Monday, September 02, 2013

Coming Up Short

How do you know when you’re an adult?

According to Coming Up Short, by Jennifer Silva, today’s working-class twenty-somethings answer that question differently than previous generations, including my own, did.

Silva is a sociologist at Harvard, and her book is based on interviews with working-class millenials in Massachusetts and Virginia over the last few years.  Her thesis -- spoiler alert -- is that the classic working-class answer -- steady job, marriage, house, kids -- has lost its relevance, since it has become economically unfathomable.  The kind of reliable, well-paying job that underlay the classic postwar American working class has mostly vanished now, replaced by short-term, insecure, poorly-paid jobs that don’t provide the material basis for a stable life.  Working-class twentysomethings have responded by making a virtue of necessity, and developing a definition of adulthood that relies on overcoming psychological obstacles.  Overcoming an addiction, or a traumatic childhood, or a terrible relationship is the new badge of adulthood.

It’s a striking set of findings.  

For one, it’s an inversion of the old “culture of narcissism” argument made famous by Christopher Lasch.  Lasch argued that therapy-speak was a province of educated elites, among whom it functioned as a sort of alternative morality.  In his telling, the “narcissism” of the title didn’t merely refer to selfishness, but to an inability to distinguish self from other.  In other words, it denied the reality of others -- and therefore the reality of obligations to others.  Lasch distinguished the narcissistic upper-middle class from the more religious, traditional, and geographically rooted working class, siding mostly with the latter.  The argument blended cultural conservatism and economic leftism in difficult ways, but at the core was the idea that collective action required a sense of obligation to others, as well as a sense of limits.

In Silva’s telling, therapy-speak has made its way to the working class, largely through schools, social service agencies, and the media.  (I always knew Dr. Phil was up to no good…)  The traditionalism that Lasch thought the unique virtue of the working class has been largely rendered irrelevant, and therapy-speak has filled some of the void, though it seems clear that Silva would draw the causal arrow from the disappearance of jobs to the rise of therapeutic culture.  In other words, as she tells it, pop psychology didn’t destroy tradition; it simply filled the void created when economics destroyed tradition.  People had to make sense of their lives somehow.

The stories Silva relays are heartbreaking when they aren’t just dispiriting.  She quotes a man in his mid-twenties who is living at home and dodging long-term relationships: when she asks why he isn’t looking for anything long-term, he responds that no woman wants to eat Burger King on a date.  Her interviews with women largely confirm the man’s suspicion; she notes that many of them read poverty as a character flaw, and refuse to entertain the possibility of marriage with a man who doesn’t fulfill the traditional role.  They would rather be “fierce” than dependent, since they’ve learned through bitter experience that institutions and people let them down.

Tradition isn’t an unalloyed good, of course.  Silva includes some self-identified gay and lesbian respondents in her study, who show some awareness that as bad as things are, they were once worse.  But they, too, face a struggle for economic security, and therapy-speak is very much a part of their world.  

Intriguingly, the one bastion of the classic working-class culture she finds among 20-somethings is among firefighters.  That work is public sector and unionized, and almost entirely male.  Among the young firefighters, she finds proud homeowners who tightly police the boundaries of gender roles and who don’t engage in therapy-speak at all.  In a sense, the firefighters are the exception that proves the rule; in the one area in which the economic underpinnings of the old working-class culture still exist, the old working-class culture still exists.  In the rest of her sample, what Richard Sennett once called “the hidden injuries of class” have been supplanted by what she calls “the hidden injuries of risk.”  Entire lives are lived in the conditional tense.

Higher education appears frequently throughout the book, but not always in flattering ways.  Several of her interviewees bounced in and out of community colleges, and a few of them even graduated, but their impressions were largely negative.  They saw colleges as self-interested rackets that cost too much money and don’t really lead anywhere.  When the institution was illegible and its utility opaque, it struck many as just another predator.  Plenty of interviewees had a sense that a college degree was a good thing, but they didn’t know how to go about getting it, or what to do with it if they had it.  Indeed, the only people Silva found who were able to capitalize on a degree were those who came in with the social capital to navigate the institution to their own benefit, usually because they had parents who had gone to college themselves.

The book is depressing, in a sense, but also potentially useful.  If colleges are going to be positive presences, they need to come to terms with both economics -- largely out of their control, but still -- and legibility.  Students who learn by example that a college isn’t there to betray them or to prey on them, and who learn instead to make clearer sense of a very real outside world, will be in much better shape to cope with the economy that actually exists.  Tales of overcoming are all well and good, but there’s also an outside world to contend with.  

Silva’s challenge to higher education, and especially to community colleges, is well-taken and timely.  Institutions that were built mostly in the 1960’s were built to reflect, and feed, the economy that used to be.  But the economy has shifted, and so have the needs of our students.  It’s time for us to grow up, too.