On reading, reviewing and changing conceptions of working-class adulthood

By Andrew King

As someone whose research explores young people’s transitions to and understandings of adulthood, I was pleased to be approached recently to review a book for an American Sociology journal. The book’s called ‘Coming up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty’ written by Jennifer Silva, who’s a post-doc fellow at Harvard. I’ll say a little about the book in a moment, but part of the reason I decided to do the review was because I wanted to try out something a colleague had told me he’d done: create a dedicated ‘reading slot’ in his daily routine. To be honest, the time I get to spend reading books from cover to cover is not as much as I’d like it to be. My reading tends to be very task-focused and specific – driven by the needs of writing a particular research paper or chapter, or updating lectures. So agreeing to this review gave me the opportunity to do something different, to start reading in a different way.

Silva’s book is all about young working-class people in two US cities, Lowell, Massachusetts and Richmond, Virginia. Before I started the book I didn’t know much about either, except that Jack Kerouac (of ‘Beat Generation’ fame and icon to subsequent generations of youth) came from Lowell. The book is based on a hundred interviews with a wide range of young working class adults, average age: twenty-seven. Contrary to some suggestions that young adulthood in the US is now somehow delayed or that there is a new emerging stage between youth and full adulthood, Silva argues young working-class people are now having to re-imagine what adulthood is and so what it means to be a working-class adult is itself being transformed. However, before the reader starts to think this is somehow about free-will and choice, Silva argues persuasively that a combination of neo-liberalism, de-industrialisation, individualisation and risk have altered traditional forms of and pathways to working-class adulthood. Whereas traditional forms of working-class adulthood were focused on narratives of work, family and community, now young people have to employ the language of therapy and self-help to make sense of their lives.

Throughout Silva’s book we’re introduced to a wide range of young people and their stories have stayed with me since I finished the review. There’s Wanda, a black woman, mid-twenties, who avoids romantic connections, trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes that she thinks her parents have made. Rebecca, late-twenties, white, let down by an education system which appeared to promise a gateway to a new life, but which instead left her feeling painfully exposed by its academic culture and after dropping-out she became indebted because of school and medical bills. Even when Silva reports young people’s stories of achievement and triumph she notes how these are expressed in terms of individualism and she clearly shows how forms of solidarity, collective action and resistance have been distorted by neo-liberalism resulting in an individualized form of success and self, cut off from others.

As you can probably tell, I very much enjoyed reading and reviewing this book. It picks up some themes I’ve encountered in British youth studies, but tells them in a different way and different locations. It’s thought provoking, depressing, anger-inducing and for sociologists interested in youth and adulthood, like me, it contains many insights that spur the sociological imagination. So I’ve retained, as far as possible, my daily ‘reading slot’ and would urge others to try the same. This blog post represents the start of a daily writing slot, let’s see how it goes…


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