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Broke and Alone: “Coming Up Short”

Isolation and a sense of betrayal plague working-class young adulthood.
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Because most of the traditional pathways to adulthood—marriage, economic independence, stable job—seem out of reach or prove to be reversible, working-class young adults have developed a new definition of maturity. This new pathway relies heavily on therapeutic culture: You become an adult by overcoming the trauma of your past, whether that involved abusive parents, drug addiction, mental illness, or less flamboyant hardships. Young adults who take on this new definition focus on protecting the fragile self, and they reject solidarity and close, committed relationships in favor of individualistic, judgmental competition.

This is the basic thesis of Jennifer M. Silva’s insightful, frustrating new book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. “At its core,” Silva writes, “this emerging working-class adult self is characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health.”

Silva interviewed 100 white and black working-class adults, defining “working-class” as native-born Americans, with native-born parents who didn’t have college degrees—Silva herself fits this definition. A lot of what she found rang very true to me from my own conversations with young adults in low-wage jobs, although I suspect her findings don’t generalize quite as much as she thinks: The worldview she describes has definitely influenced some of the women I counsel at the pregnancy center, for example, but they’re also shaped by communal ties, religious history and their own religious fervor, and a culture of childbearing.

Silva finds relatively little of the “redemption through procreation” language which men expressed in the recent Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, and none of the catastrophic romanticism which drove premarital relationships for the “red-state” young adults in 2011’s Premarital Sex in America. So she’s only capturing part of the picture of working-class or poor young adulthood.

And there were many times when I felt the heavy hand of the medium upon the planchette, as Silva seemed to overinterpret her interviewees’ words to drag them closer to her preexisting theories. She often quotes an interview and then summarizes it in terms which don’t really capture what I would mean if I said what her interviewee said, or what people I’ve heard say those things meant when they said them. She talks a lot about “social institutions” and how there should be more of them or how they’ve failed, but the only ones she actually names in a positive context are unions, and she relies almost exclusively on government intervention for signs of hope.

Like I said, it’s a frustrating book. But its primary insights are important and true. There is a working-class therapeutic culture, that culture did arise in large part because of the disruption of older institutions which provided stability and a source of identity, and that culture is intensely prone to self-blame and judgmental “crabs in a barrel” sniping at other working-class people who aren’t sufficiently self-helping.

Silva notes that “the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.” This might actually be the book’s most important point, bigger than the sexier point about the infiltration of therapy culture into the working class. Growing up means rejecting or overcoming your parents and family of origin, your church if you had one, your college if you went to one. It means getting over the longing for marriage or commitment, getting over your belief that your employer will look out for you—learning to stand on your own.

She acutely points out the way that needing to be “flexible” for the job market, being constantly told that you must be ready to move across the country at the drop of a hat for a job, makes it extremely hard to commit to one’s family or find a spouse. A startling number of her interviewees report that they’re not interested in romantic relationships at all: Their economic lives are too unstable for that kind of commitment.

Silva also finds a common theme of betrayal, both by one’s family of origin and by institutions—especially colleges. These young adults were told all their lives that college was absolutely necessary. They’re hard-working, rule-following (and like many Millennials, they can be intensely self-righteous about just how hard-working and rule-following they are—they are the deserving poor and know it, not actually a great basis for compassion or solidarity), and so they tried to go to college like they were told. They found bureaucratic barriers they couldn’t understand—several reported that they didn’t understand the FAFSA financial aid forms or their parents refused to provide the required information—and when they did make it to college they were totally unprepared. Their primary and secondary education had left them far behind where their colleges expected them to be; this left them humiliated and bewildered. Even when they did receive counseling and support from their colleges, they were so overwhelmed that relatively minor setbacks led them to drop out or get expelled, leaving them with serious debt and no degree. I was surprised at the level of anger Silva finds toward colleges and high schools, but now that I think about it, I’ve heard that story myself several times.

As I read Silva’s book I kept thinking of John Cheese, a columnist for Cracked. He does a lot of self-help-style columns (with lots of cussin’, click at own risk), many of which have helped me and my friends enormously. He focuses on the ways in which your painful past can create habits which keep you dysfunctional and poor. He doesn’t do structural analysis or tell you to go organize a union.

Although he’s a lot less judgmental of others than most of Silva’s interviewees, he is articulating a more empathetic version of the self-reliant, therapeutic-path-to-adulthood worldview. Grappling with that more empathetic version would help Silva figure out why a worldview she clearly abhors nonetheless speaks to so many people today. It’s easy for “Don’t give up—if you give up you’ll definitely fail” to become, “If you fail, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough or in the right way.” Cheese almost always avoids that trap but you can hear it clearly in many of Silva’s interviewees.

As Silva notes, the therapy narrative can push “young adults to draw harsh boundaries against their families,” and “boundaries against those who do not have the will to be healthy, happy, and strong.” But then, I think most of us know people who had to “draw harsh boundaries” against a parent because she was abusive, or against the cousin who steals your stuff and sells it for drugs, or against friends because you got sober (see #6). “Neoliberalism,” Silva’s favorite slur, is not a great descriptor of why that happens.

Silva has made a major contribution to understanding where young adults are coming from, what influences them, and what they consider to be common sense. Everybody reading this article already has opinions about what would improve young adults’ chances of getting a stable job. But until the day when our preferred economic programs are implemented, are there any possible counternarratives which would protect young adults from the isolation and blame of the “hardened,” independent self?

You’ll have your own answer to that question too. For me, what I feel most keenly is how few of Silva’s interviewees hint that they have heard the Christian messages that suffering and failure are not signs of personal sin; that hope comes through repentance and forgiveness; that judgment of others is a form of cruelty; that giving ourselves to others is not a foolish risk but the path to peace; that solidarity (including political solidarity) with and among those in need is part of what it means to be human; that friends, neighbors, and even family may betray us, but there is One Who is always trustworthy, always loving. There’s so much sorrow and loneliness in her interviewees, and so little sense that anybody has said, “You aren’t your economic worth. You aren’t the grade report, uniform or name tag. You aren’t self-sufficient, you never will be, and that is okay.”

I guess these are messages we don’t often hear in our churches, either.