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Navigating an Uncertain Future: How American Young Adults Narrate their Experiences of Economic Insecurity and Social Upheaval in the 21st Century

Jennifer M. Silva (Indiana University)

This report examines how young middle-class and working-class young adults construct their sense of self and visions of the future in a time of economic insecurity and social uncertainty. The transition to adulthood has itself become deinstitutionalized as leaving home, finishing school, finding a good job, and getting married and having children seem increasingly out of reach for contemporary young adults. In the absence of institutionalized rites of passage, young adults create, within their constraints, the story or narrative in terms of which their lives make sense. Drawing on several qualitative data sets, this report illustrates how young American adults perceive the rising cost and complexity of higher education, how they think about the competitive professional world of work, and how they approach romantic relationships and long-term commitment. The interview data demonstrates how individual strategies for managing suffering organize young people’s subjectivity in ways that justify distrust, disengagement from conventional politics, and a turn toward self-help and conspiracy theories. I also explore differences within the samples by racial identity and gender identity, tracing how different experiences of opportunity and disadvantage align with different expressions of moral self-worth. Drawing on scholarship on South Korean young adults, I also trace similarities and differences in the transition to adulthood and explore how cultural systems of meaning may or may not lead to political action and social change.

Jennifer M. Silva is a sociologist who specializes in using qualitative methods such as in-depth interviewing and ethnographic observation to understand the experiences and worldviews of people from marginalized groups. She is the author of Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (Oxford University Press, 2013)—which examines how young Black and white working-class Americans navigate the transition to adulthood during the Great Recession—and We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America (Oxford University Press, 2019)—which examines political tensions among white, Hispanic, and Black residents of a rural coal-mining community. She has collaborated with researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers to address various dimensions of economic and social inequality. For example, she worked with the Brookings Institution on a mixed methods study of the hopes and anxieties of American middle-class families during the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing how race and gender have exacerbated social, economic, and health vulnerabilities during the pandemic. Dr. Silva is currently a co-PI on a Russell Sage Foundation grant that links in-depth interviews with low-income women from diverse racial backgrounds in rural Pennsylvania with their electronic health records. Her next book will focus on the implications of discrepancies between what the interviewees say and what the clinicians say about the same interactions for evidence of provider bias, downstream compliance, trust, and health disparities.

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