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Jennifer Silva: Working-class youth are ‘privatizing happiness’

Losing hope of the American dream, a generation aims for inner strength instead.

When Jennifer M. Silva was a graduate student looking around for a dissertation topic, she began to notice a genre of self-help books targeted to people her age suffering from a “quarter-life crisis.” The now-familiar premise was that privileged modern twentysomethings are overwhelmed with opportunities: Should they travel or marry, go back to school or settle down in a career? A first-generation college student herself, Silva had been tracing the country’s growing income inequality in her sociology research at the University of Virginia, and it occurred to her that contemporary working-class adults were suffering from a very different kind of crisis: a complete absence of choices.

Silva, who is now at Harvard University on a postdoctoral fellowship, set out to talk with some of these young people about how they were managing the transition to adulthood in the post-industrial economy. In 100 in-depth, in-person interviews, she found a new working-class adult “bewildered in the labor market, betrayed by institutions, distrustful of love, disconnected from others, and committed to emotional growth.”

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