Young and downwardly mobile

Young working-class men and women are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

Before reading any further, a spoiler alert: today’s New York Times carries no few than four articles about the poor prospects for young people, the skyrocketing costs of education, the uselessness of a college degree. That said:

“For more affluent young adults, this may look a lot like freedom. But for the hundred-some working-class 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 in Lowell and Richmond, Va., at gas stations, fast-food chains, community colleges and temp agencies, the view is very different.

“Lowell and Richmond embody many of the structural forces, like deindustrialization and declining blue-collar jobs, that frame working-class young people’s attempts to come of age in America today. The economic hardships of these men and women, both white and black, have been well documented. But often overlooked are what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in 1972 called their “hidden injuries” — the difficult-to-measure social costs borne by working-class youths as they struggle to forge stable and meaningful adult lives.

“These are people bouncing from one temporary job to the next; dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or fulfill their major requirements; relying on credit cards for medical emergencies; and avoiding romantic commitments because they can take care of only themselves. Increasingly disconnected from institutions of work, family and community, they grow up by learning that counting on others will only hurt them in the end. Adulthood is not simply being delayed but dramatically reimagined along lines of trust, dignity and connection and obligation to others.

“Take Jay, for example. He was expelled from college for failing several classes after his mother suffered a severe mental breakdown. He worked for a year, then went before the college administration and petitioned to be reinstated. He described it as a humiliating experience: “It’s their jobs to hear all these sob stories, you know, I understand that, but they just had this attitude, like you know what I mean, ‘Oh, your mom had a breakdown and you couldn’t turn to anyone?’ ”


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