I have often thought that the affluence experienced in the U.S. after the Second World War was an historic anomaly that raised people’s expectations to a very high level. As international economic trends impact our economy, there are far fewer opportunities for young people to move up the economic ladder. This is a somewhat simplified, abstract view of trends impacting young Americans. Jennifer Silva of Harvard university has written a book in which she describes in detail the impact these trends are having on the lives of one hundred young people from working class backgrounds.
In the 8/19/13 edition of OnPoint from WBUR in Boston, host Tom Ashbrook talks to Ms Silva about her book “Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty.” The young people she interviewed are trying to attain some of the goals
traditionally associated with growing into adulthood in America: graduating from college, launching a career, settling down in a long-term committed relationship (traditionally marriage), having a family, and owning a home. We have all heard about children of blue-collar workers who went to college and moved up the economic and social ladder, and many of us followed this path ourselves. The road to this kind of advancement used to be a wide highway, with room for lots of young people. Today, thanks in large part to changes in the economy, this journey has to be made on a much narrower path, and to travel it
successfully you often need guidance, such as advice and support (financial and/or emotional) from family, and maybe a referral from a connected family friend or concerned teacher or member of the clergy. This kind of help wasn’t there for many of the young people Ms Silva interviewed, and she suggests that their experience is widespread.
As I listened to this discussion, including points made by people who called in to make comments, I thought about my own experience and that of friends who moved up the ladder compared to their parents. We worked hard, and hard work has many benefits besides earning money: it gives you a sense of accomplishment, and control of your destiny. Hard work is especially rewarding and beneficial if it leads to a better future. For many of us who moved up the ladder, there were opportunities and helping hands along the way that aren’t there for many young people today. Hopefully Ms. Silva’s book will raise awareness of this problem and lead to some solutions, possibly giving some working class kids perspective and knowledge that will help them navigate the narrowing path to “success,” or even redefine it in a way that works for them.
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