Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty by Jennifer M. Silva.

Author:Cody-Rydzewski, Susan
Position:Book review

Silva, Jennifer M. Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xii + 192 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

In Coming up Short, sociologist Jennifer M. Silva offers a thoughtful and insightful glimpse into the personal lives of working-class adults. Through a series of in-depth interviews with individuals living in two cities (Richmond, Virginia and Lowell, Massachusetts), she provides a detailed picture of a segment of the life course for working-class Americans--late youth and early adulthood. In doing so, she effectively challenges many of the misconceptions associated with this group.

Unlike previous cohorts, today's working class enjoys no guarantee of financial stability or of employment. They must grapple with an unstable economy and increasing social pressures to achieve material fulfillment. Young adults in the working class miss many of the traditional markers of adulthood or they find themselves achieving the steps "out of order." Perhaps the most egregious deviation from conventional adulthood is the lack of forward movement. A combination of factors conspire to stunt most of their efforts at progress, with the most formidable being a restrictive economy that prioritizes advanced technical skills. Working-class couples also face a number of constraints in their personal lives, including pervasive traditional gender stereotypes and, for persons of color, modern racism in the workplace.

What makes Silva's work unique is her reliance on the so-called mood economy as a basic framework. In a mood economy, the individual self is a process subject to transformation and tends not to be validated through singular events occurring in a linear fashion. This is particularly true of the working class, who cannot rely on conventional markers to validate and give legitimacy to their lives. Instead, they learn to adapt, taking on a degree of flexibility that mirrors the dynamics found in today's economy and normative structure. Silva's subjects spoke of family breakdown, addiction, mental illness, and other hardships. But the hardships offered a chance to circumvent popular rhetoric regarding personal attainment and goal fulfillment. The limitations of one's past became part of one's "success story."

Success in a post-industrial economy requires a combination of the right kinds of training, skills, cultural capital, and an appreciation for the ethos of individualism, most of which is elusive...

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