” and a group was “unions.”

Unions used to provide a source of “togetherness” for people in similar circumstances. They of course provided the muscle of group effort vs. individual ones.

But I just think about how much we’ve lost with the destruction of unions, and not just the loss of economic power.

Perhaps this was the intention of the union-busters all along.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:24 pm

I gotta say, though–I didn’t find Wally depressing! I mean, yes, in many ways he’s a lone wolf who’s having trouble bringing allies into the fold, but that’s always how it starts. I’ve talked to many Wally types across the country and they do have an effect on their circles, even if it hasn’t become a mass movement yet.

Jen, I know you briefly touched on it in the book, but any thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and the smaller projects that have branched out of that? Were any of these working class kids aware of these sentiments, and do you think any of these activists truly took them into consideration?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:25 pm
In response to masaccio @ 28

Yes. I think that by blaming something inside of them – an addictive personality, a learning disorder – they have a sense of control over their lives, and they have something they can work on. They are making a virtue out of the risks and uncertainties of their lives by telling a story of personal growth. But this focus on the self obscures larger issues, like the job market, or the lack of social protections, or the educational system. I think it is a serious social problem.

RevBev August 31st, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I do not recall the number, but there were several unwed, single moms. What a struggle. As you talked to them, did there seem to be any regret, or wish that they had waited, or were most pretty accepting of the difficulty in their situation?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:27 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 30

Yes, unions were a source of solidarity, a way of establishing a social contract and fighting for what one was owed, and also a way to learn more about the community and politics and build trust. Without them, people have very little power. And the men I spoke with in police and fire jobs that were unionized really did have more control over their lives and more chance at achieving the traditional adulthood milestones. Only the men had this, though.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Wally is still trying, still organizing! Unfortunately most of his peers were dismissive of Occupy. Most have no problem with the super rich – they think government should stay out of the way!

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:30 pm
In response to RevBev @ 33

That is really interesting. In fact, children were seen as a kind of redemption – the one thing they had done right, a true marker of adulthood, a reason to turn their lives around. But the institutions in which they had kids often worked against them – for example, one woman joined the National Guard so that she could get a college degree paid for and support her son, but then she was deployed and missed out on his life. So it is very hard to be a worker and a parent!

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 2:32 pm

As I read Issac’s story [p.34] about his walking up and down the highway, in an attempt to be “active” while unsuccessfully searching for a job, I thought, “why isn’t there a Civilian Conservation Corps NOW? Even walking up and down the highway, Issac could pick up trash. He’s already mowing lawns. There are so many task that need to be done. Let the government create some “make work” jobs. Put that $85 BILLION/month that’s going to the banks into the pockets of INDIVIDUALS. It won’t be the “permanent, upwardly-mobile” jobs they need and deserve, but it will be SOMETHING. It will provide them sustenance and a modicum of self-worth.”

whaley August 31st, 2013 at 2:33 pm


You talk a lot about how different the working class is from the middle class. In what ways are working- and middle-class youth the same?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:34 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 37

Yes, they are yearning for some kind of routine and stability, for the dignity of having a job to do. Stability would allow them to plan for the future in a way they can’t when they have no idea if they will have a job or be healthy tomorrow. I agree – we need some kind of “on-ramps” for people like Isaac to get them on a better path.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 2:34 pm

So you do think a lot of them have serious problems with say, addictive personalities or learning disorders? Or do you think that they say “I use drugs because I have an addictive personality” instead of I use drugs because everyone is doing it, or it’s fun, or I feel depressed or something else.

In other words, this feels like a cause and effect issue. They can’t fix their lives, but this therapeutic language gives them a vocabulary that blames them for their own failures. As a simple example, look at the Prayer of Jabez , or the Prosperity Gospel or any of those power of the self evangelists, who tell you that you can succeed and you will succeed in this greatest of all possible lands. So, if you fail, it’s your fault for not praying hard enough or long enough or because you didn’t truly commit yourself to success.

So, because they have failed, they look inside themselves and find something to blame for their failure. That’s when they become aware of these things which they decide are the problem.

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to RevBev @ 33

In addition to the three reactions you listed, I see a fourth among some of the young working-class single moms. For some, the motherhood aspect of their lives — even though it may be tough — is also the place where they find unconditional love and acceptance. Bosses can be jerks, parents/siblings/boyfriends can be hard to deal with, school is nothing but assessment and judgment, but “this baby loves me and I love my baby.”

In a tough world, an oasis of unconditional love is a very powerful thing.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to whaley @ 38

Well, most young men and women WANT the same things – they want a job, they want to settle down with a partner, they want to be independent, have a little house, a car. Everyone wants to go to college. But the difference is in the tools they have to accomplish these goals. The working-class people I spoke with wanted love, marriage, lasting relationships, to wear a suit to work – but they had no idea how to get there!

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 2:37 pm

I was also struck by the general “lost-ness” of so many of these kids. They’ve got no one to turn to for advice about predatory loan terms, declaring bankruptcy, courses to take. Their “family,” if they have one, is totally incompetent in these matters, and if they CAN motivate themselves to seek guidance, there’s nowhere to turn.

Do you see any small, possible resources? Churches, perhaps, or “social work” type outposts?

It appears that those who experienced the military were able to get some of this type of guidance there.

RevBev August 31st, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Thanks…yes, it seems quite sad to me; that is not the responsibility of the child (Im sure that is not always the case, but a big risk.)

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:39 pm
In response to masaccio @ 40

Good question – I am not sure if I can answer it fully. I can’t comment on the “realness” of their disorders. But I do know two things: one is that our culture is stepped in the language of disorder in such a way as to label most forms of suffering or struggle as the result of emotional or psychic problems. So we are inclined to think of drug use or pornography watching or trouble reading through the lens of a disorder, a sickness, and to think that one can “fix oneself” through hard work and dedication and will power. The other point is that middle-class children also are diagnosed with these disorders. But there are far more systems in place to check the damage and help them get back on the right path. Learning troubles are treated with tutors or private school or doctors; addictions with therapy. So whether they are real or not, we can see inequality in coping with them successfully.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I actually hear middle class Millennials assuming that the paradigm has already changed, that maybe they *don’t* want to get married or have kids right away because they want to focus on their career. There are constantly these trend pieces about “the new single happy woman” or “the carless Millennials who don’t care about owning a home” but it seems like those are mostly middle class kids who are DIYing it. In my (much less thorough) research process, I find that working class young people tend to want a more traditional “American dream” setup.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:40 pm
In response to Peterr @ 41

That is true – and that love feels very stable. The fear is what happens when the child grows up. Many of the men and women I spoke with resent their own parents for not giving them a strong foundation in life. Will these kids also?

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 2:41 pm

It also appeared that, for the few that did attempt community college or even university, they were woefully unprepared, and this additional failure led to their dropping out.

It sounded like what a lot of these kids need — before they even hit the community college scene — is a “high school remedial” program, to teach them all the things they didn’t learn in their crappy high schools.

Maybe someone could establish a program modeled after the ESL ones. I have a number of friends who volunteer to teach English to Spanish-speaking immigrants. Perhaps they could start teaching writing skills to “regular” folks.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:42 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 43

I think rebuilding community organizations beyond the family is a great start! Being able to turn to a teacher, a pastor, a guidance counselor simply to ask for direction about what courses to take, what college to enroll in, how to fill out the FAFSA, how to find the strength to keep trying would make a big difference. As it stands, there is no one beyond the family for these kids – and their family members don’t have the tools to give them.

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 2:44 pm

That’s the fear that they express to me.

But giving them a strong foundation means having the resources ($$) and skills to do so, and this is where children complicate matters.

“OK, I can move out, but then I won’t have grandma to babysit when I go to school/work. Or I can stay home, but then grandma still runs the show and I’m not really an adult. Or I can move in with my significant other, but I’m not sure how significant that other really is (or will be) . . .”

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:45 pm

True – it’s the Eat, Pray, Love model where the middle class can put these traditional markers on hold and define self-fulfillment however they want. Maybe it’s a career, or maybe it’s embracing a particular kind of lifestyle like not having a car or house. But I would imagine that these young middle-class people will eventually get married, stay married, and raise their kids with resources and guidance. My respondents on the other hand talk about how “love is gone, trust is gone” – they long for, and are nostalgic about, the loss of tradition.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Jen, can you discuss a little more how the military fits into this story? @Mauimom mentioned it provided some sort of community, but many cases it felt like a trap, not all it’s cracked up to be. I was shocked to read that one of your characters didn’t even know there was a war going on when he signed up for the Marines.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:46 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 48

I think it might have to start even earlier – like early childhood – so that these kids are starting out in life learning the basic skills that their more privileged peers are getting at home. Investing early would pay off with a generation who was prepared for the future.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:50 pm

The military symbolizes upward mobility, stability, routine – for kids without guidance, it can be a second family, a place that gives them the tools and resources they need to succeed in life. That is the promise, anyway, and for men who used their veteran status to get good civil service jobs like firefighting and police, it worked. But of course, it is risky – many came home with PTSD or had to leave their own children for deployment after deployment. Or couldn’t figure out how to get the GI Bill to pay for their books and tuition. It was another complicated bureaucracy.

What is fascinating is that the military is becoming harder and harder to get into – without a high school degree, or with a record, you have almost no chance. So the people at the bottom don’t have this pathway, as dangerous as it is, anymore.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:51 pm
In response to Peterr @ 50

It is also complicated by the lack of trust in their partners – very few feel committed when they get pregnant, and have a shaky foundation on which to start out.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Yes, we are steeped in this therapeutic talk. I read I’m OK, You’re OK sometime in the early 70s, and really enjoyed it. It got me to read Freud and Jung, and I realized that it was junk, translating complex ideas into street language. I just wish I’d had the sense to rewrite Jung into my own book, Your Dreams, Your Self. With a cool cover of a Mandala with lollipops.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I also keep thinking about Christopher (I think?) who was going to be a fireman but didn’t pass his drug test because of marijuana. Now he’s just screwed! Can’t help but wonder if that stigma will dissipate in a few decades or whether it’ll endure despite relaxed drug laws…

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Was it Jalen you mean? What is tragic for him is how little he believed in his future. He almost had a great job, and failed his drug test. To me, that shows he had so little faith in things working out that he sabotaged himself. I hope he retakes the test.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 2:55 pm

The thing that really bothers me is the therapeutic model of relationships, which you describe at 69. You say that no relationship is possible unless you first know yourself fully and accept yourself, and then the relationship is only good as long as it meets your needs.

That’s horrible.

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Jen, the phrase in the post above that grabbed me is “glimmers of hope.” Are glimmers as good as it gets in the minds of these young people?

To get past merely a glimpse of hope, one needs to see that change is possible, that improvement of one’s circumstances is attainable.

Though these young people may not see more, where do YOU see hope for these folks?

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Yes, Jalen, I’m sorry!

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 2:58 pm
In response to masaccio @ 59

Marriage has changed a lot in the last half century. It has become more equitable, and that is a good thing – going back to the days when women couldn’t take out a line of credit or get a mortgage or earn a paycheck without their husbands’ permission is not the goal of course! But marriage has also become more fragile – we expect it to be a vehicle for fulfillment, to satisfy our economic and emotional needs, to be full of communication and growth. And that is a lot to expect! It can be really hard for anyone to live up to what a marriage should be, but especially hard if you are worried about a job, rent, etc.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Oh, I totally agree, but I’m just thinking, for the kids who make it to 18, 20 and can’t compose a sentence, let’s leap in and attempt to address THAT deficiency so maybe they can get a foot on the ladder.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:01 pm
In response to Peterr @ 60

For the people I spoke with, there was almost no sense that they could change the structures around them. The hope was instead focused on improving themselves – “staying sober” could motivate someone even if their jobs and their finances and their relationships were a mess.

But for me, my hope is large-scale structural change, from providing better job training, more protections like health insurance and investments in vocational education, community mentoring, more help balancing family and work. Restoring the sense that we as Americans need to worry about all the kids being born here – both because it is good for our country to invest in them, but also necessary to live up to our ideal of equal opportunity for all.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:02 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 63

Yes – some kind of community college program maybe, that could teach basic skills and push them in the right direction…

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Welcome, Jennifer and Nona, and thanks for coming by. Sorry I’m late, but I have read what has gone on so far. I understand that the book is about people that can’t seem to get ‘ahead,’ that is, job, home, marriage, etc., but are hostile to others who can’t make it on their own. That seems to be a case of cognitive dissonance, in that they don’t see them selves as in the same position as ‘others.’

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:05 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 66

Well, they are hostile to themselves, too. They believe that it is weak to blame outside forces like racism or the economy – that it is up to them to fix whatever is wrong with them and do better in life, both emotionally and economically.

They’ve learned growing up not to ask for help or depend on others – it never works out, and they end up feeling betrayed. So they make a virtue out of not asking for help. People on welfare, people who are too “weak” to succeed – they are not worthy of dignity in the eyes of my respondents. They instead tell a narrative of being able to do anything as long as they want it enough and take enough risks.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:07 pm

believing in self-suffiency – in the absence of any kind of political or social solidarity – gives them hope. so they hold onto it even when that means rejecting others who share their fate.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:08 pm

As this is unfolding (I haven’t had time to read the book) it seems that they have no idea that they have no idea that they are in the trap that seems to be the future for most young people who are not part of the elite that will get all of the special training needed to maintain their position. In this way they seem to be the “canary in the coal mine” and it doesn’t look good. All of the constant attacks on education funding and teachers and education in general is leading inevitably to this state in the not to distant future.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Have you done any follow up with your respondents? I’m curious to know if they are still muddling years later.

RevBev August 31st, 2013 at 3:09 pm

The interviews are so extensive & intimate….How did you screen and did you interview alot of others who are not in the book?

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Jennifer, I note that you’re at the Kennedy School. Is there any awareness there of the problems you’ve articulated? Any work on solutions [other than to pay the Arne Duncans and Michelle Rhees of the world obscene amounts of money].

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 3:09 pm

It occurred to me that your analysis–individualism often dominates these young people’s internal lives because institutions and communities have consistently failed them–may be a way to explain that cognitive dissonance of poor conservatives that political scientists like Thomas Frank talk about. What do you think of this connection?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:10 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 69

I think that is right. As the upper class invest more and more in helping their kids get ahead, the idea that you can make it through hard work alone no longer rings true for the vast majority of young people. And taking away more funding for putting working-class kids on equal footing will make it worse.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Ack sorry, didn’t refresh to see all these questions! Feel free to put mine last :)

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:10 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 72

I believe that you and I are thinking along the same line.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:10 pm

And, too, some of their attitudes sound rather fundamentalist. Did you survey the religious backgrounds of your various respondents?

And, are these young people particularly different from their own parents?

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 3:11 pm

“If there’s nothing that can be done, then I’m not a failure” is a depressing way to go through life.

Breaking through the “you can’t trust anyone” is the only way I can see to derail this.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:12 pm
In response to Dearie @ 70

Great question! The vast majority are actually in the same place four years later – still bouncing from job to job, home to home, struggling to pay their bills and stay in a relationship and pay their loans. They have not “grown up” in any measurable way, except for a few who have had a baby. This is not just a phase…it’s the new adulthood in an era where institutions don’t work for the working class.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:13 pm

My daughter works for the American Association of Community Colleges and is currently administering a grant whereby several grantee colleges establish “centers” where their students can go to pursue the resources for their needs: e.g., housing assistance, child care help, Food Stamps, financial aid. Thus the kids don’t have to spend time rushing to 19 different “sources” of the help they deserve, and also, upon getting this help, will be more likely to stay in school.

This doesn’t address the “can’t write a sentence and don’t know how to study issue,” but it’s a start re another problem.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:13 pm

in line with whaley’s question at @38, as I read the book, I looked for points of comparison with my own life. There are none. To take the simplest example, I went to Indiana University Law School on the GI Bill, my savings, and a part-time job, and still had a positive net worth when I graduated with a job. In those days, state school tuition was reasonable because of tax support. That’s all over now.

And as best I can, I looked at comparisons with my kids, who are just older than your class. Again, there are no points of comparison. It’s like we live in utterly separate worlds.

Politicians live in my world, not theirs. I can’t imagine any politician with enough insight to see these differences. Most of the conservatives agree with these kids that whatever is wrong with their lives is their fault, and most of the rest are corporatists who wouldn’t say that out loud, but aren’t willing to do anything to change things.

No wonder these young people distrust politics.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:13 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 72

The team I work on, the Saguaro Seminar, is working on the problem of growing gaps between kids from the top and the bottom – why it happened and what to do about it. It’s our goal to spark a conversation about opportunity for youth!

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:14 pm
In response to RevBev @ 71

Thanks! I felt it was really important to build trust and let people tell me their stories and what adulthood felt like for them. Since the book, I have interviewed many more young people across the country – and heard very similar stories.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:15 pm

It seems to me that most decent, truly community based colleges, and many local high schools have remedial courses that help with many of the problems that these young people are facing. I guess that the main obstacle is getting the word to the young people needing the help that there is real help available. In addition, if they attend such courses, they can see that they are not alone and can help each other find a way to succeed.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:17 pm
In response to Dearie @ 77

Some of them have religious beliefs, but they are not embedded in communities of faith like they may have been a generation or two ago. They are very individualistic about their faith and their relationship with God. So while that is inspiring to them, they miss out on the social supports and guidance a church might have offered a generation ago. There is no youth group or pastor helping them find their way.

Their own parents are going through many of the same issues they are. Without a college degree, they can’t compete in the labor market and face layoffs, the lack of insurance and pensions, fear for the future, divorce. So their parents are in some way a sign that adulthood is slipping away.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:19 pm
In response to Peterr @ 78

I think so too. They have interaction after interaction that reinforces the idea that you can’t trust anyone – the school, the military, the government. So it feels too risky to trust anyone but yourself. How do we fix that?

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:19 pm
In response to masaccio @ 81

Politicians live in my world, not theirs.

Unfortunately there are all too many people who live in “your world” [the one of affordable tuition and available jobs]. Have you read the comments in the NYT, WashPoo or almost anywhere else lately? EVERYONE’s story is about how they “made it through school on earnings from my summer job and my work study” program, so “why do these deadbeat kids have to take out huge loans?” And, BTW, “if you take out a loan, you ought to pay it back.”

There’s absolutely NO awareness of how different things have become. [I went to UCLA Law school when my tuition as a CA resident was $250/year.]

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:20 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 80

I love that idea. Because working-class kids leave college for so many reasons – difficult family lives, housing situations, childcare, health. So being able to have a safety net and some guidance as part of a larger educational system seems promising.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I’d love to see you do a study of successful marriages that parallels this book. I think you’d be surprised at the actual expectations of long-term married couples.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Jennifer, do you feel that in writing this book you are preaching to the choir? Are any of the people you interviewed likely to read it and see that many are in their same position? Do you think that any of the 1% will read this and really work to remedy the situation? Do you feel that any of the 1% will feel anything but triumph that the plan is working?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:23 pm
In response to masaccio @ 81

I think part of the problem is that we don’t interact with people not like us. Our neighborhoods and schools and churches and associations and clubs are all more income- and education-based than they used to be. So it is difficult to imagine other people’s lives or to feel empathy. And so kids from the top who think they worked their way up don’t see all their advantages.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I hope you don’t take this as criticism, but it seems to me there’s been adequate “study” done [your book is an excellent example that ought to be widely read and utilized]. Just from reading, anyone can create a list of “things to do.” These things [e.g., mentors in community centers, remedial academic programs, etc.] may not solve the global problems, but they can save a LOT of kids.

I’m just frustrated when I hear what appears to be a call for more “study.” Let’s get to WORK!

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 3:24 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 90

Yes, I’d like to piggyback on this and ask: Why did you decide to make this an academic book rather than one marketed to a general audience (although I do think it’s written in a very accessible way!)

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:24 pm
In response to masaccio @ 89

I’m actually in the middle of that :) I can send you a copy if you want!

But we do know that there is a “divorce divide” in the US, with people with college degrees much less likely to get divorced. So my point is that making marriage work takes more than just the desire to stay married.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Another curiosity: Did the young people in your study have close friends in high school? Did they remain friends with friends from their younger years? Did any of their friends break the mold and make it out of poverty? What did your subjects think of those friends who’d made it?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:28 pm

That is a good question. Part of my reason to write an academic book is to get a job! Part of it is speaking as someone who has training in social analysis and in methods so that I have legitimacy when it comes to making my argument. But I did try to write the book in the most accessible way I could.

I have done several radio shows lately, and that has been a great opportunity to speak with people from all over the US, many of whom did NOT share my views! Being able to talk about inequality and capitalism and opportunity with a wide range of people has been challenging but important. I do think restoring our ability to have a national conversation without taking sides is important. One way of doing this is to try to find common ground – to emphasize economic solutions, as Democrats would, but also to emphasize family and community solutions, which is more typically a red solution.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I concur that it’s accessible, but I find the constant references in the middle of the text [rather than in footnotes] distracting.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:29 pm

That is the problem we address constantly on this site: government is failing people and teaching people that they are on their own. We do not know the answer. Government is the face of society, and it’s failure means that society is failing them.

When I wrote that your book is depressing, one part of that is that the response of your young people explains clearly why we can’t reach them with ideas that would work. For example, you write that they don’t want to tax the rich, but the rich are the problem. Taxing the rich adequately would fix the revenue problem, so that government won’t fail them and their kids.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Haven’t read the book yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I am curious about why someone who joined the police or fire fighters would be having a hard time. That seems like a step up for anyone coming from a dysfunctional family, and would, I think, provide a good income and real stability.

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I’ve served a variety of different churches, and interact with a lot of clergy, and I’ve noticed a huge difference between churches that offer a free community meal, those that host a food pantry, and those that send off a check to support someone else’s food program. The difference is this: The more the members of a congregation interact with those on the underside economically, the less homogeneous the congregation is.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Glad to hear you’ve been on other “media.” Your message is insightful and deserves wider dissemination. Good luck.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:33 pm
In response to masaccio @ 98

I agree. I think the solution is rebuilding – thoughtfully and carefully – the institutions that allow people to transition to adulthood in a way that means joining a community, not rejecting it! Like the unions and the churches and the clubs of a generation ago, but without the racism and sexism. Within these spaces, people can learn to talk about problems as political rather than personal, to restore the sense that we have obligations to each other. I agree we need to get to work!

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I’d love to see it. I’ve been married over 40 years to the same woman, and have several friends with equally long marriages. Of course we all have loads of education, but we don’t all live in blue states. Bev has my email.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:35 pm
In response to Dearie @ 99

Sorry for the confusion – I meant to emphasize the stability of these jobs. They allow for a steady paycheck, benefits and pensions, the chance at upward mobility. (I am the daughter of a firefighter so I benefited from this stability.) The problem is that these jobs are so competitive because they are some of the few remaining good blue-collar jobs!

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:35 pm
In response to masaccio @ 98

It seems to me that the ability to analyze a situation, theirs or the larger society, is lacking because they don’t have the training to do so. These young people probably, I certainly don’t know for sure, think that because Mr. or Ms. Gotrocks has a lot of money, they must know what they are talking about. This “guidance” by the rich is certainly not directed at helping these young people.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:36 pm
In response to Peterr @ 100


masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:36 pm
In response to Dearie @ 95

Great question. It is a way of finding out whether these people have basic social skills. For many of the people in the book, it seems like social skills are weak to non-existent.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:37 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 105

And I think they don’t realize that they deserve equal opportunity – that is their birthright as Americans. But since they can’t distinguish between real opportunity and false promises (e.g., for-profit colleges, modeling scouts) they don’t see all the ways they are being tricked.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Just in case I’m not around when this ends, I want to thank you again, Jennifer and Nona, for coming by. This has been very fascinating and shown us what can certainly happen in a larger context if we can’t figure out how to stop it now.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:40 pm
In response to masaccio @ 107

They do have friends – though they are also very wary of betrayal and by the time I spoke with them, they were more fearful of investing in people.

A few did “make it.” And a big factor in why they made it was their social networks – whether they knew someone who could point them in the right direction, for example, a middle-class adult figure who pointed them in the direction of nursing or business.

There is only happiness for people who get ahead – no resentment, because they believe it is up to the individual to make it.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:42 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 109

Thank you!!

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 3:42 pm

It is indeed.

As one congregational member put it to me, “Interacting with the folks who come for the dinner has changed ME. It’s made me look at things differently, and I treat people differently — better! — than I did before I started helping with the community meal.” Those parishes who send a check to someone else to provide food — as necessary as those gifts are — miss out on the experience of interacting with people different from themselves, and so remain more insular as a result.

And the folks who come to these meals have very well-tuned BS Detectors. From long experience, they know the difference between condescension and an honest welcome.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Yes, those are great examples; sort of the educational or working equivalent of hitting the lottery.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Jennifer, have you thought about writing a condensed version of your work for publication in someplace like Salon, Common Dreams, Nation of Change, etc.?

Possibly a way to reach a wider audience.

BevW August 31st, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Jen, do you see an anger growing in these young people about their inequalities? Looking at other countries overseas, there is a very high rate of unemployment for the young people, riots and social uprisings have occured(arab spring). Do young adults follow the news?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:45 pm
In response to BevW @ 115

I heard a lot of anger. But the anger was not really focused on a system – it was directed at “government” but without a clear idea of how they were being exploited. Not many of them had much of a sense of what was going on in the world or depended on social media (more closed networks) for news. The anger was really much more directed at their families and themselves, unfortunately.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:46 pm

So, then, I have to ask: What was the general educational level of your subjects? Were they able to do well in school? Did they do well? Did they see education as a way up and out? Nursing requires education … and the ability to get into a nursing school. Business requires intelligence and hard work… and some good guidance generally. Were your subjects limited by low intelligence or general disorder of planning? And I’m not blaming them! Yes our govt is doing everything possible, it seems, to make it hard for the lower and lower middle class…. and now the middle class, too…. but some folks always do make it and I’m always curious to know what characteristics helped them to make it so that we might help others make it, too.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:46 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 109

I think there is serious risk to young middle class people too, the risk that they won’t be able to have decent lives either. It costs a small fortune to raise a child into a middle class life, and even then, young parents have the problem of how their kids will find work.

When I was a kid in South Bend, fathers helped their sons get on at Bendix and Studebaker. That ended years ago. If we had been needed, we would be able to help our kids with contacts or cash, but we worry that our kids won’t be able to do that for their kids.

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 3:46 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 114

Jen did write a great adapted piece in the NY Times! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/young-and-isolated/?_r=0

BevW August 31st, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Have you seen this cartoon?

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:49 pm
In response to masaccio @ 118

I agree. The problem is that raising kids takes so many private resources – it really is up to the parents alone to pay for schools and tutors and college prep classes and activities and who knows what else. So it is very stressful to have all that responsibility on the private family alone. And for people on the bottom who don’t even know college counselors exist, and can’t afford them, it is doubly impossible.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:50 pm
In response to masaccio @ 118

Exactly. That is precisely the direction I see duncan and rhee ‘leading’ us in now.

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:52 pm
In response to Dearie @ 117

They all came from families without college degrees – their moms and dads were in blue-collar jobs. But MANY of the young people I spoke to tried college and some (about 25) got degrees. It wasn’t so much a problem of intelligence as it was about know-how – how do you fill out a financial aid form, how do you know that a for-profit college might be more difficult to graduate from, how do you use your degree to transition to a good job? These are questions that people in the middle can ask their parents or parents’ friends. But they are not obvious at all to people who have no familiarity with college.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:53 pm

One last question. If you had to pick one book from your extensive bibliography to recommend to a general reader, which one would it be?

BevW August 31st, 2013 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the last minutes of this great Book Salon discussion,

Jennifer, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, and an inside view of today’s working-class adults.

Nona, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Jen’s website and book

Nona’s website and Twitter

Thanks all, have a great holiday weekend.

Tomorrow: Graham A. Rayman / The NYPD Tapes: A Shocking Story of Cops, Cover-ups, and Courage; Hosted by Leonard Levitt, NYPDConfidential.com

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

FDL Book Salon has a Facebook page too

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:54 pm
In response to masaccio @ 125

I would recommend Cherlin on marriage and family. Or Hacker on risk. Is two okay? :)

Peterr August 31st, 2013 at 3:54 pm

“It really is up to the parents alone to pay for schools and tutors and college prep classes and activities . . .”

Um, no.

The US has a long history of supporting public education, going back farther than the constitution itself. It really is up to communities to pay for schools.

At least it was, before the “austerity uber alles” movement took hold . . .

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Thank you so much for this fascinating discussion. I had so much fun and learned a lot, too. Please keep in touch!

Nona Willis Aronowitz August 31st, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Thanks everyone! Had a great time.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Thanks for that thorough answer. And I know from financial aid forms!! Horrible. This is where college counselors in the high schools should be helping. But, yes, I know…. cut backs. And Bev’s cartoon about says it all!

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:55 pm

It works out to one: I’ve already read Hacker!

Jennifer M. Silva August 31st, 2013 at 3:56 pm
In response to Peterr @ 128

I meant, in today’s world, it is up to the parents since the other kinds of support have been eliminated. I’m not advocating it, which should be clear from my book – simply showing how safety nets have shrunk to the individual parents, which hurts working-class families.

Mauimom August 31st, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Terrific. Now I’ve got a list of links to send friends.

masaccio August 31st, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thanks, Jennifer. This is a wonderful (if depressing) book, and I hope it reaches a wide audience.

BearCountry August 31st, 2013 at 3:57 pm

I was the first in my family, including all the cousins that I knew, to go to college. My mother was a HS dropout and my step father didn’t anything about college, but their outlook was that I would go and somehow get all the guidance I needed. Nearly the whole society was geared to helping the young succeed, now that is certainly not the case. I probably would not have succeeded without the friends who reinforced each other and the society at large that wanted us to do well.

Dearie August 31st, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Keep spreading the word, Jennifer! And thanks for being such a responsive writer. Wonderful Book Salon.

Ready August 31st, 2013 at 4:49 pm

She says that only 1 person out of 100 she interviewed blames the criminal rich in this country for their plight of no safety net, no jobs, no decent paying jobs, jobs being outsourced to slave wage countries, illegal immigrants by the millions being hired by criminal employers driving down wages, no good education, no affordable higher education, no pensions, no affordable housing etc.

1 out of 100. We have a lot of work to do educating our friends and neighbors who’s to blame for the destruction of the middle class in America.

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