Blue-collar jobs are disappearing, and college educations are too often out of reach. Basically, all the rules are changing.

Jennifer Silva

Professor Jennifer Silva, sociology, studies the challenges Americans growing up in poor or working-class environments face. "Blue-collar jobs are disappearing, and college educations are too often out of reach. Basically, all the rules are changing," she says.

Silva argues that while past generations could expect a steady job, a home of one's own and a stable marriage arranged around traditional gender roles, today's young working class faces an uncertain future. She explored this shift in her doctoral work and subsequent two-year research fellowship, which led to her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (2013, Oxford University Press).

To gather the information she needed, Silva conducted numerous personal interviews in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Va., often approaching people on the street, at workplaces, community colleges or temp agencies. "People may be hesitant at first, but when they see you really want to hear their stories, it's amazing how they'll open up," she says. "Some of these conversations lasted for hours and touched on serious personal issues like abuse, mental health problems and addiction."  

Silva's goal is to foster a true sense of community in the classroom. She points out that Bucknell students come from a variety of backgrounds, and that creating a safe space to talk honestly about issues of inequality and culture is a first step toward understanding the bigger picture. "I'd also love to put them on the kind of budget a typical working-class single mom has to work with," she says. "Could they survive for a week, or a month, or a year?"

Silva's students also learn how to conduct interviews effectively, including how to get people to share their experience and what to do if interviewees get upset. "It's all about forming relationships – being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and really understand where they are coming from," she says.

Posted Sept. 29, 2014


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