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What does it mean to grow up today? Traditional markers of adulthood have become delayed, disorderly, reversible, or even foregone in the latter half of the twentieth century. Through in-depth interviews, this book uncovers the grim reality behind the statistics, exploring working-class men and women's struggles to grow up in an age of insecure jobs, unstable families, and deepening inequality. For these young men and women, adulthood is not simply being delayed; it is being dramatically re-imagined along lines of work, family, commitment, trust, and dignity. At its core, this new adulthood encompasses low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an intense focus on their emotions and psychic health. Bouncing from one unstable service job to the next and racking up credit card debt just to make ends meet, these young men and women are giving up on the American Dream. Meanwhile, daily experiences of confusion and betrayal within the labor market, institutions, and the family teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril. As the sources of dignity and meaning of adulthood of their parents' and grandparents' generations - the lifetime work on the assembly line, the making of a home and family - slip through their fingers, the young men and woman I spoke with are hard at work in a parallel mood economy, remaking dignity and meaning out of emotional self-management and willful psychic transformation. Stuck in an unpromising present and wary of the future, young working-class men and women are launching into adulthood from the past, using the pain and betrayal in their relationships with family members and their interactions with institutions as a platform for self-transformation. However, there is a darker side to this new adulthood, threatening to make self-reliance - and severing social ties - the only imaginable path to a life of dignity.
Jennifer M. Silva is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.