Jennifer Silva: Coming Up Short

It's not every day you come across an academic with both a functioning heart and brain. But from what I've seen so far, Jennifer Silva comes close.

Silva is a sociologist who works with Professor Robert Putnam. Her book Coming Up Short takes an honest look at how young adults are coping in an age of economic insecurity, and the hidden costs this insecurity brings.

Here's two videos for starters followed by a book excerpt:

At all of these steps people feel more and more betrayed by a system that they expect to help them. And also more just confused and bewildered. And that bleeds into every area of society... And all of these institutions represent betrayal, and a barrier to achieving their goals. And that makes people withdraw. It makes them not have any trust in the system ...

Jennifer Silva, Coming Up Short:

... But my generation is slowly losing the stability hard-won by their grandparents and parents. Over the years I have watched my cousins and my brother face many of the same obstacles as my informants—joining the military because they couldn’t find a job; moving back in with their parents; or struggling to get through college, pay back their loans, and make their monthly car payments. Two years ago, my younger brother moved back to Lowell and is currently waiting to be placed on the civil service hiring list. Once a thriving industrial site, the street where he works is now lined by billboards promising “Car Loans! Bad Credit OK! We approve everyone!” This book tells the story of a family and a country that has run full circle, from my grandparents’ birth at the start of the Great Depression, to middle-class suburban dreams, and back to economic insecurity, riskiness, and recession. It is a story of institutions—not individuals or their families—coming up short...

From Stable Endings to the Risk Society

... Within the postwar era of secure wages, low unemployment, and stable nuclear family structures, coming of age was a journey with stable, predictable, and clearly gendered endings. Since the 1970s, however, the American economic, political, and social landscape has changed dramatically. As mounting stagnation, inflation, and fear of communism in the 1970s called into question the feasibility and desirability of government intervention in the coming global economy, drastic economic and political restructuring seemed urgent, opening the door for neoliberal ideology and policy (Harvey 2005). In his famous disavowal of social safety nets, Milton Friedman, who later became the economic adviser to Ronald Reagan, advocated a free market system with little intervention by government in the belief that only by allowing capitalism to function unhindered could economic health and political freedom be achieved. Friedman (1962) argued that the government should exist only to protect private property, calling for the privatization of risk—an end to all currency controls and trade barriers, labor laws, and social welfare programs that were put in place to protect citizens from the market. In the 1980s, neoliberalism gained widespread support, solidifying “America's sweeping ideological transformation away from an all-in-the-same-boat philosophy of shared risk toward a go-it-alone vision of personal responsibility” (Hacker 2006a: 34) and privatized risk...

The Decline of the Industrial Working Class

The neoliberal turn has had grave consequences for the American working class. Since 1973, the real wages of working-class jobs have declined by 12 percent for those with a high school diploma, and by 26 percent for those without one (Johnson 2002: 33). Fifty years ago, a third of US employees worked in factories, “making everything from clothing to lipstick to cars” (Hagenbaugh 2002). But as the economy stagnated in the 1970s, businesses sought to move their industries to the American South—or outside the United States altogether—in search of union-less workers, subsidies, and tax cuts. Today, millions of these jobs have been shipped overseas, leaving only about one-tenth of the nation’s 131 million workers employed by manufacturing firms. The American working-class man (the steelworker or the coal miner) of the postwar generation has experienced a steep decline in employment, job security, compensation, access to pensions, and employer-subsidized health insurance... His twenty-first century counterparts have been displaced to the service economy—as cashiers, office clerks, cooks, retail workers, or customer service representatives—where they are poorly paid, vulnerable to layoffs, and much more likely to be female ...

These economic and cultural transformations have destabilized traditional pathways to adulthood, leaving working-class youth like Diana, Brandon, and Wanda struggling to finish school, move out, get a job, or create a stable relationship... Caught in the teeth of a merciless job market and lacking the community support, skills, and knowledge necessary for success, working-class young adults are relinquishing the hope for a better future that is at the core of the American Dream. Cory, a thirty-four-year-old bartender who has been living paycheck to paycheck since he was sixteen, shrugged, “If I had, like, goals, like real live goals, then there could be a lot to let that down. So I am floating. Whatever happens next, happens, and I will deal with it when it happens.”
I don't know what Silva's politics are but here's her bottom line:
We need a basic floor of protection in terms of job security and protection against risk. Beyond that, I’d want to think about, what do people need to build lives that feel meaningful and worthy?
So, what is the key cause of job insecurity over the past few decades? It's been the removal of trade barriers, and the drift towards free-trade chaos. Ian Fletcher, author of Free Trade Doesn't Work explains:

So, finally free-trade is on-the-nose with academics, and it's about time. We don't want to ditch capitalism, but some form of trade protection is absolutely necessary for job security in the West.

File under: sociology catches up with economics.


  1. It's more like a "giant sucking sound" than a "drift" to free trade, as Ross Perot said:

    Giant Sucking Sound - Ross Perot 1992 Presidential Debate