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Coming Up ShortWorking-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty$

Jennifer M. Silva

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199931460

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199931460.001.0001

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(p.159) Appendix Research Methods

(p.159) Appendix Research Methods

Coming Up Short
Oxford University Press

I interviewed 100 working-class young men and women from October 2008 to February 2010. Lowell, Massachusetts, and Richmond, Virginia, served as my primary research sites, but I would often travel outside these cities to meet informants. I centered on Lowell and Richmond because they each embody the economic forces responsible for increasing economic insecurity: the decline of industry, diminishing public funding, and the growth of low-paying service sector jobs.

The second planned industrial city in the United States, Lowell was the center of the textile industry for most of the nineteenth century. Even when production in the mills declined in the decades following the Depression, Lowell retained a concentration of employment in manufacturing of 50 percent above the national average (Gittell and Flynn 1995). In the 1970s and 80s, Lowell’s economy experienced an economic boom that doubled employment, particularly in manufacturing; by 1989, over one-third of the local labor market’s employment was in manufacturing, with industrial machinery accounting for over one-half of the manufacturing jobs. In the early 1990s, however, Lowell’s economy shrank enormously, largely due to factories shutting down: from 1989 to 1994, total employment declined by nearly 9 percent and manufacturing employment by 28 percent (Gittell and Flynn 1995: 3). At the same time, a banking and real estate crisis led commercial property values to plummet and credit to dissolve. Today, the economy has recovered to some degree, but the manufacturing jobs for which the city of Lowell has been historically known have all but vanished. Recent economic growth has occurred mainly in service industries such as education, health, leisure, and hospitality.

Like Lowell, Richmond was built on a strong manufacturing and shipping base, emerging from the Civil War as the industrial powerhouse of the South. However, by the end of the twentieth century, Richmond had experienced massive capital flight from its city center and rising unemployment and racial divides (Sargent 2010). While Lowell has a large public sector workforce with strong unions, active collective bargaining, and benefits (despite the fact that the city cut overtime pay and raises at the peak of the recession), Richmond is located in a right-to-work state with weak labor laws and thereby less institutionalized protection from the market. It is not surprising that the men in my sample (p.160) who took traditional pathways to adulthood were disproportionately from Lowell, where, for example, a police officer with one year on the job earns nearly $63,000 a year, versus $38,000 in Richmond.1

My informants were between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four, with an average age of twenty-seven. Although most coming of age studies target high school age youth (MacLeod 1987; Walkerdine et al. 2001; Weis 1990), I was particularly interested in what happens when young people leave the structured setting of high school and attempt to navigate the labor market, the field of higher education, and romantic relationships on their own. My older age range also allowed me to explore the experiences of young people for whom traditional markers of adulthood have been delayed or postponed. While this age range may seem very broad, I did not find significant differences between those on the higher and lower ends of the spectrum; my sample includes thirty-four-year-olds who have not yet found lasting jobs or partners, and twenty-four-year-olds who are steadily employed and married with children. Access to stable employment, rather than numerical age, was the biggest predictor of a normative transition to adulthood.

I defined “working class” as having fathers without college degrees.2 By using parents’ rather than respondents’ level of education to select respondents, I was able to understand how the children of the working class of a generation ago are re-creating what it means, objectively and subjectively, to be working class. Because of my interest in how expressions of class and selfhood among the American working class have changed across generations, all my informants and their parents were born in the United States. The sample is 60 percent white, 40 percent black, and divided evenly by gender. Comparing only blacks and whites allows me to situate my work against a backdrop of studies of the working class that focus only on whites (e.g., Johnson 2002; Rubin 1976; Weis 1990; Willis 1977) and within a body of comparative cultural sociology (e.g., Lamont 1992, 2000; Lareau 2003; McDermott 2006) which examines how blacks and whites compete against each other. Furthermore, while women have often remained invisible in social science literature constructing the working-class in masculine terms (see Bettie 2003 for a thorough discussion of the ways in which women have been historically invisible in class analysis), the centrality of women in the service economy and in single-parent families has made it impossible to ignore them as classed subjects. By varying both race and gender, I am able to speak not only to the ways in which the lives of black and white men and women diverge in patterned ways but also to whether they draw distinctions against each other (Lamont and Molnár 2002) in a neoliberal climate of competition and distrust.

I recruited informants through several approaches. I went to service sector workplaces, including gas stations, casual dining restaurants, coffee shops, fast food chains, retail chains, day care establishments, and temporary agencies. I also visited community, regional, and state colleges. Finally, I went to fire and police stations and military training sites. At these places, I approached young people and asked if they would like to participate in a study of “what it’s like to grow up today.”3

The men and women in my sample embody the disorderliness, reversibility, and delay of traditional markers of adulthood noted by previous researchers (Berlin, Furstenberg, and Waters 2010). Only fourteen respondents are employed, married, living with a spouse, and have children. Thirty-five live with a parent or older family member such as an aunt or grandmother. One respondent dropped out of high school; forty-five respondents have high school diplomas or GEDs; twenty-seven have some college but no degree; (p.161) three hold associate degrees; twenty have bachelor’s degrees; and four hold master’s degrees. The vast majority of respondents work in the service industry as bartenders and servers, medical billers, nannies, mechanics, security guards, salespersons, cashiers, customer service representatives, and janitors. Eight men work in civil service jobs, such as in fire or police departments, and six respondents hold professional jobs. Additionally, twenty respondents have military experience, whether in the armed forces or the National Guard. I ultimately decided to include such a high proportion of former or current soldiers because joining the military is often viewed as a vehicle for economic stability and success by socially disadvantaged youth, especially as job security in the civilian sphere declines. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that in 2008, a crisis year when the United States experienced staggering job losses, the military completed its best recruiting year since 1973, meeting and exceeding all recruitment goals (Gilmore 2009). More than half the respondents are single (56%) or dating (21%), eighteen are married, and five are divorced. Twenty-seven have children.

The purpose of my interview questions was to capture inductively how working-class young adults ascribe meaning and order to their lives, particularly their constructions of selfhood (see a sample of the interview questions at the end of the Appendix).4 Establishing trust was crucial to this undertaking, and I carefully thought about how my own identity (as a twenty-seven-year-old white woman working toward a PhD at the time) shaped both my interactions with and analysis of my respondents (see Bettie 2003). Before I was even granted permission to conduct this research, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at my university threw into relief the vast social distance between my respondents and me by expressing concern about my safety, urging me to take precautions when meeting with participants:

The expedited reviewer has concerns about the safety of a researcher. This is not one of the concerns that the board asked to look at during the review of a protocol; however, the researcher is meeting with all types of people and in some instances might meet up with them at a later time. The board asks that precautions be taken so the researcher can protect herself.

I read “all types of people” as a euphemism for “dangerous,” “lower class” and “black” men. I was surprised by such a response from an organization whose sole purpose is to protect the safety of powerless research subjects. This incident continues to serve as a powerful reminder of the institutionalized hostility, racism, and betrayal that characterizes working-class lives (see Hays 2003; Lareau 2003).

Over the course of my research, I was continually forced to think about the potential difficulties in forging connections across lines of power and identity—whether class, race, gender, or sexual orientation—though never in ways that the IRB envisioned. John, a twenty-seven-year-old black man who was studying for an accounting exam at a Richmond community college, stopped halfway through the interview to tell me point-blank: “You know, the average white woman won’t even look me in the eye. They look away. I was so shocked when you sat down and talked to me and would even look me in the face … then I learned that you wanted something from me and it made sense.” Yet another respondent scoffed at me when we met downtown one afternoon and I suggested we conduct the interview in a wine bar, the only place that was open during the post-lunch, pre-dinner afternoon hours: “I drink beer.”

(p.162) Being close in age to my respondents helped me to bridge the gap between our disparate social locations. In my typical graduate school uniform of jeans, a sweater, boots, and a ponytail, I could blend in at the community college or at Wal-Mart. When I laughed about my own prolonged transition to adulthood, talked about the fourteen-hour days my mom pulls as a small business owner, or recalled my experiences of apprehension as a first-generation college student, respondents would often visibly relax and respond with stories or even advice of their own.5 Some, only partially jokingly, referred to the interview as “free therapy,” seeming to savor the opportunity to communicate their difficult emotions to someone who would listen.

Others would ask to me to send them a copy of the book when it was finished, which I plan to do. About a third even “friended” me on Facebook—some before we met, as a sort of screening process, and others after the initial interview. Facebook proved to be an invaluable tool, as I was able to keep in touch with respondents, following their status updates and even sending personal messages if I needed to ask follow-up questions. Because my respondents’ lives are generally unpredictable in terms of employment, housing, and relationships, Facebook allowed me to capture the ongoing sense of flux and dislocation that I would have missed in relying solely on a single panel interview methodology. Through sharing an interactive digital space with my respondents, I was at least somewhat able to avoid treating my subjects as “out there, far removed in time and space” from myself and my textual production (Bettie 2003: 26). Participants could and did “like” and respond to my status updates, view my pictures, chat casually with me online, and send me names of friends whom I could potentially interview. Candace, a twenty-four-year-old black woman, sent me a Facebook message following our meeting that read, “Your book is going to speak for so many people without voices.” Yet another informant asked that I use his real name and thus make his story public. This hunger to find someone to bear witness to their experiences—to be heard—came to be central to my analysis of what it means to come of age in the risk society. It is my hope that this book delivers on its promise.

Interview Guide

The purpose of this project is to explore what it’s like for young working-class people to make the transition to adulthood today. I will ask you a series of questions about your family background and relationships, your job, your education, your struggles, and your goals for the future. If at any time you feel uncomfortable or don’t want to answer a question, just let me know and we will move on or stop the interview.

  1. 1. I’d like to start by getting a sense of your life history. Where are you from? What do your parents do? Have they had these jobs their whole life? Did they graduate from high school or college? Do they own their home? Are they married, divorced, separated, never married?

  2. 2. Can you remember times when your parents seemed to struggle economically? Was there a time when they couldn’t pay the bills, or worried about money? How did they talk about this? What did they do about it?

  3. 3. Do you know if your parents got or get benefits from their jobs, like pensions and health care? Is this something they talk about? What would you do growing up if you were sick?

  4. (p.163) 4. Do you have siblings? What do they do? How much education do they have?

  5. 5. Whom do you live with now? How long have you lived there? How did you make the choice to live in this place? Can you remember any times when you worried about where you would live, or how you would afford to pay rent?

  6. 6. Let’s think back to when you graduated from high school. Did you like school? Walk me through the steps you went through when you were deciding what to do after graduation. What kinds of choices did you have? What did your family think you should do? Did you think about college? About a job? About joining the military? How much education did you ultimately end up getting?

  7. 7. What kind of work do you do now? How long have you had this job? How long have you been working? Tell me about how you found your job. What are your feelings about your current job?

  8. 8. Walk me through a typical day at work.

  9. 9. What are your relationships like with your coworkers? Boss? Customers? Are there times when it feel rewarding? When? How about challenging? Distressing?

  10. 10. How do you see your standing at work? Why?

  11. 11. Do you think there are opportunities for promotion? Do you get benefits, or could you?

  12. 12. Does your job pay you enough to pay your bills? What kinds of bills do you have to pay every month?

  13. 13. Are you in debt? Are you making payments on a credit card or student loans?

  14. 14. When you were younger, did you imagine yourself working here? Can you think back to a time when you thought about your future, or talked to your family about it? Where did you see yourself at your age? What kinds of things did you want out of life?

  15. 15. Are you married? Do you want to get married? Have children? Can you think of times when this seemed difficult to achieve? How? What stands in your way? What kind of partner would you want?

  16. 16. How do you plan to get ahead? How do you think you get ahead in America? Where did you get this idea?

  17. 17. What social class would you put yourself in? Can you walk me through a time when you felt like social class mattered in your life? How salient is class in your daily life?

  18. 18. Can you remember any times when your race made getting ahead, or achieving a goal, harder for you? When you experienced discrimination?

  19. 19. Can you remember a time when your gender made getting ahead, or achieving a goal, harder for you? When you experienced discrimination?

  20. 20. How do you see yourself in comparison to your parents? (Economically, socially, etc.). What were their lives like when they were your age?

  21. 21. Would you call yourself an adult? Walk me through a time when you felt grown up. What made you feel this way? What makes you not feel grown up?

  22. 22. How would you define adulthood? Why?

  23. 23. How would you define what it means to become a man or a woman? Are you able to meet these criteria?

  24. 24. What do you think is the hardest thing about growing up today? Was there ever a time when you felt like people misunderstood what it’s like to be a young person today?

  25. 25. Walk me through a time when you felt like you just couldn’t make it. What happened? What did you do?

  26. 26. Walk me through a time when you felt hopeful about your future.

  27. 27. What do you do for fun? (p.164)


(1) I attained this information by calling the police department in each city.

(2) There is a great deal of ambiguity and disagreement surrounding the concept of social class within sociology (Lareau 2008). Class has been defined and operationalized with varying levels of theoretical and empirical precision (e.g., Sorensen 2000). I rely on father’s attainment of a college degree as a marker of middle-class status both because (p.176) this matches the general population’s understanding that a college degree indicates middle-class status (Hout 2008: 35) and because of the number of empirical studies linking parental education to income and occupational prestige (e.g., Blau and Duncan 1967; Warren et al. 2002) and to children’s academic success (e.g., Dumais 2002; Lareau 2003).

(3) I also relied on snowball sampling through multiple entry points. Snowballing took me out of Lowell and Richmond and into neighboring towns. I also conducted several interviews in Florida, following a family who moved from Massachusetts to Florida in search of lower tax rates. While most people were enthusiastic about participating, offering me their phone numbers or email, or even setting up a time to meet, it proved very difficult to entice these recruits—who often did not have their own means of transportation, a predictable work schedule, or reliable child care—to actually show up for the interview. Snowball sampling proved more effective because participants were more likely to appear if a friend or acquaintance recommended me. I also gained entry into certain fields—firefighting, police, EMTs, and the military—through my father, who is a firefighter and in the National Guard. With his introduction or simply by mentioning his job, I was treated as somewhat of an insider and allowed to wander around at National Guard drills and hang out at fire and police stations, recruiting, interviewing, and making observations. Toward the end of my eighteen months of data collection, during which I traveled back and forth from Massachusetts to Virginia, I conducted four interviews over the phone with respondents who had moved away.

(4) Interviews were semi-structured and lasted approximately two hours. All but four interviews were conducted in person at a location chosen by the respondent. They were digitally recorded with the permission of the respondent and completely transcribed.

(5) The most memorable example of this advice came from a twenty-seven-year-old white firefighter, who warned me that as my boyfriend of one year had failed to propose, this should be a “red flag.”