The hidden injuries of risk: coming of age in the midst of social and economic uncertainty

Silva, Jennifer M., Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Corse, Sarah, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Vickerman, Milton, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Freedman, Paul, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

As blue collar jobs disappear and new forms of "flexible" production make job security obsolete, the sons and daughters of the industrial working-class are coming of age within a volatile and insecure service sector that offers few benefits, low pay, and little promise of advancement. Consequently, as a recent proliferation of scholarly and popular literatures has revealed, young people in their twenties and even thirties are finding traditional markers of adulthood financial independence, living on one's own, finding a stable job, and marriage – to be unattainable.

At the same time, while the economic pressures facing Americans have intensified over the last few decades, social welfare has eroded in the name of personal accountability and individual self-control, thereby shifting the burden of risk from governments and employers to individuals. Young adults are thus faced with a cultural imperative to take control of their own fates as individuals, making planned, meaningful decisions about their future without the certainty of employment or institutional support.

Accordingly, this dissertation draws upon 100 interviews with working-class African American and white men and women to examine the transition to adulthood amidst social and economic uncertainty. Specifically, I ask: How do economic and social instability shape working-class young people's adult selves, their understanding of the American Dream, and their futures? How do they interact with powerful institutions such as education, the workplace, and the law? And, what are the consequences of social and economic insecurity for their relationships with their families and their wider communities?

I find that working-class youth – the majority of whom bounce from one unstable service job to the next, racking up credit card debt just to make ends meet – have in large part abandoned the American Dream. These youth, who have no grasp on the present because they have been denied access to the tools to compete successfully in the labor market, are unable to imagine or act towards a future holding little promise of hope. Additionally, economic and social precarity makes intimate relationships appear fraught with peril. As a result, for the contemporary working-class, adulthood has come to symbolize the absence of choice and connection.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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