Strikes at fast food establishments are set to sweep the nation today as part of an organizing effort that has been under way for more than a year. We should all know by now what the main concern of striking workers is. They get paid very little and that makes for a really poor existence. Although we have gotten some specific stories here and there, few have actually undertaken to systematically describe what it is like to live this kind of life. A new book just out by Jennifer Silva called Coming up Short takes on exactly this task.
In the book, Silva interviews 100 working class youth (20s to 30s) to get a snapshot of what it is like to come into adulthood under these kinds of conditions. Less concerned with reiterating well-documented material statistics, Silva probes the way this kind of life affects the workers' self-concept, their notions of individuality, their notions of life progress, and their relationships. What she finds out is absolutely wretched.
To be a working class youth in a low-paid, precarious job like fast food is to live a life devoid of the kinds of progressive life markers that make up normative adulthood. There is rarely college attendance and even more rarely college completion. There is not the moment where you secure the stable job that can anchor life planning. There is not enough money or enough stability to buy a house. Partnering or marrying is too risky and otherwise unattractive given the realities and stresses of dual precarity. Child-bearing is hard to undertake in a way that won't be totally ruinous.
Without these markers then, it is a life of arrested development and unimaginable stress and misery. The workers live in small duplexes, apartments, or trailer homes, occasionally doubled up with family. They often lose their jobs and, lacking a strong safety net, run up credit card debt to get by, which they then can never pay off. When they are in a job, they cling on tightly even when they might want to take a risk for advancement elsewhere because they cannot afford that risk. Those from poor, working class backgrounds who do manage to pull through college can find themselves right back where they started if they do not acquire the necessary social and cultural capital that actually allows an individual to convert credentials into better living.
With a conventional adulthood out of reach, these youth must generate new narratives of adulthood. Adulthood in this context gets reconceived of as a process of overcoming and emotional self-management. These working class youth avidly read self-help books and soak up other bits of pop psychology, often self-diagnosing (as they cannot afford to visit a doctor) themselves with any number of psychological disorders, most commonly depression and anxiety. Adulthood then becomes imagined as the ability to manage these ailments and other emotional pain (e.g. pain originating from their often equally wreteched childhoods) and still make it through. Aduthood for those unlucky enough to draw this lot is about merely surviving through all the pain and overwhelming stress.
Existing in this part of the labor market is really just that: existing. It is not just that the pay is low and that causes objective material hardship. It is also that living in this part of the labor market is hardly living at all. What is a life that does not progress? What is an adult life, in this society, where it is impossible to save money, impossible to partner, impossible to have and adequately support children, impossible to have a stable, anchoring job, and impossible to even secure a stable residency whether through buying a home or otherwise? What we do when we put people in this position is eliminate their access to the capabilities that form the very core of what we (and they) generally consider the good life to be.
As these strikes unfold and all sorts of cynical commentary flies out of the mouths of those who can or will be able to access the very kind of life that these folks are denied, really consider what we are doing here as a society. A whole underclass of people is being produced that is systematically denied the kind of basic life course that most people value and that forms the content of almost all popular representations of adult living. Through precarity and material poverty, these individuals are being essentially closed off from living in our society. They are being cast off into a lonely life where there are no personal projects, no stable families, no strong relationships, no persistent household, and no real community; instead, there is just work and bare survival.
That this goes on when it does not have to is morally intolerable. Our institutions should be remade so that this does not happen. We can, without a doubt, put in place different institutions that do not allow for this sort of thing to happen, but we choose not to. Every day when we wake up and decide to keep going with what we are doing, we are creating this human catastrophe anew.
While we may one day decide to stop inflicting this suffering on our neighbors, those whose life it is daily wrecking cannot wait. They are left to organize where they are and with the power they have. For poor, precarious workers, that power is the ability to withhold labor and the ability to make a spectacle where they can publicly plead for the kind of income and stability that would allow them to live the dignified lives the middle and upper classes enjoy but deny to others. Anyone willing to take that kind of risk while facing the circumstances described above deserves our support.
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